What Is Business Casual Attire? 3 Ways To Dress For Success

You’ve heard plenty of advice about how to dress for success, but with all the changes in the landscape of work, dress codes and rules about how you show up (on camera or in person) are being rewritten. While it is true that beauty is more than skin deep, it is also true that you should dress for the job you want next.

What is business casual? How is it best to dress? Does your wardrobe impact your career—really? You can find your way through confusion with a few considerations to balance your own comfort and preferences with the impression you make and the credibility you’ll gain based on your dress.

Why it Matters

Fascinating research has found how you dress affects your perception of yourself, your performance and even how you think. A study in the journal of Social Psychological and Personality Science found when you dress in a more professional way, you tend to perceive yourself to have more power, you tend to identify more with the people around you and you tend to think more effectively.

And while you certainly want to be authentic and comfortable, how you dress is also a demonstration of your professionalism. In the wise words of one Gen Zer, “You’re paid to do a job, you should look like you’re working.”

You’ll make an impression with how you show up, and you’ll want to be intentional about what that impression is. In a perfect world, people might not judge each other, but it’s reality that humans tend to make quick assessments of you based on your manner and how you present yourself—and this extends to how you dress. It’s a representation of you and also of your company.

And dressing for work is just another venue about which you can be intentional. You dress differently—after all—for a wedding or when you’re going for a run, when you’re planning a night out or going to the grocery store. It’s natural you would want to consider how you dress for your work.

What’s Trending

Data shows workplaces are becoming increasingly casual. Adzuna analyzed more than 27 million job postings across multiple industries and found ads referring to “smart” and “smart casual” dress codes were down. In contrast, specifications for “business casual” were up and references to “casual” increased as well—with 56.8% of jobs specifying “casual.”

The analysis showed that the most casual industries were customer service with 86% of jobs specifying casual attire and IT with 40% and accounting and finance with 57%. In terms of regional differences, the most casual locations were Gary, Indiana, Lake County, Illinois and Kenosha County, Wisconsin. On the other hand, formal dress (business attire) was specified most frequently in Washington, D.C., and the surrounding areas.

Another trend is toward dressing for “goblin mode”–chosen as the 2022 Oxford word of the year—meaning unkempt, messy, slovenly or unshowered. It embraces the part of you that sometimes feels lazy or unmotivated rather than productive or presentable. Or consider the trend toward “slob-chic,” in which you’re working on video with pajamas on the bottom and your work attire on top.

While these are also trending, it’s important to realize the power of how you present yourself to influence your credibility and career prospects. It may be liberating to skip your full get-ready routine, but depending on the work you need to do, it can also work to your disadvantage.

Dress for Success

So with all the shifts and what’s trending, how should you dress?

Overall, it’s smart to demonstrate professionalism, no matter your job. Show that you made the effort and haven’t just rolled out of bed. Make it clear that you take your role and your performance seriously and that you respect others by how you show up for your work together.

If you’re not sure how you should dress for a meeting, a work function or for a particular organization, you can ask someone (and keep reading!). And if you’re in doubt, it’s always wise to err on the side of more versus less formality. It’s true that it’s better to be overdressed than underdressed—communicating that you care about the circumstances and that you’re invested.

#1 – Balance Authenticity with Audience

When you’re making decisions about how to dress, be authentic and be yourself, and also balance this with your audience. If you’re dressing for meetings with internal colleagues, you may choose to be more casual, but if you’re dressing for customers, external partners or senior leaders, you may choose to be a bit more on the business side of business casual.

When you dress for the people around you, you’re still being yourself, but you’re demonstrating appreciation and awareness about the situation you’re in.

#2 – Balance Comfort and Career

While you may prefer yoga pants to button pants, or a sweatshirt to a blouse, you’re also wise to balance your comfort with your career. Consider your job. If you’re a training manager schlepping materials and on your feet all day, you may veer toward the casual in business casual. But if you’re in sales and presenting to customers, you’ll want to lean toward the business in business casual.

In addition to considering your job, also give thought to your role. If you’re in a meeting as a participant, you’ll may dress differently than if you’re presenting. If you’re interviewing a candidate, you’ll dress to represent your company, and if you’re the interviewee, you’ll want to dress for the job you’re seeking and to make a positive impression.

#3 – Balance Fashion and (Culture) Fit

You’ll want to express your own sense of fashion, and also seek a fit with the culture. Don’t lose yourself, of course, but also be aware of how people are dressing around you.

Statistically, people tend to like those who are more similar to themselves. In addition, they tend to be more influenced by people who share more in common with them. Ironically, when you feel a sense of belonging based on emphasizing things in common—and dress in harmony with the group—you’ll actually be more liberated to bring your full self. When you’re accepted as part of the team, you have the ability to be more transparent and authentic.

Strive to be yourself in addition to aligning with the culture. If others typically wear jeans and a button-down shirt and you show up in a suit every day, you’ll come across as being either tone deaf or trying too hard. Dress so you’re comfortable and confident and also so you’re demonstrating awareness of the team, department and organization.

What Goes (and What Doesn’t)

In general, if there’s a “casual” dress code, you’ll want to select clothing that is relaxed and informal. When the need is for “business casual,” you can (generally) still wear jeans or you can choose slacks. On top, go for button-down shirts, polo shirts, blouses or sweaters. You can select cardigans or sport coats, especially if you’re in a colder climate. Women can also select knee-length or maxi dresses. Flats or loafers work well, and sneakers are okay as well. Interestingly, shoes that lace tend to be perceived as slightly more formal compared with those that don’t.

If you’re dressing for work, it’s best to stay away from cloths which are distressed or which have holes. Also, it’s best to avoid shorts, tank tops, crop tops, strappy tops, too-tight or too-baggy clothing or shirts with logos or text. It will also be best to eschew shoddy athletic shoes or flip-flops. Save your baseball cap only for the most informal meetings with people you know very well.

Speaking Louder than Words

People gather 93% of information from non-verbal sources. In addition to your manner, gestures, eye contact, expressions and tone of voice, how you dress also speaks loudly.

Be authentic, be yourself and express your uniqueness—while you’re also balancing with the situation you’re in, the responsibilities own and the places you want to go next with your career.

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