Appropriate Attire: Defining Business Casual

More and more businesses have adopted a business casual dress code, but exactly what business casual means changes from one company to the next . . . and even from one situation to the next.

Don't rely on Hollywood to tell you what is appropriate for work. Tight clothes, exposed thighs or midriffs, and lots of cleavage are not appropriate in the workplace, regardless of what you see people wearing on TV. Here are some general guidelines for dressing in business casual.

Business casual for men:

  • Shirts: Conservative long-sleeve dress shirts are your safest bet, but golf shirts and polo shirts are often also appropriate, especially if they bear your company's logo. Regardless of what shirt you wear, tuck it in!

  • Ties: Ties generally are not necessary for business casual wear, but you must consider whom you will interact with. If you're meeting with customers or clients, a tie will project a professional attitude; if you're spending your day at the desk, dealing only with coworkers, lose the tie and relax a little. Keeping a couple of ties at your desk "just in case" isn't a bad idea.

  • Pants: A nice pair of slacks, chinos, or khakis is always acceptable business casual attire. Leave the sweat pants, lounge pants, Spandex, and shorts at home. Jeans are generally considered casual, but not business casual — leave them at home or save them for dress-down Fridays.

  • Feet: Wear dark socks with decent, well-kept shoes. Sandals, sneakers, and flip-flops are not wise choices.

Business casual for women:

  • Tops: Women have a great many choices in this area. Stick to solid colors or conservative patterns. Stay away from T-shirts, tops that are too tight, and tops that show a lot of cleavage if you want to be taken seriously.

  • Jewelry: If you wear jewelry at all, err on the side of conservative — a simple watch, one pair of earrings, one necklace. The office is no place for conspicuous consumption. Also avoid jangly bracelets; the noise is distracting.

  • Pants and skirts: Slacks and pant suits in neutral, solid colors will never steer you wrong. Skirts to the knee or longer are also acceptable, as long as they aren't too tight or slit up too high. Avoid shorts, skorts, mini skirts, sweat pants, lounge pants, and Spandex.

  • Feet: Wear sensible yet stylish shoes. Pumps and low-heeled shoes are great. Avoid open-toed shoes, sandals, high heels, sneakers, and flip-flops.

Although these rough guidelines can steer you toward acceptable dress, supervisors, managers, and executives have their own ideas about what is appropriate, both for themselves and for their employees. Generally speaking, the higher you climb up the corporate ladder, the more formal your garb should be.

In the end, dressing appropriately for work, an interview, or a job fair is mostly a matter of common sense. Just remember that it's easier to loosen up if you're overdressed than it is to fancy up a too-casual ensemble.