Business casual is dominating offices — so what do you wear?

Knowing what to wear to a job interview or the office every day can be confusing. (Getty)

In some professions, figuring out what to wear to work is easy: are you a lawyer going to court? Wear a suit. Are you a nurse in the ER? Put on your scrubs. Are you a mechanic changing the oil in a car? It’s time to don some coveralls.

But for everyone else, figuring out the right clothes for work can be a bit more challenging. That challenge is only getting harder, too, as ‘business casual’ begins to dominate most workplaces.

A recent survey by OfficeTeam found that 63 per cent of Canadians say they prefer to wear more relaxed clothes to work (36 per cent like the “somewhat casual” look like khakis and a polo shirt or sweater, while 27 per cent prefer the “very casual” look of jeans and a t-shirt). 30 per cent of Canadians prefer “somewhat formal” (dress pants or skirt and a button-down shirt or blouse) and seven per cent prefer “very formal” (suit and tie).

In the financial industry, CFOs are emphatically in favour of more casual clothing, too. 66 per cent of Canadian CFOs surveyed say they’d describe the dress code for their accounting and finance employees as “somewhat casual.” A further eight per cent described it as “very casual.”

“Workplace dress codes are evolving to reflect changing employee preferences and trends,” said Greg Scileppi, president of Robert Half, International Staffing Operations. “Skilled professionals often seek flexible office environments. Organizations that allow their staff to choose attire appropriate to their role or work day establish a culture of trust that enhances employee morale, and stands out to potential job seekers.”

But while there are benefits for both employees and employers in adopting a more casual environment, knowing what is and isn’t acceptable can be a bit of a minefield.

In a survey by OfficeTeam, Canadian employees shared their feelings about what to wear in the workplace. (OfficeTeam/Robert Half)

Be comfortable, but not too comfortable

Arturo Gallo, content manager for job search site Monster Canada, says that it’s easy to fall into the trap of going too casual for your office.

“I remember a colleague, a long time ago, who on the second day he started working, he came in wearing shorts,” Gallo recalls. While it was a casual office, shorts were a step too casual. Most offices, even those with a casual workplace, will draw the line at very casual summer clothes, like shorts, flip flops, or short skirts.

Suchant Vachhar, director of client services for men’s luxury bespoke and custom clothing company King and Bay, says that many of his clients come in with some degree of confusion over what is acceptable and what isn’t. It’s especially gotten challenging in the last six years as Silicon Valley companies like Google and Facebook have moved into Canada and brought along the laid-back California culture.

“Smart business casual has changed over the course of the last few years,” Vachhar says. “People are uncertain what they should be wearing.”

Some of the most common items Vachhar says clients will mistake for casual office appropriate are t-shirts and running shoes (specifically sportier styles like Nike or Adidas).

When trying to decide what is and isn’t appropriate for the office, there’s one easy way to determine: ask.

“Speak to your manager very openly and freely,” says Gallo. “Sometimes we take things for granted, so don’t be shy to ask.”

Dress for success, even when casual

Both Gallo and Vachhar agree that dressing for your day is the most critical consideration when putting together your casual outfit.

“Dress the part,” advises Gallo. “Even though you may have a casual, flexible attire policy at work, don’t go to the extremes, you never know who you’re going to meet.”

Vachhar says that many employees, especially younger ones just starting out in their career, are often quite cautious when it comes to dressing for a casual workplace. If you’re looking to develop a casual but still work-appropriate wardrobe, Vachhar recommends a few staples:

  • Blazer: Vachhar recommends the starting place for every casual wardrobe should be a navy blazer.
    “That’s the most essential basic piece that will take you to a casual Friday to a more dressy Wednesday meeting,” says Vachhar. The navy blazer (less formal than black) is a good way to help you stand out from your co-workers without feeling too dressy or too out of place, and it combines well with the other options on this list. You can pair it with a polo or a button-up shirt, depending on how dressy you want to go.
  • Denim: Jeans can be casual, but should still look work-appropriate. You want to wear a well-fitted denim, in a dark wash, and have no rips, suggests Vachhar.
  • Chinos: Cotton dresspants are a great way for someone who works in a very casual work environment (like one that permits shorts) to look casual while still feeling like they’re dressed professionally. If you want to go even more playful and show more of your personality, Vachhar suggests experimenting with coloured chinos.
    Women can wear chinos or cotton dresspants, or can opt for a skirt in a similar material instead. Be mindful of length (knee-length is most often appropriate), and have fun with colour if it fits your personality.
  • Work-appropriate sneakers: While you can’t wear gym shoes to the office, there are lots of dressier sneakers now on the market. Vachhar recommends checking out Common Projects, which makes a line of solid leather sneakers in a variety of neutral colours without major logos or embelishments, making them ideal office attire.
    Women have some more options beyond sneakers, and may opt for a casual flat instead. The same rules still apply: stick with something in a quality material like leather, and choose something that still fits with your overall office vibe.
  • Button-up shirts in prints: “People gravitate towards checked shirts on a casual Friday,” says Vachhar. “But you don’t have to do it, there’s so much more selection out there than just a check or a stripe.” He recommends checking out a micro-pattern instead, or a chambray, which is a lightweight denim.
    “Pair it with chinos and a nice blazer, you’ve got a casual look.”
    Women can pair the shirt with a blazer, or opt for a slightly less-dressy look with a cardigan instead.