What is Business Casual in 2023? Give Your Office Outfit a Gut Check

The term "business casual" has been around for decades, but its definition is constantly evolving. In 2023, as many companies settle into hybrid work arrangements, business casual is the dominant dress code in most office settings. But what exactly does it mean? And how can you ensure you‘re always dressed appropriately for work without losing your sense of personal style?

In this guide, we‘ll deconstruct the business casual dress code and arm you with practical tips for building a polished, professional wardrobe. Consider this your ultimate gut check for office outfits in 2023.

The Rise of Business Casual

Before we dive into the specifics of what qualifies as business casual today, let‘s take a step back and look at how this dress code came to be. The concept of "business casual" first emerged in the 1970s as a marketing ploy by Levi Strauss & Co. to sell more of its Dockers khaki pants. But it wasn‘t until the dot-com boom of the 1990s that business casual really took off, as a new generation of tech companies rejected traditional corporate culture in favor of a more laid-back atmosphere.

Fast forward to 2023, and business casual has become the norm across industries. According to a recent survey by staffing firm Robert Half, 79% of companies now allow a business casual dress code, up from 63% just five years ago. Even traditionally buttoned-up fields like finance and law have loosened their collar stays, so to speak.

The pandemic dramatically accelerated this trend, as extended periods of working from home led many to reevaluate the need for strict sartorial standards. "The shift to remote work has blurred the lines between our professional and personal lives, and that includes our wardrobes," says fashion psychologist Dr. Dawnn Karen. "Comfort and functionality are now top priorities for workwear."

Decoding the Business Casual Dress Code

So now that business casual is the prevailing standard, what exactly does it entail? The short answer is that it‘s a step down in formality from traditional business attire, but a clear step up from casual streetwear. The goal is to project an appropriate level of professionalism while allowing some room for personal expression and comfort.

However, that still leaves quite a bit of gray area. Is a collared shirt always required? Are jeans ever acceptable? How much accessorizing is too much? The specific guidelines often vary by company and industry, which can make deciphering the dress code feel like navigating a sartorial minefield.

To help clear up the confusion, we‘ve compiled this handy checklist of business casual do‘s and don‘ts:

Do:

  • Opt for well-fitting, wrinkle-free garments in good condition
  • Stick to neutral colors like navy, charcoal, white and khaki
  • Choose structured, tailored silhouettes over anything too loose or tight
  • Invest in a few versatile, high-quality basics that can be mixed and matched
  • Dress up or down depending on your agenda for the day
  • Err on the side of overdressing if you‘re unsure

Don‘t:

  • Wear anything ripped, stained, wrinkled or otherwise unkempt
  • Show too much skin via low necklines, short hemlines or sheer fabrics
  • Rely on graphic tees, hoodies or other overly casual items
  • Dress in head-to-toe trends that will quickly look dated
  • Neglect the details like accessories, grooming and footwear
  • Assume that "casual" means "anything goes"

While specific policies vary by workplace, these general guidelines will steer you in the right direction. When in doubt, it‘s always better to be slightly overdressed than underdressed. As the saying goes, "dress for the job you want, not the job you have."

The Benefits of Business Casual

So why have so many companies embraced business casual dress codes? It‘s not just about keeping up with changing fashion trends. Research shows that allowing employees some leeway in their workwear can have significant benefits for both individuals and organizations.

For one, dressing comfortably can boost productivity and creativity. A study published in the journal Human Resource Development Quarterly found that employees who were allowed to dress casually reported higher levels of engagement and job satisfaction than those in more formal attire. They also felt more confident and authentic in their interactions with colleagues and clients.

Additionally, business casual dress codes can help level the playing field and promote diversity and inclusion in the workplace. When strict sartorial rules are relaxed, it‘s easier for employees of different backgrounds, body types and gender identities to express themselves professionally. "Allowing a range of styles opens up possibilities for everyone to bring their full selves to work," says diversity and inclusion consultant Jenna Mehnert.

There are also potential cost savings for both employees and employers. A more lenient dress code means workers can get more mileage out of their existing wardrobes and spend less on dry cleaning and replacements. And companies may see reduced turnover, as staff feel more comfortable and aligned with the organizational culture.

Of course, this doesn‘t mean that anything goes. It‘s still important for companies to clearly communicate their dress code policies and expectations, and for employees to use good judgment. But when implemented thoughtfully, business casual can be a win-win.

