At once ubiquitous and indefinite, “Business Casual” has a spectrum of definitions, depending on the specifics of the setting. A corporate law firm’s “business casual” might be as formal as jacket-and-no-tie, while a tech start-up might consider something verging on beach wear “close enough”. Opinions will also vary on who you ask. A company’s HR department might have a specific list of approved parameters for what “look” they want in various situations (and this is a good thing to find out), while the salesperson down at the department store is likely to be pushing outfits that may cost you more than what’s really necessary to achieve that look.
Of course, as with most clothing issues outside of the military, there are extremely different sets of acceptable outfits for men and women, with further expectations and “corporate culture” norms in operation. One can, however, start out looking at “business casual” by drawing the boundary lines for what it is, pretty much across all settings, not … and these limits are remarkably similar for both genders.
On the “too casual” end is the shorts, t-shirt, and flip-flops outfit. While popular with people spending 80 hours a week coding (and sleeping under their desks), this is unlikely to pass the “business casual” test even at the most edgy firm. While guys and gals can both get away with this at the beach or ballpark, it’s hard to justify it at a mixer with clients or venture investors.
On the “too formal” end is, of course, the expensively tailored conservative business suit, men’s or women’s. While this is unlikely to produce embarrassing social situations, it can create a barrier in more informal settings (and, who’s going to be comfortable being “the suit” at a picnic?).
In between these extremes lies the vast landscape of possible “business casual” options, a landscape that is, unfortunately, strewn with potential “land mines” of varying opinion.
A prime example of the “depends on who you ask” hazards is men’s pants. Most sources say that jeans are out (perhaps a “casual Friday” dress-down from “business casual”), although in tech and academia, this might not be a problem. Some even hold that khakis are “too casual” to classify as “business casual”, although this is frequently opted for over black, brown, or grey “non-suit” pants.
Generally, for the guys, one is unlikely to have problems with a shirt that one would usually wear a tie with, combined with a pair of dark slacks. While this might look a tad formal for an office off on the “casual” side of the scale, it will still fit. Again, knowing what a specific office or group tends to wear will give you the best guidance … and it’s probably only the ones on the far “less casual” end of things that would consider khakis unacceptable.
As everybody can appreciate, the question can be a lot more complicated for women. Where guys (unless they’re real “clothes-horses”) have a fairly set scale of casual-business-formal outfits, and won’t change for the bar or even the nightclub, a well-stocked closet of multitudinous outfits presents a lot more options, without clear-cut guidelines in many situations.
Again, there are certain parameters which separate the OK from the risqué, including fairly sensible suggestions for cut and style. While slacks are probably preferred in many cases, this does not rule out wearing skirts, as long as they are conservatively at or below the knee, not particularly tight, nor sporting dramatic slits. Tops can be in a variety of colors and cuts, as long as they likewise are not overly tight, or revealing of much skin. These certainly don’t have to be the ladies’ version of the guys’ button-down Oxfords (although these would be classic), but they also shouldn’t veer into “clubwear”.
For both men and women, blazers, jackets, and (weather appropriate) sweaters can fit in to a “business casual” look quite well … although guys might want to avoid black pants and a navy blazer as looking a bit like they just took off the tie they were wearing with a suit. Obviously, sports wear (team logo items), hoodies, and jackets more appropriate for motorcycle riding should probably be avoided, unless these fit the individual “style” of a given workplace or gathering. When it’s the middle of the hot months, going without a jacket is a blessing, and no doubt much envied by those whose office stylings demand a suit.
Another concern is footwear … and this is also highly dependent on the atmosphere in which you’re going to be active. While “puttering around the garden” shoes and “going out for a run” shoes are pretty evidently not going to be part of one’s “business casual” wardrobe (let alone those ever-so-comfortable bunny slippers), one is also not likely to want to put in wear-and-tear on one’s top-of-the-line shoes that go with a suit or other formal attire. Here too, “Style may be in the eye of the beholder, but business casual is in the eye of the boss.”1, so your mileage may vary when it comes to boots, and various styles of informal shoes. Shooting for the middle range is never a mistake, giving you time to figure out what is acceptable in a particular setting.
Needless to say, getting dressed for work in the morning shouldn’t have to involve philosophical arguments, but if one is able to focus one’s wardrobe choices on a “middle path” that fits most people’s descriptions of “business casual” (as variable as these may be), one should be “in the sweet spot” for office attire.