Defining Business Casual

Posted by Emily Callaghan on September 19, 2011
Defining Business Casual

The suit might make the man, but it might also make him melt in the hot summer sun. Thankfully, business casual was invented to make room for more comfortable work attire.

Though it was intended to make life simple, “business casual” is such a flexible term that it’s actually cause for confusion. When Barbara in accounting is wearing what looks like a nightgown and Jim in sales is donning a jacket with cuff links and a tie, it’s hard to tell what’s appropriate and what’s not.

We thought it was time to clear the air, so we enlisted Lauren Solomon of LS Image Associates to help provide some hard-and-fast guidelines for putting together a decent, respectable business-casual outfit. Follow these tips and you’ll be sure to avoid any embarrassing wardrobe malfunctions.


While a jacket isn’t mandatory in many business-casual situations, adding a simple, fitted sport coat or blazer instantly pulls an outfit together. And for those who have neglected the gym, a jacket can be used to mask those extra pounds, says Solomon.

A solid or conservatively patterned, wrinkle-free dress shirt—either the kind that comes folded in plastic wrap or an off-the-rack button-up—is the standard. (You can omit the tie here.) Polo shirts, while technically business casual, don’t serve their wearers well. “After one washing, the collars tend to curl and wear,” says Solomon.

Solomon recommends a pressed, neat, and simple pair of dress pants. “Not necessarily a suit pant, but a step up from khakis,” she says. If you go the khaki route, make sure the pants are pressed, long enough, and free of cargo pockets. Jeans, no matter how much you paid for them, are not business casual.

Belt + Shoes 
Here’s an easy rule: If you have belt loops, you must wear a belt. Coordinating belts and shoes—black with black and brown with brown—demonstrates your attention to detail, says Solomon. Shoes that tie, buckle, or slip on are all options, as long as they’re clean and scuff-free.

While backpacks are practical, they don’t exactly convey professionalism. “The messenger bag, in leather or an eco-fabric, is great, and won’t untuck your clothes in the process,” says Solomon.


Everything from long-sleeved button-ups or shell/cardigan combos to short-sleeved silk blouses is fine. But keep an eye on overexposure. “Nothing too sheer, nothing too revealing, nothing that would become the focus of conversation,” says Solomon.

A tailored jacket will kick any outfit up a notch. And since a jacket can be worn over a basic tank or tee, essentially functioning as a dress shirt, ladies have more flexibility in styles, cuts, and colors than men. Also, matching your jacket to your bottom is not essential. That said, try to be a bit conservative when mixing and matching.

Pants + Skirt
The skirt or pants of your interview suit are safe bets, but various less-formal options, from pressed khakis to colorful cotton skirts, are also fine. Just be sure they aren’t too snug. “When you sit down, your skirt rises 3 inches,” says Solomon. “You don’t want to look like you only have a napkin in your lap.”

Toes are an issue. While Solomon recommends closed-toe shoes for more formal industries (paired with hose, on that note), peep-toe shoes with a tiny cutout will also work. But open-toe strappy sandals? Not an option, no matter the temperature.

Lugging a laptop is the norm these days, so a tote or messenger bag with a laptop sleeve is a sensible choice. Any basic leather or synthetic material will do. Just don’t get too crazy with your colors, steer clear of backpacks, and save your canvas totes for food shopping.

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