Building a Foolproof Business Casual Wardrobe

Now that we‘ve established the benefits and general parameters of business casual, let‘s talk about how to put it into practice. Building a versatile, mix-and-match wardrobe of polished staples will make getting dressed for work a breeze, while saving you time and money in the long run.

Here are some key pieces to invest in:

Category Women Men
Tops – Button-down shirts – Button-down shirts
– Blouses – Polos
– Sweaters & cardigans – Sweaters
Bottoms – Trousers – Dress slacks & chinos
– Pencil skirts – Corduroy pants
– Sheath dresses
Outerwear – Blazers – Sport coats & blazers
– Structured jackets – V-neck sweaters
Shoes – Low pumps & flats – Oxfords & loafers
– Ankle boots – Leather sneakers

When choosing pieces, prioritize fit, fabric quality and neutral colors like black, navy, gray and beige that can be easily mixed and matched. And don‘t underestimate the power of accessories: a great watch, belt or necklace can really elevate a simple outfit.

One helpful strategy is to create a "capsule wardrobe" of a few key items that can be recombined into multiple looks. Not only does this simplify getting dressed, but it also reduces decision fatigue, which can actually improve your productivity throughout the day.

"A capsule wardrobe is like a well-curated toolkit for your professional life," says stylist Alyssa Dineen. "It allows you to always look put-together without having to overthink it."

Of course, a capsule wardrobe doesn‘t have to be boring. Look for pieces that reflect your personal style within the bounds of business casual. Interesting textures, subtle prints and unique details can add personality without crossing the line into unprofessional territory.

Dressing for Your Work Day

One of the challenges of business casual is that it can mean different things depending on the context. The outfit you wear for a regular day at your desk might not cut it for a big presentation or client meeting. Here‘s how to dress for some common workplace scenarios:

Everyday at the Office

When you don‘t have any special events on your calendar, stick to the basic business casual formula: neat, neutral separates in sturdy fabrics. Slacks or a skirt with a tucked-in blouse or collared shirt is always a safe bet. Complete the look with simple jewelry and polished leather shoes.

Presentations & Meetings

If you‘re speaking in front of a group or meeting with external stakeholders, err on the dressier side of business casual. A structured dress with a blazer or suit separates in a dark, solid color will lend you an air of authority. Keep accessories minimal to avoid distraction.

Casual Fridays

Even on designated casual days, avoid anything you‘d wear to the gym or the club. Dark-wash jeans without rips or distressing can work when paired with a crisp button-down or dressy blouse. Stick to closed-toe shoes and skip the graphic tees and athleisure.

Interviews

When interviewing at a business casual company, it‘s generally best to skew more conservative. You can always remove a jacket or blazer if you feel overdressed once you get a sense of the office vibe. A tailored dress or slacks with a collared shirt and sport coat is a safe choice.

The key is to consider your agenda and dress for the most formal item on your itinerary. That way you‘ll always be prepared, even if an impromptu client call or executive pop-in arises.

Business Casual in the Hybrid Workplace

As many companies transition to long-term hybrid arrangements, with employees splitting time between home and the office, dress codes are adapting accordingly. "We‘re seeing a shift toward what I call ‘structured comfort‘," says Tanya Taylor, a professional stylist who works with remote and hybrid employees. "The emphasis is on polished pieces that are easy to mix and match, but still feel good to wear all day."

Taylor advises her clients to invest in elevated basics like tailored knit blazers, stretchy trousers and wrinkle-resistant button-downs that look professional on video calls but are comfortable enough for lounging. She also recommends keeping a few dressy items like a jacket or statement necklace on hand to quickly step up a home office look.

If your company has adopted a hybrid model, it‘s worth having a conversation with your manager or HR team to clarify the dress code expectations for both in-office and remote days. Some may prefer that you maintain a business casual appearance even when working from home, while others may allow more casual attire as long as you‘re not interacting with clients or leadership.

The Bottom Line

At the end of the day, dressing for work in 2023 is all about balance. The goal of business casual is to project an image of polished professionalism while still feeling like yourself. By following a few guiding principles and investing in versatile, high-quality pieces, you can build a foolproof work wardrobe that takes the stress out of getting dressed.

Remember, too, that style is personal. The best business casual outfit is one that makes you feel confident and capable. Don‘t be afraid to experiment within the guidelines to find looks that reflect your unique personality and position you for success in your career.

Use this guide as a starting point, but also trust your instincts and pay attention to the norms within your specific company and industry. When in doubt, always lean towards the more conservative, elevated end of the business casual spectrum. With a little trial and error, you‘ll soon crack the code on dressing for the modern workplace.