Ask Alexandra: What is Business Casual?

business casual, dress code, fashion advice, ask alexandra, j crew

J Crew is a good place to shop for business casual.

Hi Alexandra,

Could you please define ‘business casual’? I feel like it’s rather straight forward for men, but for women there seems to be a spectrum of what is appropriate, particularly in Vancouver. Or in that case, maybe it’s easier to define what is NOT business casual? I also find it difficult to make business casual look anything but boring, as in what trends would be appropriate to make an outfit look current?

business casual, dress code, fashion advice, ask alexandra

Some business casual looks featuring knitwear. (Image from Net A Porter magazine.)

Hi Kai,

Business casual is a professional dress code devised by a very sad, corporate person who decided suits were too formal and jeans too casual. Personally, I’d rather just wear a suit in an office because at least you know exactly what you are dealing with. I agree that it is a dress code that is quite vague.

Business casual was, for a short time, the bane of my existence. I’ve had one job where this dress code was enforced, and it was ridiculous. Our definition (and this was an “arts” school…) included no jeans, no leggings, and no “trendy” clothing. I am guessing that most companies use the “business casual” dress code so they have leverage if someone dresses like a freak. If you follow business casual, you should, in theory, look inoffensive, not too casual, and not too formal.

business casual, dress code, fashion advice, ask alexandra

A slick, modern version of business casual from COS.

But that’s also vague, so let’s get down to a few specifics for women who don’t want to wear super lame pencil skirts with boring cream coloured blouses, panty hose, and a pair of navy pumps. I also gathered a few images of looks that I’d define as business casual, without losing your soul.

DO

  • Think “half of a suit.” So blazer with less formal pants, smart skirt or trousers with blouse or sweater.
  • Go easy on the prints and patterns. That’s not say you can’t wear them, but try and tone them down by pairing them with some neutrals.
  • Accessorize, but don’t go overboard. I hate to use the term “light jewelry” but I think you guys can figure out what that means.
  • Invest in blouses and shirts, and stay warm in winter with chic knits.
  • Wear well-tailored pants or skirts.
  • Go easy on the makeup.
  • Think keywords tailored, classic, simple, chic.
business casual, dress code, fashion advice, ask alexandra

Great work dresses from Net A Porter.


DON’T

  • Do jeans. This is acceptable for some dress codes, not for others. It depends on your company, but avoid if you aren’t sure.
  • Wear anything sporty, aside from a super luxe t-shirt worn under a blazer. That means no leggings, no sweatshirt materials, no running shoes, and NO YOGA PANTS.
  • Expose too much skin. Daring necklines and mini skirts are out. You could do a mini dress, with very thick tights, but other than that, hems should be near the knee.
  • Try halters and strapless. But as you may know, I’m not really keen on strapless at all.
  • Wear anything too tight. On that note, since oversized is still a big trend, I would also suggest not to wear anything too loose. Neither is very appropriate for the office.
  • Totter in heels that are ridiculously high. It is not professional and not practical.
  • Show piercings, tattoos, or have coloured hair. Those things should be hidden!
  • Think keywords edgy, sexy, bodycon and casual.
business casual, dress code, fashion advice, ask alexandra

Banana Republic is another go-to for work attire.


If you wouldn’t be willing to wear the outfit to meet your boyfriend’s parents, it might not be appropriate as business casual. And if you WOULD wear it clubbing, I think you’ve gone too far.

I hope this helps. And I hope I never have to wear business casual again.

Any of you work in jobs with business casual dress codes? What do you wear?

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  • Erinnnnn

    I’m a business casual ho, and I’d also like to chime in that I think sleeveless dresses are a bad idea (except under a jacket or cardigan), though this rule is very often broken. Also, no excessively flared trousers (I’m talking to you, Suzy Shier shoppers!) or clunky penny loafers please, they sear my eyes.

    On another note, casual Friday does not equal Saturday, or a beach day (this means no flip flops, please.)

    I could go on…but this would turn into a long tirade.

  • alexandrasuhnerisenberg

    I totally agree on the sleeveless dresses thing, unless is 40 degrees out and your office has no aircon.

  • Lorraine Williams

    Really good article. It is always refreshing to see someone pointing out that dressing for the office is a long way from dressing for the weekend or the night club.

    And yes, I have seething hate for “business casual” for many of the same reasons as you do. But suits are way, way too formal for my office – and the rules of business casual seem to be constantly changing. Thanks for the tips.