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Cracking the (Dress) Code

Business casual, business professional, business formal, smart casual. What does it all mean? Cracking the workday dress code can be a tricky business, made trickier by the fact that employee interpretations vary widely. What one staff member considers appropriate, another may consider scandalous. Here are some simple guidelines you can follow to avoid wardrobe missteps.

Business casual

When Forbes writer Renee Sylvestre-Williams began working at a company that required a business casual wardrobe, she soon discovered she had no idea what that meant. Confused, she posed the question to her Facebook friends and shared replies on “Not jeans, but not a suit,” read one response. “Nice blouse, pants, light jewelry,” said another. “No suits, no T-shirts, certainly no jeans—even black ones, no logo wear,” said others. Most respondents agreed that for women, business casual meant trousers or a knee-length skirt paired with a collared blouse or shirt. For men, the consensus was that trousers or khakis with a collared shirt would be fine. Sneakers, flip flops and sweatshirts are definite noes. Also keep in mind that casual does not mean crumpled — clothing should be properly pressed.

Business professional

When dressing business professional, you should strive for a look that communicates credibility and competence. This typically means business suits. For women, these can be tailored pantsuits or a more traditional skirted suit; men should opt for a jacket, dress shirt and tie.  Be sure your clothes are not too tight, too loose and sloppy, too revealing or too short. Shirts should close comfortably and not gape or pull tight at the buttons. Skirts ought to be at least knee-length and sheer fabrics are a no-no. Avoid clothing with flashy adornments. For men, proper trouser length is imperative. Trousers should drop down the leg just enough to “break” on the shoes. The cuffs should not bunch up, but should rest gently on the shoe tops.

Business formal

A subgroup of business professional, business formal refers to the type of clothing a person would wear to an awards banquet, political event or formal business occasion. Think of it as dressing one step down from a black-tie affair. Dark, tailored suits are appropriate for both men and women. Men should don a silk tie and white shirt, while women should slip on some closed-toe/closed-heel pumps. Dark-colored conservative dresses are OK, too.

Smart casual

One of the most puzzling dress codes to emerge in the 21st century workplace is the “smart casual” look, which is generally understood to mean well-dressed in a casual or relaxed style. Think of smart casual as “smartening up” your business-casual look into something neater and slicker. Unlike the dressier business-professional look, the smart-casual look offers employees some flexibility in expressing their individual personality with splashes of color and outfit-enhancing jewelry and accessories. To achieve a smart-casual look, men should wear a button-down shirt, but they can relax the style by choosing a shirt with a less traditional hue or pattern. Consider houndstooth or stripes. Complete the look with clean-line chinos and add a blazer or tie for a pop of color. Twill pants work well for both men and women. For women, smart-casual wear includes nice khakis or trousers paired with blouses, stylish knit tops, sleek sweater sets or classic sleeveless tops with a trim-cut jacket. Tailored separates, knee-length skirts and pantsuits work well. Dresses are fine, too, but avoid sundresses and cocktail garb, striving for something in between with a classic, simple style.

Perhaps the most important thing you can do — no matter what dress code by which you should abide— is to pay attention to colleagues and take your cues from them. Err on the side of caution. When in doubt, go a bit conservative and you’re likely to look just fine.


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