In style

Today’s Dance: What is ‘Business Casual’, Anyhow, and How Do You Wear It?

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Every workday I drag myself out of bed, run a comb through my hair and (usually) put it up somehow, and then figure out what to wear. Sometimes I figure out what to wear the night before. Sometimes I try three outfits before I’m happy with what I picked.

Like many of us, I have a dress code at work. Mine is ‘business casual’. Some of you lucky ducks have a uniform. In this instance, I envy you all, as you don’t have to navigate this mess.

Ever since ‘business casual’ became the standard of dress in workplaces, it has been an area of conflict. Dress codes vary. Open toed shoes? Sometimes. Jeans? Usually only on Fridays. Socks or hose? Depends on the work place. Hats? Sometimes, but rarely caps.

business casual (Photo credit: IreneKaoru)

Common conflicts center around how much skin to show (some workplaces don’t allow sleeveless blouses on women. Some specify a skirt length or cleavage coverage), How casual is too casual (jeans are the big one here, as are tennis shoes or sneakers), and balancing practicality and fashion. Piercings, tattoos and hair dye also send human resources departments scurrying into meetings with upper management, especially if the employee sporting them is a particularly good employee. Guys sometimes run into the tie or no tie problem, as businesses balance employee comfort with the need to make an impression on customers or vendors.

I have a three basic rules I follow:

  1. Layers are your friend. A peep of an unusual shirt under a nice but perfectly ordinary sweater spices things up. I often mix textures with layers, while maintaining a color scheme, or find coordinating patterns while keeping textures more or less the same.
  2. Everything needs to fit and flatter. If your pants are too snug or your shirt exposes an expanse of midriff every time you lift your arms, you will be uncomfortable all day and your productivity and attitude will suffer. This includes shoes. If you can wear three inch heels all day and not be ready to bite someone’s head off by 3 pm, more power to you. You’re a better woman than I am.
  3. Don’t forget the accessories. Scarves and jewelry and belts and tights and sometimes hats (depending on the dress code) can make or break an outfit. Pick one showcase item per outfit. You don’t want to overwhelm with too much bling.

For guys the rules are pretty much the same, except that their choices are somewhat more restricted. Guys can usually get by with one ‘signature’ accessory, such as a belt or jacket or hat, or even none at all. On the other hand, they can be penalized more easily in the workplace for stepping outside the much narrower range of ‘acceptable’ clothes for men.

Today’s dance explores how you navigate the shifting sands of the business casual workplace. Because business dress codes are usually gender coded, even if not explicitly, the questions today are gender coded as well. Feel free to adjust as needed for your workplace and your gender identity.

  • Do you work in a ‘business casual’ workplace, or do you dress in ‘business casual’ clothes by preference?
  • How broad or narrow is your company’s definition of ‘business casual’. Are there elements of the dress code that simply don’t make sense to you?
  • (Mostly) for women: Do you typically wear pants or dresses and skirts to work, or does it vary? Why?
  • Is your job fairly active, or are you largely desk bound? How does that affect your clothing choices?
  • How do you shop for work clothes? Do you buy all new, or do you buy secondhand as well? ‘Brick and mortar’ store, or online? ‘High end’ or Macy’s, Kmart and Target?
  • What is your favorite store for business casual clothes? Shoes? Accessories?
  • (Mostly) for men: How often do you wear a tie? Is it a choice or a requirement? Do you use ties to express your individuality? How so?
  • How does your workplace handle issues like tattoos, piercings and ‘non-natural’ hair dyes? Are there different standards for different positions in the company? Where do you fit in this spectrum?
  • What does your workplace forbid in its dress code that you really wish was allowed? Why? What does it allow that you wish wasn’t allowed? Why?
  • There’s an old saying that you should dress for the job you want, rather than the job you have? How does that apply in your workplace? How do management dress compared to everyone else?
  • Do you have a ‘signature’ look that helps you to put together outfits more quickly? What is it?
  • Do you struggle to look ‘put together’? What would help you figure this out?
  • Do you find your day going better or worse depending on how you are dressed? Is it a big effect or a small one, or none at all?
  • Do you find yourself making assumptions about co-workers depending on how they dress for work? How does that affect you? How do you think it affects them?

As always, feel free to comment below and to share this dance with your friends and family. See you later for more discussions!

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