What Is Business Casual Style?

Ohhh, business casual.  There have been so many questions about this that I can’t even keep track of them all now!  From wondering what is business casual style in the first place to troubleshooting all sorts of specific styling issues with business casual outfits, the questions are endless.  I thought today we should lay the foundation and talk about what business casual style is.

I’ve heard from over 1,000 of you (yes, that’s a LOT!) about what is appropriate in your business casual environment, and can safely say this: It is ALL. OVER. THE. PLACE. Ranging from jeans being totally okay as business casual to no jeans but colored denim is okay (???—why does this make sense to employers? 🤷🏻‍♀️) to strict no jeans and closer to business professional and everything between. There is a spectrum of more casual business casual to more professional business casual, all under the name of “business casual,” and every work environment has a different standard. It’s truly all over the place!

We’ve been chatting a bit on social media about business casual, and I thought today we’d open the discussion on the blog too.  I don’t necessarily have new information to offer, and I’m definitely NOT an expert when it comes to business casual style.  BUT, I do have input from over 1,000 PMTers that I can share.  I personally find it helpful to hear what other people are doing.  Sometimes it helps me learn new things.  And other times, even if it’s something I’m already doing, knowing what other people do the same feels affirming or validating and gives me a confidence boost.  That is always positive!

I hope to give a framework for business casual outfits that I’ve found helpful over the years.  We’ll use that as a starting place and then talk about how to adjust it according to your work environment.  Let’s dig in!

Style Help for Everyday Woman: What is Business Casual Style?

How I Define Business Casual: A Formula to Start With

As a very simple foundational formula, I think of “business casual” outfits as a combination of business (or dressier) elements and nicer casual elements.  This is the same way I think of “dressy casual” outfits, which you’ve heard me talk about a lot–casual clothes mixed with dressy clothes–applied to the term business casual.

Business Casual Outfits - from dressier to casual

Business/Dressier Elements
Business elements include things like blazers, slacks/trousers, nicer skirts like a tailored pencil skirt or nice a-line skirt, tailored shirts, nice dresses, heels or sleek flats, etc.  They might also simply be dressier elements like a nice necklace or nicely tailored sweater.

Nicer Casual Elements
Casual elements in a business casual outfit should be on the dressier side of casual clothes.  This includes things like a nice blouse, well-fitting dark wash skinny or bootcut jeans, knit blazers, flats, sleek moto jackets, tailored jersey or cotton skirts, cardigans, etc. and excludes things like UGGs, extremely faded or distressed or busily embellished jeans, and hoodies. There isn’t anything wrong with any of the latter, they’re just too casual for a business casual work environment!  🙂

These categories totally aren’t strict.  For example, some items fall in between, like a nice blouse or certain styles of flats.  But hopefully you kinda get the big picture in the sense that it’s a mix of business and casual.  However, within this formula there is still a lot of room for flexibility–for better or for worse–so let’s talk about that!

 

The Spectrum of Business Casual Style

For business casual outfits, I usually go for a mix of items from both business or dressier items and casual. But, within that framework, there is a spectrum of how casual or dressy/business-y the level of business casual style is, depending on the industry.  The more relaxed/casual side of business casual ends up looking more like what I personally consider dressy casual outfits while the other end starts to resemble business professional attire.  Yet all of that is still considered business casual depending on your specific work environment.  (Like we’ve been saying, it’s all over the place!)

Personally, I love differentiating “business casual” from “smart casual.”  However, most employers don’t use those distinctions and instead lump everything under “business casual,” which is why I think the term can be so hard to pinpoint.

Given that, there are tons of nuanced scenarios of how dressed up or dressed down to be.  We can’t tackle each one, but we can talk about some overarching guiding factors instead.

Work Environment or Industry

Business Casual Outfits Survey

This factor probably that has the most significant impact on how casual or dressy your work’s definition of business casual is.  Some industries lean heavier on the business side of business casual style, like finance or legal fields.  Other types of work lean more on the casual aspect, like some education/teaching roles and the tech industry.  Meanwhile, business casual in a creative field might afford an extreme of flexibility.  Again, it’s all over the map.

You can get somewhat of a gauge by paying attention to others in your field.  If people around you ever cross into business professional attire, then you should probably aim for the dressier end of business casual (and maybe consider business professional outfits too).  If people around you, especially those higher up than you, are always in jeans, then it’s probably an indication that the work culture is generally more casual.  Or, your work might be in between.

