What Is Business Casual? My Personal Intro
15 years ago I was offered my dream job (at the time). It was exciting, but working through the logistics was somewhat stressful. I would be attending training for my first two weeks, far from home. “Please arrive prior to 8 AM on June 24th. The dress code is business casual.” Huh? After getting other important details, I hung up with the HR rep and immediately walked over to my closet. What on earth does business casual mean?
It was three weeks before I started my very first corporate job, and I was so stressed about “what to wear”. At my former job as a store manager, I wore a uniform shirt with black pants and black shoes every single day. I never had to put any thought into it. As long as my clothes were clean and wrinkle free, I was good to go.
As I surveyed my closet, I quickly realized that I didn’t have too many “nice” clothes, definitely not any that I would have wanted to show up wearing on my first day. Everything was way too casual. A nice assortment of sundresses and lacy tank tops were the best options. Definitely not appropriate though, because it was a summer wardrobe. I loved to hang out at the beach or in a friend’s back yard. Everything was pretty low cut or skimpy.
Time to Shop (Woohoo!)
For what though? What on earth would I be shopping for? Many individuals in various positions and professions are provided with a clear definition of the expected dress for work, such as a uniform, suit or dress suit, costume or OSHA required equipment, e.g., steel toe boots and a hard hat. I feel those are the easiest to dress for.
I started asking around and quickly found that there tends to be quite a bit of latitude in the business casual realm and this can cause quite a bit of stress for someone who is starting a new job. In one organization, business casual can mean a button down and tie with pressed slacks is the daily expectation, whereas another organization will call for a nice golf polo and khakis.
The Corporate Handbook
I called the HR rep back and asked if they had a dress code guide. He said it was in the corporate handbook he had just put in the mail for me. Once it arrived, I quickly thumbed through and found the section on attire. The rules laid out in the corporate handbook were very similar to my high school dress code and pretty obvious to me. No denim, spaghetti straps, bare midriffs, sneakers, open toed shoes, etc. Unfortunately, nothing was clearly defined beyond that. Were khakis okay? Could I wear a button down shirt or polo? I knew that I wanted to fit in, especially being a very young, newbie professional. I definitely did not want to leave a bad impression simply because I was dressed inappropriately.
A trip to the local bookstore allowed me to browse through a few books, but I found that they were outdated and their suggestions applied more to the headquarters folks in the company, where everyone wore a suit or dress suit everyday. There was literally a two page chapter on business casual dress in one of the books. It was pathetic and frustrating. Searching on the internet turned up suggestions that ran the gamut. Some of the outfit suggestions seemed like a better fit for a day at the beach or a night at the bar, than an important meeting with my future management.
Lights, Camera, Action!
In the end, I decided to opt for a very conservative set of outfits for week one. I was basically following our headquarters dress code, but without the full suit get up. Some button down shirts and a few blouses with black pants. I added a suit jacket for good measure. It worked out very well and after a few days of exposure to my new colleagues, I was able to figure out a general expectation and gather good ideas for acceptable attire.
The following weekend, I went out and began to build what would become a nice, flexible wardrobe that I was proud of.
In the coming posts in this section, I will provide some of the guidelines that now I live by when dressing for work.
Please feel free to add your comments and stories below! Share this with a recent graduate or someone else who’s a corporate newbie.