Defining “business casual,” is downright challenging. Entrepreneur Magazine recently did a feature on it, and created even more confusion, based on reader comments and tweets.
As your certifiably crazy image consultant, I suggest we take a collective deep breath because I’m going to give you what I believe to be a solid definition of “business casual” right here.
Each of us defines “business casual” with a slightly varied nuance – a difference in meaning or feeling. This leads to mass confusion about how to dress properly in the mode of “business casual.” You see there’s not just one mode…
“Business casual” is a broad-based term used to describe a multi-level approach to dressing for business [and social] occasions with the intent of being informal and not overdressed. It does not require the use of a suit, or tie [for men]. For specific occasions, a jacket is expected.
This multi-level approach to “business casual” is confounding to literally millions of people. “Are denim jeans okay? Maybe khakis would be better? Hmmm… Maybe a dress pant?” “Is there something on the market that isn’t a khaki that’s dressier than jeans, but isn’t quite as dressy as a dress pant?” Absolutely! It’s exactly this type of discussion I have with clients that results in “business casual” being defined to a person based on these considerations:
Industry: Your industry dictates an acceptable and expected appearance standard. A person in investment banking may only wear “business casual” on Fridays, and maybe only during the summer months, whereas someone in high tech will dress “business casual” every single day.
Company: Your company’s business culture further impacts what is deemed reasonable. A Wall Street investment-banking firm may have differing implicit dress standards than a Los Angeles competitor. A blue chip technology firm may have more conservative dress standards than a new start-up venture.
Position: Your position within the company indicates the importance and value of your visual brand. As a face of the company, either as a figurehead, or in a customer-facing role, there is an implicit expectation that your image is even more highly valued by your company, clients, and colleagues. Even salespeople in high tech firms, whether blue chip or start-up venture, are expected to step up his or her look over the highly important, but non customer-facing, engineers.
Personality and Goals: Your personality and goals affect the individual style you choose to wear versus another. Deep down, everyone has goals! And if you think about your own, they play a role in how to dress yourself – even when the look is “business casual.” If you want to be noticed as a team leader, or shooting for that raise and recognition, or on a day when you are presenting a new concept within your work group, it’s very likely you’ll dress “up” just a bit versus other days. Yes, it’s to give you some extra energy, and it’s also supposed to get you noticed in a good way.
Who You Are Meeting: Whom you are meeting affects a decision about what you will wear. Creating a visual rapport with what you’re wearing says a lot about you without you ever uttering a word. Show up looking like you should be playing tennis, and your client may think that’s where you prefer to be instead of taking the meeting with her or him.
Where You Are Meeting: Where you are meeting that person or group further impacts that decision. Suppose your client invited you to meet at their tennis club, and you wore your tennis outfit there, you might be dressed appropriately. But if you were in finance, it would still be better to have a jacket that you could always remove if and when the time is right.
Your Interest In Style: Your exposure to and pursuit of culture and style affects your attitude toward self-image. This isn’t about whether or not you were born with the “style gene.” It’s about your exposure to and interest in style. When you have more exposure to fashion, you’ll be more cognizant of making appropriate choices based on the abovementioned criteria. Even with less exposure, it’s entirely possible to aspire to have more style, as external style definitely transforms the way we see ourselves from the inside out.
Geography: Your geographic location implies a different type of lifestyle from another region. Just like microclimates that affect weather, the geography of where you live [and definitely where you’re traveling to] affect your needs. By geography, it could be just as local as living, working and socializing in San Francisco, where the lifestyle is younger and trendier, as compared to living in Los Altos where it’s a quiet suburban community with a focus on homelife and family.
Climate: Your climate affects the weight of fabrics and layers you wear in an outfit. Someone living in Boston has different year round clothing needs than someone living in San Jose. Boston’s cold and snowy winters aren’t something the Silicon Valley has to contend with. Even Boston’s steamy humid summers are different and necessitate different summer clothes. Comfort is defined differently when there is a temperature humidity index!
Generally, the greatest “business casual” fashion faux pas is thinking you can wear anything. How you look influences your business culture and its visual brand, and shows how much respect you pay others. This often results in under dressing, which is totally unacceptable.
“Business casual” remains an unfortunately confusing term. I advise clients that there is nothing casual – or left to chance – about your business – or your life! Dress with intention, even when the occasion or your lifestyle is seriously laid-back.
Joseph Rosenfeld helps high-profile individuals revitalize, manage, and be secure in their personal visual brand. Visit JosephRosenfeld.com for details.