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Dress Code Guide: What Does Casual Mean?

Three people in casual dress looking at monitor
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The invitation says “dress code: casual.” So, you’re supposed to, what—wear clothes?

Although dressing casual is easy in theory (most of us do it every day), decoding what “casual” means when it’s the dress code is a little bit different. “Casual” doesn’t necessarily mean “wear whatever you feel like.”

It’s harder to go wrong with a casual dress code than with most others, but there are still some guidelines that can help you get it right. In this installment of our dress code guides, we’ll help you figure out how to navigate this deceptively simple dress code style.

Casual: A Definition

Casual basically means “whatever you’d like—as long as it’s event appropriate.” Like business casual, casual dress is dictated in part by the nature of the event. But casual attire offers a much wider range of possibilities than business casual attire.

You can wear anything that looks nice. This includes jeans, sweaters, t-shirts, sneakers, and much more. However, it usually excludes flip-flops, sweats or gym clothes, revealing clothes, stained clothes, heavily distressed or ripped items, and graphic shirts with offensive or controversial statements on them.

Your goal is to wear your regular clothes, but with just a little more attention to presentation.

To make things even more confusing, some workplaces have a “casual” dress code. (Or participate in the slightly odd “casual Friday” tradition.) With a casual dress code at work, you have the opportunity to express lots of personality with your clothing—just avoid things that might make you look lazy (like sweats), or make someone uncomfortable (like certain political slogans).

When in doubt, opt for business casual at work instead.

When to Dress Casual

Summer barbecue party with friends.

If the dress code style for an event is unspecified, you’ll want carefully to consider whether or not going casual is the right choice.

A few examples of when you might wear casual clothing include:

  • Picnics
  • Parties
  • Restaurants
  • Airplanes

You should wear casual clothing in places that don’t call for anything fancier, but where you might want to make a good impression on the people around you.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with wearing sweats to a laidback restaurant or on an airplane. But if it’s a specific event, like a friend’s birthday dinner, or a flight with the wedding party to a destination wedding, you can honor the occasion with carefully chosen casual attire.

There are some exceptions to this list: for example, casual clothes won’t fly if the restaurant does fine dining, and business casual will suit a work party better. True casual wear is best reserved for events involving friends and family—not coworkers—unless it’s a casual workplace.

Casual Ideas for Women

Women can put together a casual look with these ideas:

For footwear, you can choose sneakers, boots, cute sandals (avoid flip-flops), or even heels.

Your accessories and makeup, if you choose to wear them, should follow the same rules as your clothing: pretty much anything goes, as long as it’s not offensive or overly lazy. For example, the ratty old backpack you’ve had since college isn’t a good choice, but a well-maintained, nice-looking backpack is fine.

Casual Ideas for Men

Men can make a casual outfit with items like these:

  • T-shirts
  • Jeans
  • Sweaters
  • Hoodies
  • Khakis
  • Polo shirts
  • Flannels and other casual button-downs

For men, closed-toe shoes are a good choice, like sneakers, loafers, or boat shoes. Accessories like belts are optional (unless your pants will fall down without one).

Even in super-casual settings, like beach parties, hygiene is also important for both men and women. If you’re well-groomed and your clothes are clean and free from stains, most of what you have in your wardrobe will probably work as casual attire.

Just don’t take the “casual” concept to the extreme. When in doubt, it’s always better to be a little over-dressed than the alternative.

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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