You’ve been working at home for a year—wearing loungewear, for the most part—and are getting ready to return to the office, and you’ve just been told the dress code has been relaxed from business casual to casual. Or, maybe you’re starting a new job, and you’ve been informed the dress code is formal. Confused? Read on to learn the difference between casual, business casual, and formal dress in the workplace.
Although many companies have relaxed their dress requirements in recent years, business formal is still the norm in certain lines of work.
Formal business wear for men means a two- or three-piece suit in a dark, neutral color such as black, gray, or navy. The suit doesn’t have to be a truly solid, but any pattern should be muted—think pinstripe or glen check. Suits are always worn with dress shirts. Traditionally, men’s dress shirts were always white or light blue, although the rules have relaxed enough that additional pastels—think yellow, beige, and even pink—are considered acceptable. Neckties are also a part of formal business attire for men, although options abound, from stripes to paisleys to abstract designs. Ideally, the tie should pick up a color from the shirt, the suit, or both. With respect to socks, men should generally match the color to that of their pants. Formal business wear includes leather-sole dress shoes such as oxfords, loafers, or wingtips.
Suits are also appropriate for women’s formal business wear, but women have more options. Whereas the lapels in men’s suit jackets are pretty much limited to peak or notched lapels, women’s suit jackets also come with shawl collars, mandarin collars, or even no collar at all. Women’s suits come in a greater range of colors, as well, that extend beyond neutrals to greens, reds, burgundies, and even pinks. Similarly, women have more options when it comes to blouses, which come in a range of designs, from a button-down to drape neck and more. Of course, you can’t go wrong with a women’s white blouse. Suit bottoms can consist of either a pair of pants or a knee-length skirt. The pump or loafer is the traditional go-to shoe for women when it comes to formal attire; again, neutral colors are preferred, and the heel height is a personal choice. Jewelry should be simple.
Business casual is a notch down from business formal. This means ditching the suit and opting for dress pants or even chinos with a sports jacket or blazer for men. Although button-down shirts are still the norm, men have more options for colors and patterns, including brighter hues and bolder designs, including wide stripes, gingham checks, and plaids. In cooler weather, crew- and V-neck sweaters may be worn over a collared shirt. Some workplaces may still require men to wear a necktie, but men may choose to wear bowties instead. Business casual also offers men the chance to veer away from solid socks and express their individuality more by wearing socks with patterns and colors other than neutrals. Shoes are more casual as well; popular choices include boat shoes and other rubber-sole shoes.
Women’s business casual wear is also more relaxed. Styles for dresses are less fitted, and patterns start to get a bit brighter. Blazers are often swapped out for cardigans. Dress pants give way to women's chino pants. Footwear options also broaden, with women choosing to wear a variety of flats and heels. Boots and ankle booties also make appearances in a business casual workplace. Depending on the company, open-toe shoes may or may not be an option.
Of the three workwear styles, casual is the least dressy, but there are general rules both men and women should follow. It’s acceptable to wear jeans to the office, but avoid faded jeans; instead, stick with a darker wash or even black jeans. Additionally, jeans should never be ripped or frayed or have holes. Save your favorite rugby shirt with the hole under the arm and the spaghetti sauce stain on the collar for when you’re lazing about the house.
When it comes to tops, T-shirts are okay but skip the graphic designs (unless they have your company’s logo, of course). Instead, choose solids, stripes, or other patterns. Like T-shirts, men’s and women’s polo shirts come in a wide range of colors and patterns and are appropriate for business casual wear, as are Henley and other collarless shirts.
Women can wear a wider range of dress styles, including fit and flare dresses and shirt dresses. The same goes for skirts. Hemlines can rise to just above the knee, but you still need to be able to sit at a desk without having your dress or skirt ride up too high.
Footwear is also more casual; sneakers are definitely a go-to option, but make sure they’re clean. Wear the pair with the hole in the toe when you’re running errands after work. Office dress code permitting, sandals, or other open-toes shoes are also an option, but flip-flops are a definite no. There is such a thing as too casual, and flip-flops are it.
Regardless of your office dress code, you can always dress up but never down. You can choose to wear a suit even if your workplace is casual. However, you’d never wear jeans in a business formal setting. Follow the guidelines above, and you’ll be appropriately and stylishly dressed.