How to Crack the Business-Casual Dress Code

Last Updated Sep 25, 2008 3:52 PM EDT

Business casual. Casual Fridays. Relaxed dress. Argh! Do these all represent the same style of dressing, or are they distinct sartorial rules? Although the workplace has relaxed its dress code over the past couple of decades, the stress of knowing how to dress correctly has gone up.

Some employees get chastised for wearing Bermuda shorts in a business-casual workplace, while others have no problems wearing flip-flops to work. And there's a broad spectrum of gray when it comes to casual. Dockers are fine -- if they're not horribly wrinkled. Tank tops are a no-no, but where do you draw the line at cleavage? Jeans are okay if they're clean and neat. Or are they?

Luckily, cracking your company's code can be accomplished by applying a little research and a dash of common sense. Here are some tips and guidelines on how to be casually appropriate in any workplace.

When in Rome... It's not a cliche for nothing. Take a look at what people around you are wearing and take your cues from them. Model your outfits after key people in the company. Err on the conservative side, especially if you interact with clients or the public. If you're still confused, talk with HR.

Think about the impression your appearance makes. As Donald Trump says, how you present yourself speaks volumes. Neatly pressed khakis and a crisp button-down shirt create a very different image than rumpled pants and a shirt that looks like it came from a heap on your closet floor. If you're sartorially challenged, some simple changes can help upgrade your look.

Pay attention to the details. You should look as neat and clean as possible. Clothes should be free of wrinkles, stains, rips or frayed seams. Shoes, belts, briefcases and handbags should be well-maintained. Personal grooming is important: stubble on men can look stylish or sloppy, so be sure you know which image you're projecting. Too much makeup on women can look garish, so think subtle, not sleazy. But don't skip it completely; women who wear makeup earn 20 to 30 percent higher incomes than those who don't.

Follow trends -- with caution. While relaxed dress codes allow you to embrace contemporary styles, it's better to combine traditional with trendy than to be completely au courant. But don't completely ignore current fashion, or you'll look dated and obsolete.

See? It's not so hard. But if you still need help, the BNet video below details how all levels of employees can dress for success.

  • CC Holland

    CC Holland is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and a number of national magazines. Online, she was a columnist for and writes regularly for and BNET. On the other side of the journalism desk, she's been a managing editor for ZDNet, CNet, and KCBS-TV in Los Angeles, where she earned an APTRA Best News Web Site award.