Fun + Lifestyle

What Exactly Is Business Casual?

  • What is expected in a business casual office can be confusing
  • Men have an easier time figuring out what’s appropriate, since men’s clothing offers fewer choices; women have to especially mind cut and skirt length
  • When in doubt, ask questions and observe how others interpret the dress code

Business casual sounds not only comfortable, but easy: It’s business, but casual. Simple, right? Nope.

In reality, a business casual office strikes fear in the hearts of just about everyone as it becomes more popular in the legal world. Most people express confusion about what rules they are supposed to follow, especially since business casual at one office is very different from business casual at another.

For Men

As usual, men have it a bit easier than women when trying to figure out what is appropriate to wear in the office. It’s one of the few times that having fewer choices is actually helpful. Simply removing your suit jacket and tie will generally turn your strictly business look into a business casual one.

Most offices will be fine with khakis, but be sure to wear only professionally and simply cut trousers, no matter the style. In addition, continue to stick to dark, traditionally conservative colors, just like you would when wearing a suit. The classic sweater/shirt combination is also an easy way to look polished and appropriate. Stay professional with your accessories, as well: Never wear sweat socks, and be careful with how far you go with your shoes. “Dress sneakers” are everywhere these days, and some of them may appear passable depending on your specific office, but always err on the side of dressier footwear.

For Women

For women, fit and fabric type are of the utmost importance. Clothing that is tight, short, or made of overly thin fabric should be avoided. The glut of choices in women’s clothing can make business casual especially tricky. Your best bet is to stick to the same conservative colors you would when wearing a business suit. If trying out a print or a brighter color, pair it with a calmer jacket so as not to overwhelm. Button-down shirts, blouses, and twinsets are all appropriate and easy to mix and match with slacks and skirts. You can never go wrong with a well-cut dress.

One place you can show a bit of personality in a business casual setting is with shoes: Colorful heels or styles that lean towards current trends should be fine, and a pair of well-made flats could become the woman lawyer’s best friend. Open-toe shoes can work as long as they aren’t sandals—think peep-toe instead. Be careful with your other accessory choices; business casual still doesn’t allow for flashy or jingly jewelry.

What About Jeans?

Jeans on Friday aren’t so common in law offices, but if your office specifically says jeans are ok, go for it. But remember the same rules apply on Friday that apply through the rest of the week: Choose dark, tailored denim without rips or embellishments. Your goal is to look just as neat as you look in a pair of trousers.

When in Doubt

If you’re unsure exactly what business casual means in your office, don’t be afraid to ask someone in HR a few clarifying questions. You can also start out wearing your safest outfits for a week while observing what everyone else is wearing and adjusting as you go. Ultimately, you can’t go wrong by erring on the side of more formal or more professional, rather than going too far in the other direction.