Dressing for business casual success

Screen Shot 2015-10-11 at 3.50.29 PMAmbiguity permeates the social and professional lives of millennials. Why did my ex like my Instagram photo from six weeks ago? What are we actually blindly agreeing to in the iTunes Terms and Conditions? But we perhaps face no greater challenge than the vague mandate on our attire for any “fancy” occasion: business casual. Business casual is the dress code equivalent of receiving “K.” as a response to a text. When an invitation, restaurant or job description asks you to dress “business casual,” one can’t help but wonder, “What does it really mean? How am I supposed to respond to this?”

The term “business casual” can be traced back to the start of Casual Fridays in the early 1990s, and more specifically, a 1992 brochure issued by none other than the khaki brand Dockers entitled “A Guide to Casual Businesswear.” Traditionally, “business casual” has meant a button-down sans tie and the ubiquitous khakis for men, and dress pants, skirt, or dress for women. However, the interpretation of this phrase, like “Netflix and chill,” has loosened and changed over time. For some offices, events, or restaurants, it could mean jeans with no holes in them, or even be as low-key as making sure your shirt has sleeves.

Christina Teach, senior and president of DePaul’s Catholic Student Union, defined the elusive “business casual” more simply for those overwhelmed by its lack of clarity: looking like you tried. However, she also acknowledges that varies from person to person and from church to church.

“I always try to look put-together, and I especially make a point when I go to Mass to look like I tried,” Teach said. “I think the students that are at least involved in (Catholic Campus Ministry) definitely put their best foot forward when they go to Mass, but I have seen other athletes and students who just go to Mass in sweatpants and a T-shirt, and then I’ve seen some students who show up in a suit and tie … It’s very much personal.”

While Teach said the lack of pressure to dress in any specifically polished way at DePaul’s parish stems from the inclusivity of its Vincentian charisma, she notes this is not the case everywhere.

“I’m originally from Texas and my priest would call people out on wearing jeans, or jean shorts, or if their dress was too short, or if their straps were showing,” Teach said.

She also mentioned that the dress code for being a receptionist at Catholic Campus Ministry has become a little more refined over time.

“A while back, we used to wear jeans and just our polo, so it made it business casual,” Teach said. “But recently, I was here for the change where they started to expect us to dress up a little bit more. We have a CCM polo, so that and khaki pants or a skirt would be ideal.”

However, this isn’t rigorously enforced — as long as you’re not wearing anything with graphics on it and no torn jeans, you’re good to go.

Spiaggia is a Michelin-starred Italian restaurant located on the Magnificent Mile. A 2014 article by the Huffington Post cited Spiaggia as one of the only restaurants left in the country that still require men to wear a jacket. However, it seems this restaurant may also have fallen prey to the lure of “business casual.” When recently inquired about their dress code over the phone, an employee said there was none. “Business casual” was recommended, but upon questioning, jeans were deemed acceptable and no jacket was required. Not surprisingly, the employee in question defined business casual as “whatever that means for the individual.”

The DePaul Career Center’s website has an entire section devoted to “dressing for success” on job interviews and at the workplace, two of the last places where subscription to a certain style of attire is expected.

The Career Center’s Job Fair and Events Manager Amal Saleh and On-Campus Interviewing intern Celia Ver Ploeg recommend what seems to be the agreed-upon uniform for business casual — Ver Ploeg said “khakis and a nice shirt, like a button-down. Something that doesn’t have too many colors. You don’t want it to be something that is distracting from what you’re saying.”  She said this outfit works for both men and women.

Women can switch things up with a skirt or dress, but Ver Ploeg stressed the importance of it being “appropriate length,” which she and Saleh defined as being “to the knee.”

Ver Ploeg said men do have an “easier time” with the business casual dress code, because for women, “there’s always more options, so you don’t really know what boundaries you can push with it.”

When faced with uncertainty regarding a business’ dress code, Saleh recommended researching the company and its atmosphere.

“If you’re working for, say, a PR firm, it might be different than a law firm or an accounting firm,” Saleh said.

Some might think all of this hullabaloo around being properly dressed is over-the-top, but Saleh and Ver Ploeg emphasize that appearance and attire are the initial characteristics a person is judged by.

“The first impression is made in seven seconds, and then they either confirm or deny it in the next 30,” Ver Ploeg said. “Dress to impress, no matter what.”

Saleh mentioned a circumstance where ignoring the standards of business casual had a serious consequence.

“At one of the fairs previously, we had a student come in with a very short skirt and then a very see-through shirt,” Saleh said. “Employers actually came up to us and asked us to remove them from the fair.”

Screen Shot 2015-10-11 at 3.49.04 PMDespite the workplace seemingly being the last place where dressing professionally matters, one business has begun catering to our generation’s thirst for comfortable clothing in all settings. The online store Betabrand sells “dress pants yoga pants.” They’re $78 and come in a variety of fits and colors to serve all of your lazy-but-still-have-a-job needs.

Complete with belt loops and pockets, Betabrand speaks to many women’s secret internal desire to go straight from the office to yoga, or, more likely, a nap on the couch. Truly the most ambiguous of garments, they once again redefine the intangible “business casual.” And, to add to their millennial credentials, Betabrand is completely crowd-funded.

Millennials are often characterized as valuing individualism even while conforming to bigger trends, so it makes sense that businesses are following suit by claiming the term “business casual” to make it mean whatever they want it to mean, or rather, what customers or employees want it to mean. If looked at from this perspective, the ambiguity of this phrase can stop being frustrating and instead be freeing.

In 2015, as long as you’re presenting yourself in a respectful, hygienic way with fabric free of holes or graphics in clothing that you couldn’t logically wear to the gym, you can be casually confident that you mean business.