The very definition of the word "casual" seems contradictory to the whole image of business: casual (kazh'oo wel) adj. 1. happening by chance; not planned; incidental 2. occasional 3. careless or cursory 4. non-chalant 5. for informal use.

Nevertheless, a large number of companies are committed to appointing every Friday as the day when dress code changes to "business casual." Similarly, many corporate meetings and retreats encourage business casual dress among attendees. What, exactly, is business casual for the year 2000? Descriptions don't vary much from men to women, but they've been known to change significantly from company to company. It's the companies that lean more toward "casual" than "business" that give the trendy workplace policy a bad name.

Business Casual: The Male Executive

Defining business casual for men begins with a quick review of its opposite, business professional. Traditionally, the male business executive's dress code begins and ends with a suit. Regardless of the button count or whether it's single or double-breasted, a suit dictates the look of power for men. Also, the more high contrast the chosen colors for the suit, tie and shirt, the more authoritative the look. (E.g. Black or navy suit, white dress shirt, primarily black or navy tie)

For this same professional, business casual should be directly proportional to the level of authority and credibility he would like to maintain. For instance, the suit jacket can become a blazer or sport coat. Also, casual can mean adding color combinations or wearing other textures. (E.g. Tweed jackets, herringbone, houndstooth, glenplaid) Dress shirts can cross over from the traditional button-down to light weight turtleneck sweaters, polo shirts, non-conventional color shirts and banded collar shirts. Warning: while many patterns are acceptable, forget items like the "Aloha" prints.

Acceptable slacks for businessmen in the casual workplace range from a nice pair of khakis, to plush corduroy, to wool or gaberdine. Finally, the more non-chalant shoes include loafers, monkstrap and lace-ups (in a polished or brushed look). Overall, the businessman carries off business casual best when his look results in one that, while it's friendly and approachable, also retains an element of authority.

Business Casual: The Female Executive

Again, looking first at the "business professional" female will help to visually separate it from casual. The traditional business attire for women can also be largely summed up with the word suits, varying between pants and skirts. To complement any suit, women wear silk or high-grade cotton blouses. Other items considered parallel in professionalism to a suit would include dresses with some type of structure, like the coatdress. To complete the outfit, hosiery is worn without exception, along with highly polished leather or suede shoes with medium height heels.

When ladies tone down their look for casual day, they should keep in mind the same rule that applies to men: business casual should be directly proportional to the level of authority and credibility she would like to maintain. For example, retaining the use of suits for casual day is popular; leaving the jacket at home and using something like a cardigan sweater as a softer substitute. Slacks remain in dress wools, wool blends, gaberdine and rayons. Skirts worn for casual day are knee length or longer, acceptable in both dressy and casual fabrics. Opaque/sheer hosiery or trouser socks blend well and the most popular casual shoes are medium to flat heels in leather, suede or the new "fabric" shoes. As with the male executive, the female should look amicable and receptive.

Business Casual: The Attitude

The old saying, "People take on the character of the costume," isn't a myth. It's because of this truth there should be more business than casual in a company's "business casual." If the male and female definitions seem too rigid, then complain to the person where the buck stops. Company owners tend to complain about the business casual attitudes that accompany casual day because they've watched them evolve over time. That is why it's important to sustain the level of business consciousness dictated by the respective company.

On the other hand, companies that demand a high stress, quick-paced level of productivity from their staff regularly may find benefits of invoking a more casual attitude once a week. Perhaps in such a case, it would allow employees to begin their weekend feeling more relaxed and come back on Monday feeling more mentally prepared for the new work week.

Business Casual: Pros and Cons

Considering the growing popularity of appointing Friday as business casual day, company management should address it if it hasn't been already. In her new book, Business Casual: Dressing for the New Millennium, Angie Michael admits there are clearly fair shares of both pros and cons to address about business casual, yet instead refers to them as "Cheers" and "Tears."

Topping the Cheers list for organizations are reports of employee morale improvement, tendency to attract new employees and the obvious "no-cost" feature attraction. Yet, Tears are reported when it comes to those that don't seriously establish dress code policies. Additionally, the book reports that, when employees dress more casually, they tend to get more relaxed about their work. The fact is even if a relaxed dress code doesn't instigate relaxed attitudes, how can a company be certain that visitors don't leave with misconstrued impressions? Especially in business, perception is reality and company visitors often have only appearance to go on.

Cheers on the employee's side when it comes to the money they save on wardrobe, as well as the feeling of empowerment certain employees get when given the freedom to choose what to wear. This is especially true of the more creative minds. On the Tears side for employees, Michael explains that some women and minorities are concerned about losing their visual credibility when they wear casual clothes. What's more is that business casual seems to require more attention in the area of creativity and coordination. Hopefully, this attention will be given since business casual is said to reveal more about a person's taste and personality than traditional business attire.

Put It in Writing

In general, business casual day makes sense. By Friday, a shared attitude of desire for rest and relaxation is prevalent among the majority of the workforce. It's how the casual dress policy is implemented that determines whether the perk will become an ongoing success. Start off right by assigning the job of "fashion police" to someone who is capable and willing to define a dress code. This person will become responsible for its viability, and those following the guidelines become responsible for its longevity as a perk. And, if ever there's a question of the need to add more business to the business casual, adding a pinch won't hurt.

Researching the current state of business casual leaves no mistake at all about the fact that the trend is here to stay; especially when considering the unprecedented boom in home-based businesses. The trend is here and the how-tos of doing it are plentiful and easily accessible. For those companies that are currently on the bandwagon, it never hurts to review the extent to which the dress code is clearly defined. For those that haven't yet jumped on, perhaps it's time to review the reasons why the company isn't a candidate for the lowest cost perk around.

Renee Lefko is the President of Working Image, an image and wardrobe consulting company based in Agoura Hills, California. She is the former President of the Los Angeles chapter of the Association of Image Consultants International. Her services include private consultations as well as business workshops and presentations. For further information, please call (818) 889-9966.

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