I got a desperate message from a client the other day. He had just taken an exciting new job. The problem was he had left a suit and tie office for one that was Business Casual. My client had no idea how to make the switch.
Business Casual is a kind of Wardrobe Boogeyman. It can be confusing and hard to interpret. Finding a way to communicate relaxed professionalism takes some thought.
Most men end up erring on the “too casual” side of things, which is why every HR clothing guide is dominated by what you can’t wear. I shouldn’t have to say this, but Business Casual is not an excuse to dress like you did in the dorm, wear your “comfy pants” or pajama bottoms, or let your appearance go all together.
Remember, it’s BUSINESS Casual. Business always comes first.
Now that that’s settled in your mind, let me share some tips on how you can balance professionalism with informality.
Major in the Details
You have to find other ways to convey power in your dress when you lose the commanding presence of a suit. One way to do that is to major in the details. Your clothing must be spotless, perfectly ironed, and well-fitting. There can’t be any loose buttons, errant threads, sweat stains or signs of wear.
Attention to detail tells others that your informal dress doesn’t mean you’re careless about what matters.
Ditch the Sad Polos and Shapeless T-Shirts
An unimpressive, unimaginative polo shirt is often the male counterpart to a woman’s “I Give Up Dress”.
I know I’m going to hear from you on this one, but before you start typing your protest in the comments, read my reasoning.
I am generally not a fan of most polos because they tend to either highlight figure challenges or have a generally nondescript shape, and the collars of polo shirts tend to curl, go wonky (technical styling term for stretch out of shape) and sometimes fade in color faster than the body of the shirt because they are often made of a different, less colorfast material.
When I speak to business groups, I talk a lot about how your clothing speaks to clients and colleagues about you. It tells your story. Do you really want a shapeless, wonky-collared shirt to be making the rounds for you at the office? What do you think it would say about you?
Opt for a well-pressed buttoned-front shirt instead. It’s an infinitely more flattering work choice than a sloppy polo, or a T-shirt.
I acknowledge not all polos are created equal, and there are men who wear them well. If you choose to wear a polo shirt be sure to do these things: buy quality (Fred Perry, for example- my brother wears these well), make sure it fits, press the collar, and the minute it shows any kind of wear or wonkiness get a new one. If your collar can’t be pressed, fabric stay tape or silicone anchor dots can help you keep your collar in place.
Unless you are in an ultra-casual office, T-shirts are too laidback for work. Most T-shirts say, “‘Sup?” to your clients. Not confidence inspiring.
If you have to wear a T-shirt to work make sure it fits and isn’t stretched out at the neck. If it’s white, make sure it never looks dingy. If it’s dark, make sure it never looks faded.
Pick a Structured Spokes-Garment
Business casual is often most successful when a more relaxed piece (a sweater, a Henley, etc.) is paired with a structured piece that tells people that you’re still there to do business. Trousers, nice jeans, blazers and sport coats all work well to counterbalance those easy going pieces that make up the casual part of your ensemble. Think structure and softness. Combined they create a relaxed professional appearance.
Don’t Destroy Your Image
Distressed clothing can occasionally work within a casual business setting. Faint whiskering, slight fading, and sand-washed fabrics can bring character to an outfit and are most appropriate for those in creative industries where artistic expression is common. However, the new trend of “destroyed clothing” with its large holes and multiple rips is too much for anything but the funkiest of work environments. If it would work as a costume for a street urchin in Oliver Twist, it doesn’t belong in the office.
Unkempt is not a word you want used to describe you, especially when you are your business to your clientele.
Informal clothing is not an excuse to let yourself go, though many people act like it is. Without the strong voice of a suit, you have to rely on your grooming, carriage and manner to communicate your professionalism.
It isn’t just your hair that you need to keep well. Your eyebrows, ears, nose hair, nails, and facial hair all need to be neat and clean. You need to keep your neck shaved, as well. You may not notice those details on yourself, but others will.
Following these five tips will insure that my client has a Business Casual wardrobe that features his professionalism and works in his informal environment.
Stay tuned to my blog for more on making Business Casual work for you and how to solve other wardrobe dilemmas.