Role at Work

And then of course, you’ve got to factor in what your role is at work or even what kind of activity you might be doing on a particular day.  From what many of you said on social media, it seems like you have a great handle on when you need to dress up and when you can be more casual.  Like, giving a presentation, interfacing with clients, etc. versus a regular day in the office vs. casual Friday.  Just thought I’d throw this in here in case it wasn’t on some people’s radars!

 

How to Dress the Formula Up or Down

So, how can we take our formula of business pieces + casual pieces to put together more relaxed business casual outfits versus more professional business casual outfits?

How to Do Business Casual Outfits Dressed Up or Down

 

Number of Business Elements vs. Casual Elements

One easy way to make a business casual outfit more or less dressy is to increase or decrease the number of business vs. casual elements in the outfit.  For example, let’s look at the outfits below:

How to Dress Business Casual

On the left, the outfit has black pants (business) + blouse (nice casual or in between) + blazer (business) + pumps (business/dressy).  It’s got business-y elements mixed with a dressy casual blouse.  If you add up all the business elements and all the casual elements, the total outfit leans more business, or at least on the dressed up side of business casual.

On the right, the outfit has the same top half with a different bottom half of jeans plus colorful flats.  Now we’ve got a blazer (business) + blouse (nice casual or in between) + jeans (nice casual) + flats (nice casual).  It’s got more casual elements than business elements, and therefore the outfit is on the more relaxed end of the business casual spectrum.

If you want to be dressier, wear more business elements than casual elements.  If you want to be more casual, wear more casual elements than business elements.  Not too complicated, right?

 

Material and Cut of Garment

The material and cut of the garment can also make your outfits more dressy or less dressy.  For example, not all blazers are equal.  A relaxed jersey blazer is very different than a nicely tailored suit blazer, and both are different than an in-between twill blazer.  Another example is that not all business casual pants are equal.  Some pants are made of a smoother, sleeker material that leans more towards business professional outfits while others are made of cotton and are more on the casual end of the business casual spectrum.  And of course, there are many others in between.

How to Dress Business Casual

We can see this with the dresses above.  On the left, the dress is tailored and made of a non-jersey, non-cotton material that’s hard to dress down.  On the right is my favorite “pajama dress” (as I like to call them, because they’re so comfy and soft that they feel like pajamas!).  It has a way more casual vibe.  Honestly, this to me is just a casual outfit, but I’ve seen literally hundreds of women wear this in their business casual environments and be 100% appropriately dressed. 🤷🏻‍♀️ (Goes to show what we all already knew–business casual is so different everywhere! 😆)

Anyway, material and cut.  Just things to be mindful of!

Two Rules of Thumb

Dress for the part you want, (not for the role you have).  Meaning, dress a step up.  Stacy and Clinton from What Not to Wear said this all the time!  They’d say if you are hoping to advance in your career, present yourself as someone who belongs in that role by dressing the part (and of course being amazing at what you do! :P)  How we present ourselves at work, for better or for worse and whether or not we think it’s fair, plays a big part in what people think we’re capable of.

When it comes to work, when in doubt, be on the dressier side of things.  I think most of us hate being inappropriately dressed, whether way overdressed or way underdressed.  I’ve done both, and I personally feel more awkward when I’m underdressed than when I’m overdressed–especially regarding work!  There is so much at stake when it comes to the impression you make at work.  If I’m going to be inappropriately dressed, I’d way rather have the impression be that I care a lot, have my act together, and am ahead of the curve than behind the curve and trying to catch up.

Okay, just had to say those things!  Takeaway: it does not hurt to be a little overdressed while it totally can hurt to be underdressed.

SURVEY: Which Business Casual Outfit Works for You?

Business Casual Outfits Survey

I did this survey on Instagram and Facebook recently and would love to hear from you too!  The three outfits above vary on the spectrum of business casual, and I’d love to know which of them work for your business casual work environment?  (Not talking about casual work or business professional environments.  🙂  )

On Instagram and Facebook, most said Outfit 2 would work the best for them on most days in terms of level of casualness vs. business–it’s that in between sweet spot of not quite being casual but not being overly dressed up.  Outfit 1 was not far behind, and many said it’d work better for a dressier day like when giving a presentation or meeting with higher ups.  Outfit 3 worked for almost everyone at least for casual Friday, but only for about 15% of people for Mon-Thu.  Would love to know about your work environment, so…

Which is it?  1, 2, or 3?  All of them?  A combo of two of them?  Let me know in the comments below!

