Six Categories of Casual Dress
One of the questions I am asked most often during private and public seminars concern
business casual. People are confusing casual dress with business casual dress and it is
hurting careers and companies. Here are the details you need to know to make your
choices benefit your career.
Are you familiar with the three levels of business attire that win on today’s playing field? Do you
know which levels of "casual attire" are appropriate for business?
Traditional or Formal Business Attire
Traditional business attire includes business suits, dress shirts, and ties for men. It includes
business-oriented suits for women, both skirted suits and tailored pantsuits. Leather shoes
(closed-toe/closed heel), socks and/or hosiery are also a requirement for any outfit to qualify for
traditional business attire.
Business formal is a subset of traditional business attire, yet, it has specific requirements just
one step down from tuxedos, such as dark tailored suits for men and women. Business formal
standards dictate that women wear skirted suits, hosiery, and closed-toe/closed heel pumps. Men
should wear white shirts (French cuff styles), cuff links, silk ties, and pocket squares (silk or linen)
to fully qualify for business formal attire. If you receive an invitation requesting business formal
attire, dress in this standard. This level of dress is often requested for Award dinners, political
events, and a variety of dressy evening business occasions that are not black-tie.
General Business Attire
The General Business attire category is a mere mini step away from the Traditional Business
classification. For men, this category still demands a tie and it’s still worn with a dress shirt.
However instead of a suit, this category includes a tailored sport coat worn with dress trousers.
For women, this category can look numerous ways. It includes tailored pantsuits, businesslike
dresses, and coordinated dressy separates. When wearing separates, tailored jackets are
While ties are usually not required for men, high-level business casual includes suits worn with
dressy sport shirts or fine-gauge knits and tailored separates, such as dress trousers, dressy
collared sport shirts that do not require a tie, fine knit shirts and sweaters, as well as sport coats.
Low-level business casual includes khakis, chinos, and knit golf shirts. To command respect,
wear all-leather belts and shoes; sandals and sneakers do meet a true business casual standard.
For women, business casual includes pantsuits, tailored separates, such as skirts, slacks,
blouses, sweaters, sweater sets, and jackets. A complete accessorized look is encouraged,
including closed-toe/closed heel shoes.
6 Categories of Casual or Informal Dress
You meet friends for cappuccino after working out in the gym, running, rollerblading, biking,
playing tennis, racquetball, golf any sport of your choice. The appropriate clothing for these
activities clearly indicates that you have been physically active. This type of casual wear is called
Active Casual. Jogging suits, warm-ups, wind suits, running shorts, tennis skirts, biking shorts,
leggings, leotards, snow-ski garb, etc. exemplify this classification. With the exception of some
golf clothing, Active Casual has NO business in the workplace.
It's Saturday and brrr, it’s cold! You are helping friends move some antique furniture from storage,
and you will have lunch together while you are out. You have chosen to wear your heavy socks
and a hiking-type boot, a flannel shirt with jeans or heavy khakis, a camouflage shirt, or a
sweater topped with an insulated parka. You are dressed in Rugged Casual attire. The Rugged
Casual category draws garments from the typical apparel of the more outdoorsy sports, like
hunting, fishing, backpacking, rock climbing, etc. Unless your job is related to these types of
industries, this apparel does not mean business in the workplace.
It's your day off. You are running errands, going for a massage, just generally hanging out. Let's
say you are wearing cotton pants, shorts, or jeans, a heavyweight T- or sweat shirt, a button-
down or polo-style shirt, a belt, and tennis shoes. This type of casual is called Sporty Casual.
Anytime you are wearing a sneaker-type shoe with jeans, khakis, walking shorts, skirts, etc., and
you are not participating in a sport, you are dressed in the Sporty Casual category. Notice, it is
sporty. Most sports have particular items of clothing that support participants in performing well in
that game. This category is not about playing a sport, but more about the relaxed look of a
spectator. Sportswear has been synonymous with casual separates in the fashion world for
years. Since that term was coined over fifty years ago, the world has changed dramatically.
