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What to Wear: Summer Casual

In the days of “Mad Men”, there weren’t the same challenges for defining what was work attire as we face in these less-regimented days.  Suits and dresses prevailed, and summer simply meant a switch to lighter, more breathable materials.  Today, depending on the industry, one might be far less dressy on the most official of days, so judging what should constitute “summer casual” is a fairly wide gray area.

Taking away the extremes – those workplaces that expect a suit no matter what, and those where shorts, sandals and t-shirts are daily wear – here’s a look at what is likely to be acceptable for more casual summer days.  Of course, you do want to make sure if your particular workplace has an official dress code in place, as what is fine in one context might get you sent home to change in another!
One point to start with: flip-flops are not office wear; as cool and comfortable as they may be for getting around in the summer’s heat, they say “beach” and not “work”, and nearly every office rejects them.  Similarly, being dressed for a weekend watching sports on the couch, going to the gym, or cleaning out the garage, is not likely to be appreciated in any setting beyond the most casual of businesses.  This generally includes sweatpants, shorts, and t-shirts – especially logo/graphic ones not associated with one’s company.

It is unlikely to be “officially” frowned upon to go less casual, especially if you have client meetings, proposals, media events, etc. to attend to, and going “less casual” when there is a doubt, is probably the best approach – unless you’re finding on a daily basis that you’re sticking out like the one suit at a softball game.

So, what’s good for “summer casual”?  While there will obviously be differences for men and women, there seem to be some “general guidelines”, which include no denim (although there are certainly a lot of work places where jeans are daily attire), no athletic outfits – such as spandex bike gear, and no shorts.  Generally speaking, long pants, in various colors (for the guys) and patterns (for the ladies), fit into most organizations’ dress codes.  Shirts are a bit different matter … for many more traditional offices “summer casual” may mean men don’t need to always have ties and jackets, but long-sleeve shirts that stay away from noisy prints are likely to be OK, and even short-sleeve shirts in some locations.

This brings up the “skin” question.  How much is too much?  Many offices will insist that gals’ tops have sleeves, cover the shoulders, and not bare the midriff … and shorts, miniskirts, and other leg-baring bottoms are likely to be on the “no” list, depending on the nature of the business.  For guys, golf shirts might be approved summer attire (showing more arm and neck than usual), but it’s a rare organization that approves of shorts in the office.

As work and casual attires have blurred over the years, it’s good to keep a few “rules of thumb” in mind … as one commentator put it: “you need to dress for your day at work, not thinking about dressing for what you’re going to do after work” and that “if you are not sure something is acceptable, choose something else”.  It may come as something of a surprise that 63% of workplaces don’t officially relax their dress codes at all, and only 23% of HR managers report having formalized guidelines for more casual seasonal attire. Again, every workplace is different, so getting a sense of what HR approves of for work attire, and then seeing how that is actually playing out in the office, is probably your best bet.


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