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Dress Code Guide: What Does Business Casual Mean?

people dressed in business casual attire sitting at table

Of all the styles of dress you might find on an event invitation, “business casual” could be the most confusing.

At first glance, it looks like an oxymoron. Isn’t “casual” the opposite of “business”? But while that may be true, business casual has become one of the most common dress codes for many events. It’s worthwhile to shrug off your frustration and learn what it means.

In our Dress Code Guide series, we’ll help you demystify dress codes of all sorts, from casual to white tie, but we’re starting with the most challenging one: business casual. Let’s make getting dressed for anything a little easier!

Business Casual: A Definition

Let’s say you have a crystal ball that can see the future. It shows you that you’re going to coincidentally meet the CEO of a company you’d love to work for at the grocery store tomorrow. What would you wear?

You don’t want to look like you’re trying too hard (it’s a chance meeting at the grocery store), but you do want to make a good impression.

That’s the essence of business casual: you want to look professional, but not like you’re trying too hard to look professional. It’s made even more confusing by the fact that there are no specific guidelines for business casual attire the way there are for other dress codes, like white-tie.

For the most part, business casual means creating an outfit out of items you could wear to work: so no sweats or t-shirts. However, you’ll want to stop short of wearing a full suit. Instead, look for high-quality separates like slacks, sweaters, and button-downs.

Business casual can also lean more casual or more business, so you have to make some choices depending on the event. For example, dark-wash jeans could be a good choice for a “business casual” work party, but not for a job interview.

When to Dress Business Casual

after work business people toasting at restaurant
CandyBox Images/Shutterstock

Sometimes, an event will specify “business casual attire.” But there are other times when you’ll have to make the call yourself.

Good times to dress business casual include:

  • Networking events
  • Company parties
  • Interviews for casual jobs

For example, if you’re interviewing for a company in a traditional industry, like a law firm, you’ll want to dress in professional attire. But for less formal industries, like retail and food service, business casual usually works well for an interview.

Putting together a business casual look depends on what you have in your wardrobe and the nature of the event. Depending on what you choose, you can also show some personality with your outfit, but take care not to wear anything that veers too far from the range of professional acceptability.

Business Casual Ideas for Women

As a woman, try building your outfit with items like these:

  • Skirts and dresses with modest hemlines and necklines
  • Slacks
  • Sweaters and cardigans
  • Blouses
  • Button-down shirts
  • Blazers

Look for solid colors or simple patterns. You can show more personality with your accessories, like shoes and jewelry, but avoid anything that’s too bold and trendy. Keep your makeup classic and simple, if you wear it.

Business Casual Ideas for Men

Men can put together a business casual look with these pieces:

  • Slacks
  • Sweaters
  • Dress shirts
  • Blazers

For men, dressing business casual usually means you don’t need a tie. But do make sure to wear appropriate shoes, like loafers or dress shoes, and always wear a belt. Keep any facial hair well-groomed.

In the end, business casual attire is all about making choices. For both men and women, long sleeves are a safer choice than short sleeves. However, a short-sleeved polo shirt can fit in on the “casual” end of “business casual.” Slacks are a more professional choice than jeans, but dark jeans can sometimes suit the occasion.

When in doubt, though, always opt for the more professional-looking choice. Imagine having a crystal ball, and envision the possibilities. Who’s the most important person you could possibly meet at this event, and what kind of impression will your outfit give?

Elyse Hauser Elyse Hauser
Elyse Hauser is a freelance and creative writer from the Pacific Northwest, and an MFA student at the University of New Orleans Creative Writing Workshop. She specializes in lifestyle writing and creative nonfiction. Read Full Bio »
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