Interpreting Corporate Dress Codes: Business Casual

by: Danielle Ternyila, Zyia Active Independent Rep

While “Casual Fridays” may hold a special place in our hearts, the need for business casual is not completely unwarranted in the business world. Various dress codes can be placed and enforced in the workplace, and as the employee, it is our concern to abide by these policies and present ourselves with the appropriate level of professionalism.

Business Casual is a very common dress code I have found myself building wardrobes around since high school when I started visiting my mom’s office after school for my first “part-time” gig. While all companies decide on their own dress codes to describe in the sacred employee handbook, there are keywords that can easily indicate the expectations of the company, so you can understand exactly what is appropriate and what will not be for your new job (or just the ‘new you’ if you’re just on your next shopping bender for your ole’ 9-5!)

Dress Conservative

#813 Lilac Parallel Tank

Unless your role and company requires you to stand out (perhaps a fashion designer or a Queen), most dress codes will strive for conservative attire, meaning more formal and modest clothing choices. This refers not to just how revealing a piece is but also adherence to tradition and the tone that has already been set; if most people in the office wear blazers and jackets, you should also wear something similar.

Most people also gravitate toward neutral colors, tans, whites, or blacks and navy’s, that tend to blend in among the crowd and are easy to style, but this doesn’t mean you have to completely shy away from your favorite pink blouse or a stand-out dress that still aligns with your business casual company policies. When I want to dress my most modest, I go to the Parallel Tank first, for example, as it provides great coverage, has a full-length hem, and gentle support that flatters but does cling to your figure.

Customer-Serving Employees/Events Should Present Clear and Presentable in Appearance

#688 Black Everywhere Pants

It’s important to represent the company as your best self, so when you know you will be seeing customers or clients, it is essential that you dress most professional in these instances. Your best business casual wardrobe should include suits/skirts, dress pants, dresses, jackets/blazers, cardigans, and your nicest blouses.

In other words, look tidy and put together, not like you just ran from your third-shift position as a hockey referee and through the sprinklers before you clock in to the office. To make my own life easier, I always reach for my Everywhere Pants in these instances (above) because they are anti-wrinkle and water resistant, so they always look great, even if I had to run through the parking lot to make it to a meeting and spilled some tea a while back in the car.

Smart Casual Is Preferred

#5094 Distressed Blue Ankle Cinch Hi-Rise 7/8 24″

If your office boosts a smart casual dress code as opposed to the business casual you’ve grown accustomed to, appreciate the balance between a polished business professional look in the comfort of more casual pieces. Smart casual refers to something just a little bit more casual than the other offices before, quite progressive for a post-pandemic world! You can incorporate some of your more casual and comfortable articles of clothing into your office outfits while still dressing your best.

I’d expect in a smart casual office setting, you could get away with something like the Distressed Blue Ankle Cinch Hi-Rise in my activewear boutique (above) and a nice bootie, or you could even a pair of comfortable slip-on’s and a long cardigan.

No Yoga/Sweat Pants

#1096 Black Metallic Light n Tight Hi-Rise 7/8 24″

This is not a policy I take lightly as a part-time activewear rep, and there is a fine line between properly accessorizing athleisure wear for the office and stinking up the cubicles in your old alma mater sweats. When we see yoga pants listed on the no-no list, that indicates that it is important to be at your most presentable; booty-enhancing or bright tight leggings are a few of the things HR wants to avoid, but matte leggings paired with a lengthy sweater dress or Metallic Light N Tights (above) add a touch of personality to a draping blouse and cardigan that can look just as business casual as your dress slacks and cardigan.

Be considerate in what you are wearing if you do choose to seek the comfort of athleisure wear in your business casual wardrobe. My rule of thumb for leggings, specifically, is to cover the bum and pair with more conservator blouse or cardigan options to avoid any scrutiny.

Take a Deeper Look Into the Specifics

If you’re ever unsure about your dress code, there is nothing smarter than simply asking your HR representative for some guidance; that’s what they are there for, and if anything else, to dress for success, some suggest you dress like your boss; mimic their fashion choices in your own.

Appropriate Tops According to Policy

  • Suits and/or coats and ties is a specific example your company may call out in their employee style guidelines, but it is also helps describe their expectations. For women, this can send mixed messages about what may be appropriate, though this can also indicate that blazers or cardigans will play an essential role in your closet. Be sure to consider what others wear around you in the office.
  • Polo, Crewneck, and Collared Tops are safe go-to’s for the office, but you could also consider high-neck blouses, sweaters, or button-up’s. What isn’t appropriate would be see-through or revealing pieces, t-shirts or “torn” looking tops, and anything showing distracting, inappropriate or racy graphics (even if it’s a really cool vintage band tee).

Appropriate Bottoms for Business Professionals

  • Casual Slacks would be considered pants or bottoms that resemble your traditional dress pants; they should not be tight-fitted or elastic like your gym sweats or clubbing outfits. If the dress code indicates for a more casual approach, this could also include a thoughtfully designed pair of denim bottoms, so long as they are not blue, tight, or appear casual in any way.
  • Dress Slacks specifically are a more formal pair of pants and shouldn’t be confused with jeans, yoga pants, or shorts.
  • Skirts and Dresses should be of an appropriate length; mini-skirts, skorts, or any tight little skirt better suited for a vacation to Miami Beach are never the answer, but with careful accessorizing and perhaps a pair of stockings, a long flowy or pencil skirt can be a great alternative to pants in the office.

Footwear for the Office

Flip-flops, crocs, mud boots, your hiking shoes, and smelly gym sneakers are not often acceptable in the office setting, but you could still get away with a stylish boot that goes with a nice jacket and blouse or your sparkling-like-new tennis shoes. Clean athletic shoes or more casual slip-on’s can also work, but be mindful of what others wear in the office too as a guide.

There remains the other shoes you can wear too: the heels, sandals, flats, or in the more casual setting some stylish boat shoes. Depending on the outfit you’re working with, I’m convinced you can make any shoe work, unless you work somewhere that requires closed toe or steel-dipped shoes (then don’t break any rules for your own safety!)

Casual Friday’s

Not every company chooses to have a dress-down day, but if your HR team does allow this, remember to continue dressing to impress in the most “business casual” fashion you can; this is still not the day to wear your track pants and old faded hoodies or funny T-shirts. Take advantage of this day by wearing your favorite jeans if that’s what you desire, but avoid drawing attention to yourself by getting too comfortable. If the CEO or President of your company bumped into you in the lunch room that day, would you feel appropriate in what you wore? Keep that in mind when you get yourself ready for another Fri-yay!

Take a look at some of my favorite office outfits and business casual must-haves from my activewear boutique.