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Business casual attire should project an image of confidence and professionalism.

Unless you wear a uniform, the clothes you choose to go to work have serious consequences for your professional image and your career. If you work in a conservative field like a bank or law firm, it may be obvious that you need to dress formally every day. 

If your company or department is more casual, it can be difficult to determine what you should wear. Familiarizing yourself with the most common dress styles in the business world will help avoid sending the wrong message to coworkers and clients.

What is Business Casual Work Attire?

Wall Street Journal columnist Christina Binkley notes that the term “business casual” is sometimes misunderstood, causing employees to wear the wrong clothes. Business casual attire is a relaxed version of formal business attire. 

For men, this means wearing a golf shirt with khaki pants or not wearing a tie. In some office settings, business casual involves wearing khaki or dress pants with a less formal jacket over a dress shirt.

Business casual for women presents more options and also pitfalls. Casual khakis with a T-shirt and cardigan ensemble or a conservative skirt and blouse qualify as business casual. Jeans are acceptable in some offices with this type of attire, and pantyhose are optional. 

Offices with business casual dress codes generally provide more flexibility for footwear for both men and women, making loafers and casual shoes more acceptable. However, it would be best if you never confused this style with a weekend or completely casual look. 

The clothes you would wear for a barbecue in your garden or house are possibly too informal for an office where you must confidently present yourself.

Professional Business Attire

Shirts with a collar are more professional than those without collars. Professional business attire is more formal than business casual attire but offers more possibilities than formal business attire. For example, in some settings, women can wear a skirt or pantsuit paired with a jacket or a sweater ensemble. 

Dresses are appropriate in this dress code if they are conservative and do not reveal too much skin or cleavage—pantyhose, closed-toe low heels, minimal makeup, and jewelry help to complete your professional business image. Men should wear a suit, a dress shirt and tie, and moderate dress shoes.

Formal Business Attire

Choose a good suit in blue or black for a formal environment.

Formal business attire is the dress style mostly associated with professional settings. Think three-piece suits, ties, and button-down collared shirts and cufflinks. Men’s shoes in the formal business style should be formal dress shoes, well polished and shiny.

Women should also wear suits, either skirts or pants, depending on the office’s culture or personal choice. Skirts are traditionally a more formal choice, and the length should always be below the knee. 

Pantyhose are conservative, and low-heeled shoes are required. Formal attire is always conservative, with most people choosing black, navy grey suits with solid-colored blouses or shirts. 

Depending on your office and industry, you can show off a bit of your style through a brightly colored or patterned scarf. Still, the overall image should be conservative and professional.

General Style Tips

Regardless of what style is used in your office, certain principles help you maintain a neat and professional image at all times. Even casual clothes should be clean, pressed, and in good condition: save frayed hems and stained pants for gardening on the weekend. 

Buy good quality shoes, keep them in good condition, and keep your accessories small and tasteful. Do not distract your colleagues with fashion objects or very flashy or tight clothing. Women need to wear proper undergarments: wear an off-white or off-white bra under your white shirts, and never wear clothing that reveals what you’re wearing underneath.