Fashion Q & A
Defining "Business Casual"

Q: Terms like "business casual", "smart casual", "sport casual" and "dressy casual" are listed on dress policies, conference registrations and social invitations with little, if any, explanation of what each means. Can you give some clear definitions? Thanks!

A: Knowing how to dress these days for any situation takes thought, with the stakes for knowing when to wear what in business being particularly high. The PowerPoint presentation we use during the professional image seminars we deliver for corporate clients includes a slide called "Dressing to the Fives." It allows us to generally define the five types of dress commonly worn for business today while giving participants in a particular training session specific ideas for practicing it well in their industry.

While our list does not cover every specific term you mentioned above, it should provide a solid roadmap — Good luck!

#1   Traditional Business Attire. Suits with shirts and ties for men; skirts, pants, dress tops and dresses with jackets for women. Of course sports jackets with dress slacks, shirts and ties also serve men well in this category. Likewise, business dresses with full shoulder coverage worn without a jacket are acceptable for women in this category as well. Professional and more conservative accessories — footwear, hosiery, belts, jewelry etc. — are the best choice with this level of dress.

#2   Classic Business Casual. One step down from the traditional level yet still very pulled together and professional. Non-tie options for men with or without a sports coat; well-coordinated business separates for both men and women. This is the most challenging level of dress to understand and master because the range of what is appropriate is so wide. Our best advice is to think business first, casual second and pay extra attention to the details that complete your look (i.e. necklines, hemlines, shoes and other accessories and grooming standards that compliment, not detract, from your overall professionalism.)

#3   Relaxed Business Casual. Some industries practice this level of dress every day of the week while others regulate it to Friday’s only. Jeans, khakis, polo shirts, sneakers, Capri-style pants and sandals for women in the summer and sometimes shorts are allowed in this level of dress. Before you opt to don this style of dress at work or at a conference, be sure it has been clearly communicated that it is in fact okay. This level of dress is also often referred by conference planners as “resort casual.”

#4   Dressed-up Casual. What you wear to evening office functions that don't require a suit, cocktail dress or other formal business attire. For men, a navy blazer over khaki pants with a dress shirt or even a polo shirt in warmer months is standard. You can remove the jacket easily but still have it if you feel you need it. For women, dress skirts, pants and dresses paired with stylish (yet not overly revealing) tops and sweaters are the way to go. Dressy jewelry and dress sandals can add an appropriate, after-hours flair when coordinated well with some business basics already in your wardrobe. A black suit that includes a pant, dress and skirt option is a great way for women to build this level of dress in their wardrobes.

#5   Black Tie Attire. Some have a need for this in business, others do not. Purchasing or renting a high-quality tuxedo is the way to go for men with this need. Women have expanded options today. Sometimes a long dress is the way to go, other times, a shorter style is appropriate. Seeking professional help to figure out what is best for you for a black tie event for work is often a wise decision to help cut through the myriad of options and ensure you are making a good choice for yourself professionally.