Today, the sportswear section of a store includes everything except suits, dresses, and formal
You are going to an informal dinner with friends in an upscale restaurant. If male, you are wearing
dress trousers (or even crisp jeans*), a long-sleeve shirt, maybe a tie, leather loafers or dressy
slip-on's, patterned socks or solid-colored dress socks, a tipped belt, and you may or may not
wear a sport coat. You are dressed in the Smart Casual category.
If female, you are wearing slacks, crisp jeans, or a skirt (long or short), a blouse or turtleneck, a
fashionable belt, a jacket, a vest, or a sweater coordinated to your outfit, hosiery or socks with
boots, flats (leather, suede, or fabric) or mid-heel shoes. You are also wearing jewelry, such as
earrings that complement your overall outfit, at least. You are dressed in the Smart Casual
category. Again, if you are wearing jeans, wearing a jacket upgrades you to Smart Casual. This
category demands a pulled-together, harmonious, complete look with colors, fabrics, shoes, and
accessories, for both men and women.
*If you are wearing crisp jeans, you must wear a sport coat for Smart Casual.
You are going to an art gallery exhibit on opening night, and then to dinner with friends. The
invitation suggested “Casual Attire.” Due to the nature and the time of the event, the host means
Dressy Casual (Casual Elegance), which is similar to Smart Casual, with no jeans.
For male or female, the shoes take on a dressier tone, and the fabrics are richer, dressier.
For women, this level of casual implies a pant suit, a dress, or coordinated separates in semi-
dressy fabrics. Dressy Casual demands that the outfit be well-coordinated and accessorized.
For men, this category indicates dress trousers, a turtleneck or mock-turtle version, a dress shirt
or a silk sport shirt (long-sleeved), a tie (optional), and a jacket or sport coat.
Casual weddings call for this type of attire, as well. Out of respect for the ceremonial nature of a
wedding, a dressy dressed-down look is required, regardless of location, when casual attire is
As mentioned earlier, Business Casual is only one category of business attire. Business dress
has three primary categories: Power Business, General Business, and Business Casual. While
Business Casual attire is a recent addition to traditional business dress, it is no longer considered
to be a trend. Human resources experts claim that it is here to stay as a permanent fixture in
A simple definition of Business Casual is “A comfortably relaxed version of classic business attire,
with no sacrifice of professionalism or personal power.”
Business Casual draws from the aforementioned Smart Casual and Dressy Casual categories,
with many distinctions. True Business Casual attire incorporates the more tailored garments from
those two classifications.
Active and Rugged Casual clothing is clearly not businesslike, unless you work as a tennis pro or
a personal trainer, or in the outdoors like a professional fly-fisherman. The apparel of Sporty
Casual falls short of embodying professional attitudes. Intended for other use, Sporty Casual
attire fails to command enough power and respect for a full-tilt Business Casual look in a public
No need to obsess over the clothing pieces listed with these classifications. The above examples
were used just to help you begin making basic observations and distinctions about the differing
degrees of casual dress. This is an essential step in grasping the important nuances of Business
Casual. You can then consciously select casual garments for your business wardrobe that are
multipurpose and fill other wardrobe needs, and garments that work hard for you on the job.
Your image is a powerful business tool!
Whatever your task, the right tool makes it faster and easier. A food processor dices onions in
seconds, but this simple action takes mega-minutes with the usual kitchen knife. A power lawn
mower reduces grass cutting time by half or more over using a push mower to blade the identical
lawn. A blender can whirl ice into tasty margaritas or smoothies in seconds, but ice melts before it
can be shaved by hand.
Dentists, surgeons, chefs, architects, and plumbers all require distinct tools to do their jobs well
and efficiently. Whatever your profession, your business image is one of your fundamental tools.
Just as potent as your PC, empowering clothing can catapult you to the fast track.
Are you consciously using your clothing and grooming, especially when dressed down, as
valuable business assets and high-powered tools to propel you toward greater success?