For business casual outfit inspiration, check out my business casual outfits HERE.  NOTE: Some posts may have several outfits that include casual outfits.  If it’s under the biz cas label, it means there’s at least ONE outfit in there that’s business casual.  You can always find these by going go the menubar at the top of this blog, hovering over “Style Help,” then clicking “Business Casual Outfits.”


 

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23 Comments

  • Reply
    Bri Bro
    February 19, 2019 at 6:23 am

    #2 is definitively the closest to how we dress at work (teacher.) #1 wouldn’t be totally out of line either, but few people dress up that much. #3 would be okay with different pants. We can only wear jeans on Fridays with school shirts. We can sometimes get away with colored denim, like Audrey mentioned above, because it’s kind of easy to “hide” that’s its actually denim. It’s not so much that we’re “allowed” to wear colored jeans, we just kind of pretend that they aren’t jeans.

  • Reply
    jlg
    February 19, 2019 at 6:38 am

    THANK YOU so much for talking about this!! I think you’ve given a lot of good food for thought about how to approach business casual. I would say outfit 2 is closest to my typical day (though I live in an east coast city so white blazers don’t make it into the rotation, but the sweater/blazer, tee, skinny pants, flats/boots combo is pretty much the basic formula these days for me.
    I’m in a government legal office and have been using your nice casual challenge outfits but with occasionally adding a blazer and subbing in navy or black pants for jeans (unless it’s a Friday, when jeans are allowed). I am nearly 15 years into my career and my “clients” are mostly male and dress quite casually. I also rarely see them in person. So my office attire trends toward nice casual anyway. On the other hand, if I’m going to court or a deposition, I’m in a dark suit (usually pants, not ankle-cut or skinny) or at the least a nice dress/blazer or slacks/blazer combo. If I have a client meeting, I do dress up a bit more, usually putting on a blazer. I used to be lazier about Friday attire before I started following you — now since I have a plan it is no harder to put on an oversized cardi and blouse than it is to grab a hoodie (though if there’s a big game I will sometimes still wear team gear on a Friday and I’m not alone in that in my office).
    That said, I’m about to change jobs (different government legal office) and plan to be on the dressier side at least for the first few weeks as I meet people and get a feel for the office. I agree with the WNTW approach that no matter how much (or little) you personally care about appearances, people will judge you for them especially as a first impression. I will probably end up using my suiting separates, other dressy slacks (instead of skinny pants) with fitted tees or nicer blouses and tailored cardigans/blazers, but not full-on suits except maybe the first day and for board meetings. The folks who interviewed me were clearly not wearing suits any of the times we met, so it doesn’t seem like suits are necessary to dress a level up.

  • Reply
    Sarah Lightner
    February 19, 2019 at 7:12 am

    1 or 2. I’m a school administrator and some days are dressier than others. Thanks for doing this!

  • Reply
    Lisa W
    February 19, 2019 at 8:10 am

    Teacher here. #3 for sure. I would wear #2 as well, just without the pumps. It’s interesting that even within the same profession (teaching), there are different ‘rules’, such as no jeans allowed or jeans ok. In my district in California, jeans are totally okay any day of the week.

  • Reply
    Kristin
    February 19, 2019 at 8:29 am

    Good post. Outfit 2 would be what I’d wear most days around the office. I’d wear Outfit 1 if I had to go to court that day. Outfit 3 would never work for my work environment, sadly. We aren’t allowed to wear jeans ever, even on Fridays.

  • Reply
    sarah k @ the pajama chef
    February 19, 2019 at 8:42 am

    i can do #1 or #2, or can do #3 if i wear colored jeans (lol – black or white are okay, or other colors just not blue hahahaha) or corduroys (honestly not my fave but sometimes i just want to be comfy).

    but here’s a question – and maybe you have a post on this… but what about shoes??? flats do NOT fit my feet at all. i have tried and tried and my narrow heels and bunions (boo genetics) just make them either too loose or too tight. any suggestions? in the spring/summer i wind up wearing casual sandals mostly which is fine, and in the fall/winter i wear boots. but i would love to have some other options. i usually end up scouring zappos for hours and never buying anything but i’d love some cute shoe that is not just a basic flat slip on. do those exist??!

