What exactly defines casual in the workplace? How do we dress casually and still continue to look professional? These are the questions that need to be asked and answered if one hopes to get that high profile job and or climb the corporate ladder.
Let’s start with first things first. If you have not done so already, make sure you get a copy of your company’s dress code. I was working for a company that contracted me to present a two-day workshop for a very large national corporation. Half way through the program one of the Vice President’s came up to me and asked if I would please address proper “business casual” attire. She said that one of the big problems they were having now that it was summer was too many women wearing open toed shoes and sandals and it was strictly against company policy. The first rule when it comes to “business casual” is to know your company’s dress code. If your company has the dress code printed up they are usually very happy to share a copy with you. Make sure you request one.
Dress codes will differ from one company to another and from one region to the next. They may even vary among different departments within one company, depending on the amount of direct communication that each department has with clients. For example, what’s appropriate in the art department may differ from what works for the sales department. To determine how you personally should dress “business casual” examine the type of company for which you work. Is it a store, a bank, an insurance company? What’s your role in the company? Do you work at a computer all day or are you frequently out making sales calls? Are you a boss or an assistant? What kind of day do you have planned? These are all factors that will greatly influence what you wear. Make sure your outfit is appropriate for the occasion.
If your company has an extremely casual dress code but you will be calling on customers all day, find out what the dress code is for each company you will be calling on and then wear an outfit that will be appropriate for the company with the most rigid dress code. You can always take off a tie or jacket as long as you have one with you. Men make fewer mistakes when it comes to business casual because they have fewer options to choose from. But even though your company may have a very relaxed dress code, there are still some big no-nos to keep in mind.
Ladies and gentlemen do not wear:
- Sweatshirts/pants or exercise clothing
- Torn, faded, frayed, ripped, colored or too-tight jeans
- T-shirts with sayings, slogans, cartoon characters or emblems
- Beachwear of any kind
- Facial or body piercings
- Clothes that are too baggy or too tight
- Too much jewelry or jewelry that’s noisy
- Unpolished shoes
- Beach shoes, flip flops, hiking boots or athletic shoes
Ladies do not wear:
- Leggings, shorts, capri pants
- Panties showing
- No tops that expose the midrift
- Skirts or dresses with high-cut slits, or shorter than 3 inches above the knee
- Tank tops, halters, skimpy sundresses, spaghetti straps, sarongs
- Anything low cut, too tight, see-through or glittery
- Bare legs or exposed toes
- Shiny, glittery, brightly colored, fishnet, rear-seamed or overly patterned stockings
- Stilletos, open-toed shoes or sandals, thigh high boots
Gentlemen do not wear:
- Hawaiian shirts
- Baseball caps or hats
- Shoes with no socks
- Shirts without collars
Now that you know what to avoid, let’s discuss some casual staples you should have, especially if you plan to move up the corporate ladder.
Soft-sided handbags, scarves, sling-back pumps and woven leather flats are great choices for accenting more casual clothes. A roomy tote can also double as a casual briefcase. Always keep in mind that accessories are supposed to accent, not overwhelm.
Sweater sets are casually elegant. Pair them with an unmatched long skirt to further deconstruct a suited look. (Wearing a skirt and top in matching colors will create a dressier image.) Stylish—not sloppy—oversized shirts can be worn over a plain T-shirt. Buy the highest quality tee you can find. Heavy weight cotton, silk, rayon or even cashmere tees are great for the office. Pant suits, dress and jacket combinations as well as sweaters with skirts are some of the new office standards. Make sure your wardrobe contains both black and navy pants.
If you find it difficult to break away from tradition, try wearing a cotton or linen suit with a tee and flat shoes. A black or navy tailored pant suit paired with a simple tee and a silk scarf looks terrific and can be dressed up or down just by changing the accessories. Oversized shirts, twinsets, and long, knit cardigans are good alternatives to jackets.
A simple sheath or T-shirt style dress with flat shoes can be a perfect casual solution. Long skirts are more casual than knee length skirts. Remember, hosiery is almost always a must.
Business Casual staples for men include shirts with collars, khakis, blazers, v-necked sweaters and vests, belts to match your shoes, turtlenecks to wear under your blazer, a nice pair of dark denim pants, loafers and a nice watch.
Let's start with the blazer. The MVP staple for every man's business casual wardrobe is the navy blazer. A navy blazer smartly cut is the man's fashion workhorse. You can't go wrong with a navy blazer. As for women the blazer for men creates a more professional look and adds instant respectability to your outfit. It can be worn with khakis, loose trousers or blue jeans, paired with a turtleneck, belt and loafers. To switch things up a bit one should also have a Tweed Sport Coat. Add a scarf with this sport coat and you really don't need outer wear on those nice autumn, early winter days.
Sweaters make a nice alternative to a jacket. Make sure that you buy solid colors. And make sure they are able to be worn easily over a dress shirt as well as layered under a jacket. The two sweater types you are looking for are the V-neck and the cardigan. Make sure you do not button the bottom buttons on the cardigan.
You want to make sure all your shirts have collars. You can go from an Oxford button-down to a polo shirt under a jacket depending on the level of casual. Allow a bit of color to come into your wardrobe here. Casual shirts are a great place to add color accents. Depending on the level of casual you may opt to go with no jacket and get a fitted patterned button down shirt or a more daring shirt. Just make sure that the sleeves on the long sleeve shirt hit at the wrist.
According to GQ magazine your pants should be dressed up Khakis with a flat front and only a slight break. If denim is allowed make sure you only wear dark denim. Your denim should look every bit as professional as your dress pants.
Socks are a must. Do not come to work with no socks unless you work on the beach. Your socks are one of the areas where you can really let your personality shine through. But make sure that the color of your sock ties into the color of your outfit. You want your personality to shine through not poor taste in socks to be what they remember.
Ties may or may not be appropriate. But it is always better to take one with you in case you need it than to not have one if you do.
Make sure your shoes and belts are in leather and that your shoes are shined and in good condition. You can't go wrong with a nice polished loafer.
Proper grooming is the top means by which people judge your self-esteem. Make sure you are well groomed at all times whether in formal attire or business casual attire.
Proper grooming for both men and women include:
- Hair clean and neat—men make sure any facial hair is trimmed
- Fingernails trimmed and clean and proper length
- Clothes are cleaned and neatly pressed and fit properly
- No missing buttons, no lint and all hems in place
- Shoes polished and not worn looking
- No odors on clothing such as cigarette smoke
- No animal hair on clothing
- No static cling
- Use cologne and perfume sparingly if at all
While there is no secret formula that will work for every person in every situation, when in doubt, you may be helped by asking yourself whether or not a questionable outfit retains your professional image while permitting you to enjoy a more relaxed wardrobe. If it meets that basic requirement, you are off to a great start. Despite the more relaxed options offered by the popularity of business casual in the workplace, one thing will always remain true: you still make your strongest impression based on the way you present yourself. And we all know that you never get a second chance to make a first impression. Choose wisely!
Debbie Darling, ©2014 The Presentation Pros
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