Professional Attire in the Workplace: Business Casual? Bah-Humbug

It is my belief that “business casual” has been one of the biggest mistakes our society has made.  I remember years ago when it was first introduced, and I have often wondered where the idea originated from. Was it employee driven, or a “fringe benefit” created by the company?

The problem is, it is impossible to reverse a decision like this, especially in a large organization. “Business casual” is probably one of the least understood descriptions in the workplace because it is subject to such a wide spectrum of interpretation. With so many definitions, it’s easier than ever to commit a fashion faux pas that’s not only embarrassing, but also detrimental to your career.

At firstPRO, employees can come in dressed in business casual whenever they would like… on Saturdays and Sundays. I have held long and fast to that rule because people never know where to draw the line. Some may object to our strict dress code, but I guarantee that I have never lost an employee over it.

 Even with our hard and fast rules defining professional dress, I still think it is necessary several times a year to reiterate the dress policy and remind everyone to straighten up. The philosophy we preach is that bringing the element of professional attire to our dress code is a sign of respect to yourself, the company and the clients you meet with. We value those things enough to put our very best foot forward. It sets the tone for how co-workers deal with each other, the type of attitude they adopt and how they conduct business on a daily basis.

I believe that the most inappropriate items people wear to an office run the gamut from jeans and tennis shoes to skimpy and revealing clothing. Conservative is always a good rule of thumb, and more importantly, a good fit. Everything looks better if it hangs correctly and is clean and pressed.

Whether you are a male or female, purchasing classic suits in basic colors is a great start. From there you can add your own personal touch with ties, pocket scarves, a fun blouse or jewelry. It’s not necessary to have an extensive office wardrobe, but you can make several weeks worth of looks with the basics.

When characterizing “professional attire,” I use this gold standard for men and women:

• A three-piece wool or cotton suit
• A blazer or sports coat
• A tailored and pressed pant

• An assortment of dress shirts or oxford button-downs
• An overcoat or a raincoat
• A hard-soled shoe
• A leather briefcase in excellent condition
• Non-flashy sunglasses


• A tailored pantsuit or a conservative dress

• Interchangeable skirts
• An assortment of modestly cut blouses
• Sweater sets
• A quality microfiber, wool or twill all-weather coat
• A good-quality handbag, laptop case or briefcase
• Leather pumps (with no more than a 2 inch heel)
• Modest jewelry

After 20 years in this profession, I really do believe that “business casual” has become watered down to mean just about anything. Unfortunately, this is not only in the workplace, but in restaurants, live theater and church services as well. I wonder if this last generation of children will even know what it means to “dress up.”

I think that “business casual” is most evident when we travel today. Enter an airport, and it is impossible to determine who does what for a living. Not only are men dressed in golf attire, but many times their clothing is not even professionally pressed, and they look as if they’ve just played 18 holes of golf. 

I distinctly remember the day my husband and I met with our attorney of 20 years, and he greeted us in a polo shirt and slacks. I asked him if he had the day off, and he seemed shocked and explained that they were “business casual” now. Call me old-fashioned, but I want the person I am paying $400 an hour to be dressed as the professional that he is.

In the end, I would encourage all business owners to upgrade their dress code requirements and evaluate the workplace environment after 120 days.  Image is so vitally important today… whether it is our voice, our attitude, our relationship skills or our dress, we represent our companies in everything that we do. What does it take to present ourselves – and our businesses – as professional? You might be amazed at the difference it makes when you dress accordingly.

By April Fawcett Nagel

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