Business casual is, quite simply, the devil. We all hate it. Especially when our choices may affect business outcomes, at meetings with powerful insiders, or outings with large customers.
It’s a tricky devil too. Business casual doesn’t mean more casual than your workweek clothes, but what it does mean isn’t clearly specified anywhere. Not for women, at least, especially not in male-prevalent industries. I won’t say male-dominated. Let’s just imagine a neutral playing field, otherwise known as Fake It Till We Make It.
So don’t call your female colleague and ask what she’s wearing. Go where the boys are, over to the right, and up a tad. Here’s what I mean.
The 4 Rules For Business Casual – In Male-Prevalent Industries
- Ask yourself, what will the boys be wearing?
- Anchor your outfit in one aspect of their get up, vary the rest.
- Go one notch more polished.
- Adjust for the overall girly quotient of your outfit, i.e. balance polo shirts against skirts, khakis against ruffles, and polka dots against earth tones.
Some examples. First let’s look at an “offsite,” held in your corporate offices for budget reasons, held on a Saturday just because. You’re in an industry like finance or law where you wear suits for the work week.
They wear khakis, you do the same, in a tailored, elegant, ankle length. They wear the ubiquitous blue blazer, you a cardigan. This way you look intentional. Too close to the boys’ gear and you look more like you’re in a costume. Too far and you take yourself out of the ring. Put on earrings you wouldn’t usually wear to work, to indicate you noticed it’s Saturday. Extra hint: khaki looks great with black.
Alternatively, let’s say your company sponsors a customer lunch reception at a national sporting event. The guys arrive in polos, khaki shorts, and sockless loafers. You wear a fitted polo in a boy color, but pair it with a flippant skirt and ruffled thongs. Interesting use of color variations adds style without the risk of distracting from your first priority, business.
(We will leave polka dots to the under-35, all the while supporting their audacity.)
And finally, sometimes you’re casual with your team, and it’s almost true casual. You meet at your colleague’s house for a barbecue. The hierarchy crumbles, for a day. Guys throw caution to the wind and show up in their 15-year old metal shirt. Or the Harvard tee. Or, if techies, the Linux logo they got at that really cool conference.
Here, although you’re almost among friends, hang onto a small, silent scaffolding of business consciousness. Unless you’ve known these guys for 15 years, and met their wives, held their babies, cried in their offices, don’t join them in jeans and your own metal tee.
Wear shorts if it’s summer, long enough for decorum, a ruffle here and there. Of course, if anyone’s coming in their Crimson, pull out the Tiger equivalent, slightly shrunken to differentiate.
School pride trumps gender. And Linux love trumps everything - technical types get a special dispensation from all of this.
Business casual is so tough because business is not, in fact, casual. If you want to rise through the ranks in most corporations, you will find that the higher up you get, the more you will need your battle-fighting capacity. Silly to waste it supporting an inappropriate wardrobe.