  • Reply
    Elizabeth Wilson
    February 19, 2019 at 9:04 am

    #2 for sure and #3 on Fridays. 1 is too dressy for me. I’m an elementary school librarian . I do stick with flats most everyday, so I wouldn’t wear pumps.

  • Reply
    Erin
    February 19, 2019 at 9:06 am

    #2 for me – I’m an engineer working for a public agency in Southern California. The engineers that report out to the field (construction sites) can wear jeans, but in the office we can only wear jeans on Fridays. I like being girly though so I alternate between #1 and #2 depending on my mood. Like others have said, lots of women around here wear colored jeans (mostly black) because you can’t really tell if they are jeans or pants. My biggest issue right now are shoes to wear to work. I love the look of heels with ankle pants and skirts, but my legs are super pasty and get cold easily (even when it’s not winter), and I can’t wear any heels over 2.75″ high due to an old toe injury. I’d love to find fashionable burgundy suede heels that are 2.5″ high!

  • Reply
    Jasmine Hunter
    February 19, 2019 at 9:53 am

    Most days, I will wear something like No. 3, with a cardigan rather than a blazer. At my job, as long as we don’t wear jeans, we’re OK, and Fridays is casual Friday, so we can wear jeans then.

  • Reply
    Irais
    February 19, 2019 at 10:22 am

    Hi I would have to say #2 would be the one I would use most. #1 for special meeting or presentation like you mentioned above. I do have a question, what do you think about shoes? I know heels are the first thing the pops to mind but can flats be business casual and booties? TIA

    • Reply
      Audrey @ Putting Me Together
      February 19, 2019 at 11:02 am

      Hi! I think flats can be business casual for sure, but just like how different types of tops vary in levels of casual to business, so do flats. More business would be things like pointy toe patent leather black flats versus more casual being my cheap faux suede flats from Amazon, for example. Booties–same thing. There are booties that are more upscale, but the ones I own are more casual. I would not wear the ones I own in most business casual outfits unless the work environment catered better to Outfit 3. MAYBE the level of Outfit 2.

  • Reply
    Lindsay Browning
    February 19, 2019 at 1:36 pm

    For most days #1 would be my go to, although I tend to wear flats vs. heels if I can get away with it. #2 would be for more casual days.

  • Reply
    Wendy
    February 19, 2019 at 1:38 pm

    I wear variations on outfits 2 and 3 90% of the time. Occasionally will
    dress up like #1 depending on my mood, day, meeting (or the state of my laundry). I’m in the tech/software industry and work on the executive floor. Jeans are absolutely worn on the regular every day. It’s been so long since I’ve heard the term “casual Friday” that I didn’t even realize it was still a thing and that some companies still have an established dress code. I would say that most people do dress down a bit on Fridays, but since they were in jeans all week anyway, casual has become switching out the shoes for sneakers or wearing a sportier shirt or jacket. We’re in oregon so..think slip-on sneakers and a vest/shirt combo. I like dressing up, it makes me feel good. Effective, focused, on top of things. But honestly I’m at a computer all day and interface electronically with most of my colleagues who are scattered around the globe. I would wear outfit 3 with booties instead of flats every day of the week and nobody would question it. The only line I draw (and never see on anyone else) is distressed denim.

    Otherwise your formulas are spot on. Business casual is some % professional + % casual as exemplified by your own office culture. I bet you could even figure out a real equation. Top, bottom, shoes, completer are each 25% of
    an outfit. Option 1 is 75% professional, 25% smart casual. Option 2 is 50/50, option 3 is 25% professional, 75% casual. Or something along those lines! 😉

    It’s all so subject to interpretation!

  • Reply
    Sharon Spils
    February 19, 2019 at 2:30 pm

    I work in a very small office, the boss and I, so I would say my wardrobe is now #3 with a linen/woven skirt. Jeans on Friday for no other reason than Friday. #1 is when we do have the rare meeting.

  • Reply
    Jen
    February 19, 2019 at 3:37 pm

    I would feel very comfortable in #1 or #2, but our workplace is shifting. Management has been saying “dress for your day,” and jeans are much more common. I’d like to give #3 a try, but it’s a bit outside of my work comfort zone. Outside of Fridays at least!

