What the heck does “Dress Casual” mean?

I got this question the other day, and I am not entirely sure how many times I’ve answered it. Dress usually means dress up, but casual means casual – help!

I’m actually going to discuss both Business Casual and Dress Casual, because they are related…they are the same “level” of dressing up for two different occasions, work and social activities.

Business Casual means nice khakis or nice slacks, with a nice button down shirt. It doesn’t have to be a white dress shirt, it could be colored, but nothing too out there like Hawaiian. You can add a sport jacket if you want, but it’s not necessary, and a tie is too much for this look. By the same token, suits are right out, way too formal. Jeans are too informal, as would certain types of khakis – I have a pair of Khaki pants that are baggy and in the cargo style. Definitely too informal for business casual, even though I love them. Women can go with pants and a nice shirt like the men, though women generally have a few more options other than just button down, as long as they are nice. Nothing sparkly. Skirts and a blouse/nice shirt would also be good, but generally separates, not matching as that would look more like and be more similar to a suit.

Dress Casual is the social equivalent to Business Casual. Here jeans are also too informal, whether you are a man or woman. Dress casual is a little dressier than business casual – men will definitely want to go with slacks and not khakis here. A nice button down shirt is paired with this, and probably a sports jacket, especially if the event is in the evening. Women will want to go with similar outfits as business casual like slacks and a nice shirt or a skirt and blouse, but it should both be dressier than what you would normally wear in an office – add some more jewelry or wear a nicer blouse, and sparkly can work here. A suit can work for women here, but you want to be careful – I have made this work, I wore a pinstripe, very nice suit, but I paired it with a very nicely draped neck blouse that interrupted the lines you normally get with a suit, and I did my hair and makeup up very nicely, wore heels and lots of jewelry. It’s doable but if you’re unsure, I’d stay away from the suits. It only worked for me because the blouse was eclectic enough that it made me look less like I was wearing a suit.

In both of the above situations, both business and dress casual, you will want to lean more towards a conservative look. I am not talking politics and red and blue here, but no short skirts, no spike heels, guys should have their shirts buttoned all the way up (top button is debatable) and nothing too loud or flashy.

I hope this demistifies a common question, and next time you see “dress casual” on an event notice or invitation, don’t worry or be confused. It’s easy!

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