• Tue, Aug 3 2010

Fashion 101: The Myth of Business Casual

Dressing for work has become harder.  Gone are the days of men in ties and women in pantsuits and pumps- for many industries anyway. More and more offices are opting for a more comfortable, casual dress code.  At first blush, it seems like a more lax dress code would make things easier, but this is not the case. This shift towards the casual carries with it an entirely new set of challenges for dressing for the office. How exactly does one hit that pitch perfect ‘business casual’ note that is effortlessly professional? More to the point, how can you really be both business and casual? Business casual is a term that has become so ubiquitous in dress codes and event invites, that it really has lost all meaning. Not that anyone ever knew what it meant. In fact, when I interviewed friends in 7 different industries, all but one declared some form of ‘business casual’ as the de facto dress code for their workplace.

Sure there still are some women who wear a suit every day to work, yet culling my entire Facebook account I was not able to locate one. Maybe this says more about the company I keep that of the state of workplace dress codes? Perhaps, but out of a fairly diverse sampling of girl friends, I found the casual trend to be both overwhelming and eye opening.

Kristen, a law student at the University of Texas, has had many internships ranging from working at an appeals court in the conservative city of Houston to non-profit legal aid work in the much more laid-back city of Austin. Each of these employers of them described their dress code as ‘business casual’. So how does one know how to dress for a new job then?

“When they tell me “business casual” I start out at a notch below a suit, and observe the locals for a week or so. Then I can scale back if it seems like I’m overdressed,” Kristen explained. “So, I guess my tip is: know your audience. Be appropriate, whatever that means for your particular field. For law, that probably means be conservative, polished, and professional.”

When pressed for examples, Kristen had plenty. Clearly this wardrobe question was an important topic, and she had given it plenty of thought.

“But my biz-cas foundation pieces are good quality pencil skirts in khaki, navy, black, charcoal, olive and brown. I also personally love cardigans and can’t get enough. People take you seriously when you dress the part. They definitely notice it when you don’t. Your visible panty line will be remembered, even if only subconsciously.”

I cringed when she said this. Instantly, my mind was flooded with all of the ill-advised outfits I had chosen to wear to various jobs over the years. Like the time a colleague at an ad agency I was temping at said to me “where are your pants?”

“This is a dress,” I answered honestly.

“Oh.”

<Cringe>

I was curious if all my friends were as put together as Kristen. I asked another friend, Emily, who works as a trader on Wall Street, what her go-to basics were.

“I’m really quite hapless when it comes to clothes,” she explained. “I generally wear jeans and a button down shirt. It’s not terribly stylish, but I figure that it is inoffensive. I wish I had a better handle on this. Fortunately, I work in a geeky part of the finance industry that is fairly tolerant.”

I found this a little surprising; I assumed that my friends who worked in finance would be among the few forced to wear suits. I mean, aren’t they, you know, like, ‘suits’?

“Small firms like ours consider our casual dress a benefit that helps to attract talent,” Emily explained. “We don’t have clients to impress, but it’s reasonable to have some concern about how vendors and such perceive us. And we’re not completely oblivious to each other.”

A big part of dressing for the office really has to do with the company culture. “There’s no reason to show off or put in the effort when the majority of the office comes to work with jeans, simple T-shirts, and tennis shoes,” says Tina, who works in corporate communications for a tech company in the Silicon Valley. Yet, in positions like hers, i.e. jobs that require interfacing with the outside world, it is not only your corporate culture you have to think about. You really have to consider how you are coming off to the outside world because you are representing yourself and the company.

“As superficial as it is, the way you dress in this field is a statement of your character and your ability to accomplish a task,” Tina explained.

So what does she wear?

“Slacks, a top which doesn’t require ironing and black flats-never heels, never jewelry. I do think the way I dress affects people’s interactions with me. Therefore, I dress above the norm so I am treated respectfully.”

Surely, there are some industries where what you wear really matters. I asked my friend Rachel, who works as an editor at a leading fashion magazine, if her office, also abides by this ‘business casual’ rule. I mean, I saw The Devil Wears Prada – no one was nice to Anne Hathaway until she started wearing Chanel charm necklaces and Jimmy Choos.  Was this really how it is? Rachel summed it up like this:

“You MUST be stylish. It’s not about the label in the back of your shirt (although it can’t hurt!!), but more about how you put yourself together. Accessorizing is key. Over-accessorizing is a nightmare.”

This is what I figured. And it makes sense. You can’t say you work at a fashion magazine and look, well, unfashionable. For people who interact with the public, it is crucial to represent the brand, whatever that may be. Since I had the ear of a bone fide fashion professional, I decided to get some tips. What did an actual fashion person think about before getting dressed for the day?

“I really like to stay on top of current trends while sticking to my signatures: sky high platforms, lots of neutrals, and bold accessories. I have the same H&M black shift dress for like my entire professional career and still come up with new ways to wear it. I am also really into dresses for work–its easier and quicker to pull together than separates.”

So, I guess the takeaway from all of this is that what you wear does matter. And, odds are, the only guidelines you will have for your next job are some vague iteration ‘business casual.’ So the key is to dress comfortable, command respect, and be true to your individual style without causing a distraction. Take a look around and see how others are dressing, and if you are unsure, err on the side of overdressed. People will take you more seriously, and quite possibly, you may take yourself more seriously too.

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  • Corporate Tool

    If you’re really struggling, I’d suggest a brief visit to Corporette, I found this post, and the accompanying comments fairly helpful:

  • Tori

    Another good tip for dressing for a new job, specifically the job interview, if it is a large enough company you can call and ask the receptionist what most people wear. I did this once when I was interviewing at a very casual office, i still ended up being over dressed, but at least I knew not to wear a suit!

  • Megan Kristel

    This is a really fantastic article. I use to hate dressing clients in “Business Casual” but now I use it as an opportunity to create their unique brand. Plus, it is true, you are treated better when you look pulled together, there is no getting around it. It is important to keep that in mind as you walk the fine line between corporate culture, their brand and your own.

  • Jean

    Curse business casual!!! Watch Mad Men and tell me you don’t long for the days when people dressed with such elegance! Now we all look like someone from GAP styled us – even babies.