  • Reply
    Erin Parker
    February 19, 2019 at 4:26 pm

    We have a fairly strict dress code, no denim at all- and it calls out colored denim as a no-no, too. So some version of 1 or 2, though a pencil skirt and heels is unlikely (more like dress pants and flats) because I am indoors and outdoors all day long, and working with the public means having to bend, sit, etc.

  • Reply
    Sarah B
    February 19, 2019 at 4:33 pm

    #2 is closest to what I wear as a high school teacher, interspersed with the occasional #1, or #3 for dress-down Friday. My question is, I would LOVE to see business casual options for extreme weather. I live in the northeast, and work in an older building with extremely variable temps. We can be below 60 in my classroom in January, and almost 90 in September and June. My struggle is with how to remain appropriately dressed, and still be comfortable enough to be actively running around my classroom/the building when it’s either freezing or sweltering.

  • Reply
    Kristin
    February 19, 2019 at 6:03 pm

    Teacher here, and #2 is what I wear. No jeans allowed; I wear colored denim a lot, but I definitely dress it up. No one in my building wears blazers, but we sure do rock the cardigans! Thanks for all your help – so fun!!!

  • Reply
    Kimberly
    February 20, 2019 at 4:44 am

    For me, outfit 3 seems like it would be best. I work in an agricultural science lab, so it is very casual (most are in t-shirts and jeans) but I sit in an office crunching numbers most days. I find that during times requiring a more polished look, it is hard to strike the right tone (conferences/presentations).This is a very male-dominated field, so I feel like dressing to my usual level of business casual makes me stand out more as a fashion statement instead of someone who knows the industry. Most men “dress up” by wearing a nice pair of dark wash jeans or khakis with a pressed gingham button down or a tucked-in polo and leather shoes. For women, business looks are too dressy, and business casual looks are too fashion-forward. It’s hard to find simple, classy pieces that look polished but not overly showy!

  • Reply
    Irai Rod
    February 20, 2019 at 8:57 am

    Another teacher here: Styles 1 and 2 are what I wear to work. Number 3 is too relaxed for me–I would feel the need to wear colored jeans, chinos, OR heels with it…but I’m very much aware that my style is a lot dressier than most of my colleagues’. It’s always been so. Even off-work, I tend to dress up more than the average person so that inclination naturally carries into my weekdays. To be honest, I am a little mortified when I see people in my team wear jeans, t-shirts, and sneakers (all together in one outfit) on casual Fridays, and I’m especially embarrassed when we’re unexpectedly called for a meeting with parents and/or supervisors and half of the staff members look like they’re dressed to take their dogs for a hike on Saturday morning. Sadly, the dress code in my building is rather vague, so most people feel “anything goes”…The day before and after a holiday are the worst. The level of sloppiness gets so extreme that I find myself deliberately dressing up in what I consider “comfortable but cute” those days to provide a little visual balance. Believe me, I adore my colleagues and I would never say a thing about it because I know they are the same amazing teachers and professionals in Birkenstocks and tees as they are in trousers and a printed top…it just “looks” indolent, in my eyes, and I worry about how it might be perceived by others, including the students.

    I’ve enjoyed reading what other teachers across the country wear. It’s interesting to see how geography- and administration-dependent it appears to be. Thanks for opening up this discussion, Audrey!

  • Reply
    Ashton Wright
    February 20, 2019 at 7:57 pm

    My current workplace is my home so I can wear whatever I want. Before I worked in TV news and it was common to see all 3 on the same day. As executive producer I typically only wore jeans on Friday or days I was in the field. The rest was a mix between the first two. Anchors and reporters leaned more to the first outfit, some even more professional. Our sales department was in the middle and our production department was definitely dressed down.

  • Reply
    Katie Pirk
    February 21, 2019 at 6:00 am

    I work in an office environment so #1 or #2 would work for me. We have a strict no jeans policy but are able to wear jeans on Fridays so #3 would be similar to my Friday workday outfits

  • Reply
    Dbergant
    February 23, 2019 at 1:16 pm

    Like most respondents, outfit 2 is the one I’d likely wear most days. And outfit 1 is my go to for business presentations and visiting dignitaries. I also like to wear casual skirts and dresses when I don’t have to be more dressed up.

  • Leave a Reply

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