The night before your internship begins, you receive an email from your new boss.
By the way, it reads, the dress code is business casual.
“What does that mean?” you wonder.
The closet offers no clues. How business is too business, and how casual is too casual? As a college student or post-graduate student this is likely your first experience in the workplace. The sweatpants and just-rolled-out-of-bed look that got you through your 9 a.m. class will not service you as well at 9 a.m. in the office. A business-casual dress code is the growing standard for most real-world workplaces. Loosely translated it means not quite a suit, but not quite jeans. This leaves much room for interpretation. When in doubt, it is best to ask, otherwise…
Here is a general guideline:
–Keep it clean, keep it polished. The most important thing is that your clothes and body are clean and well-groomed. The magic of the most dazzling crystal-encrusted ballgown at the Oscars is easily dashed by sweat rings, a ripped hem, or mustard stains. Be sure to inspect clothing for wear and tear. Have the appropriate garments washed, dried and ready to go the night before. As you get ready in the morning there should be no surprises. Give your body extra care as well: Take a shower, wash your hair, trim your nails and use a strong but simple smelling deodorant. Don’t go nuts with scents. The first thing your new co-workers should notice is your firm handshake and winning smile, not your Victoria Secret body spray.
–Dress to impress. It is better to be best-dressed than risk appearing too casual for work. Avoid jeans and shirts with logos. Dress pants, a crisp shirt, and polished shoes are always a safe choice no matter your gender or style preference. For those who prefer a more feminine style, it is also appropriate to wear a skirt or dress at the knee length or longer with stockings if a lot of leg is showing. If your arms are bare, grab a cardigan on your way out the door to layer up if for nothing other than offices are kept reasonably chilly. Keep necklines conservative. Individuals with larger bust-lines may find this a challenge, in which case find balance by dressing more conservatively on your bottom half or by keeping the color of your top muted. In fact, for all genders and body types, neutral colors and basic cuts will be your best friend. Having a few nice basic pieces allows you to mix and match new combinations throughout the week.
–But I want to wear loud colors! It’s perfectly fine to wear strong colors. I have a pair of mustard-yellow dress pants and a few bright scarves I enjoy throwing into the mix. The business-casual dress code affords plenty of room to exercise your personal style. Again, this is all about balance. When I wear a loud color on my bottom half… an interesting color or a printed skirt, I balance this by keeping the rest of my look simple. The same goes for accessories. Choose a red lip OR a darker eye look OR a piece of statement jewelry. Not everything together.
–A note about makeup. Makeup is not a necessity if it doesn’t suit your style or lifestyle. Whether you choose to wear it or not, keep the focus on clean skin. Wash your face and groom your facial hair if you have any. If your skin is dry, use a moisturizer. If wearing makeup, aim for glowy skin and keep the rest of the look relatively simple. Do enough to enhance your natural features and boost self-confidence.
–I’m a broke student and can’t afford to buy clothes for the office. Work with what you have. This is exactly why basic pieces are your best friend. Maybe you have a white button down shirt and a pair of khakis. This is perfectly acceptable if it’s the best you can do. Have nothing but sweatpants? Can you borrow from a friend or raid your parent’s closet? Have 10 dollars to spare? Check out local thrift shops or peruse the clearance section. I get most of my clothing on a steep discount through coupons, promotional offers or sales. As stated before, clean clothing and a groomed appearance are half the battle. If all else fails and you find yourself too casual for business casual be confident, cordial, and maintain yourself as if you were dressed to the nines.