Do’s and don’ts for dressing down professionally.

By Ingela Ratledge
Updated January 29, 2009
Chris Militscher

Getting to dress down for work is supposed to be a perk, but sometimes figuring out what safely falls within the guidelines of “business casual” feels more like a chore. Always ask for your company’s specific policy: Some garments (like cotton chinos and linen skirts) are universally acceptable under the dress code, while others (like jeans and open-toe shoes) are hit-and-miss. If your firm gives jeans the nod, fashion stylist Joseph Williamson says, “they should fit well and not be too low-cut or have holes in them. And they should be dressed up with a nice shirt or even a jacket.”

The prevailing rule of thumb for business casual is dressed-down professional wear, not a wardrobe free-for-all. “Do a gut check with yourself before you leave the house. Would you be comfortable wearing this in front of a client, or does it feel like it’s for friends? "Save the extremes for the weekend,” advises Peri Hansen, a senior client partner at Korn/Ferry International, an executive-search firm in Los Angeles. That includes flip-flops, spaghetti straps, message tees, and anything tight, short, or revealing. On the A-OK list: casual blazers, knit blouses, tailored Bermuda shorts, trousers, jumper-style dresses, and denim skirts, if not short or frayed.

“You never want to try to ‘get away’ with anything,” says Lizzie Post of the Emily Post Institute. When in doubt, says Kim Mains, manager of legal recruiting for Cozen O’Connor, a law firm in Philadelphia, “take cues from what your female colleagues are wearing―especially those women whom you admire. And remember that it’s always better to be overdressed than underdressed.” The big payoff for all this strategic censorship? When done right, business-casual attire can score you points with colleagues and higher-ups. Says Paul Howalt, the owner of Tactix Creative, a branding firm in Mesa, Arizona: “Just as long as it’s not sloppy, we encourage well-executed individuality.”