Has Casual Dress in the Office Changed?

Ask an employee what casual dress means today and you’ll likely get a long pause, or at least as many responses as you do people. It’s no wonder, because it’s tough for a company to drill down to specifics when the environment is changing; and there are so many grey areas of clothing attire.

When conservative Goldman Sachs Group recently made the headlining move of switching to casual attire, it simply told employees, “All of us know what is and is not appropriate for the workplace.” But still, many workers feel there are some lingering mysteries to be solved.

I recently shared with Psychology Today a primer on how to dress appropriately at work when it’s casual dress. Here are some of my tips:

Stick to basics. While there can be a lot of variation depending on industry and profession—for instance, almost anything may go at a start-up or small ad agency—and many companies with a less formal dress code have similar standards. Larger and more conservative firms expect women and men to choose slacks (or dress pants) and men to wear polo or button-down shirts; and women to opt for professional pullovers, blouses or shirts. Of course women typically add in a modest skirt or dress to the mix. Now, the most notable shift is the number of firms giving the nod to dressy jeans for casual dress, to compete for talent, especially in the current low unemployment environment.

Avoid the common “No” beach attire. Generally, if you’d wear certain clothing to the beach, it’s out. Think shorts, athleisurewear, flip-flops, and hoodies. Low-cut or revealing tops and pants are considered inappropriate.

Check the calendar. Casual day, every day policies can still have exceptions.

For instance, if you’re meeting with clients or the company president has flown in to visit your team, it’s a good idea to take your wardrobe choices up at least a notch (e.g., instead of wearing khakis with a polo, you might opt for khakis with a button-down shirt and blazer). Some situations may require you to dust off your interviewing suit and go formal again. You can’t go wrong exceeding expectations for an event or activity.

Look around. You can always take your cue from those around you, ideally those who are the best performers in the office. This is not a good place to start a crazy new fad or to make a loud statement, especially literally, with a shirt the let’s everyone know how you “really feel.”

Ask your manager. Thinking of donning that classic Metallica T-shirt tomorrow? Unless you’ve seen others successfully wear similar attire or it’s Wear Your Favorite Metal Band Shirt Day, it’s always a smart move to ask first if you’re unsure.

Add personality. Casual doesn’t have to mean sloppy or boring, either. A stylish belt, colorful scarf, jewelry and even some fashionable socks can add flair to a more relaxed wardrobe. Accessories can be a smart investment, too, helping you get more mileage out of your work clothes, and allowing you to change up your look with small changes

For my complete list of casual dress tips, check out the full article on Psychology Today.