What Does Business Casual Really Mean?

No more ties and pinstripes, pantyhose and pumps.

"Business casual" dress codes began at West Coast dot-coms in the 1990s, infecting local law firms, and the trend has since traveled eastward. No longer just a Fridays- or Summer-only tradition, casual dress is now sanctioned by most major law firms 24/7. Some of the country's biggest and most traditional law firms, including New York's Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft, have gone so far as to promote casual dress with in-house fashion shows sponsored by designers like Ralph Lauren.

In the old days, wearing a suit was a pain, but at least the standard lawyer "uniform" required little thought. "Dressing down," on the other hand, is open to wide interpretation. Initially, business casual simply meant no ties for men, pants OK for women. But as casual dress has become more popular, the boundaries of what's acceptable have become less clear.

Whether you're a summer associate looking to get an offer or a mid-level lawyer seeking to make partner some day, making a good impression matters -- and that includes what you wear. Your first step should be to consult your employee handbook for dress code guidelines. Chances are you'll find some explicit do's and don't's. Absent formal rules, here are some general wardrobe tips that'll keep you out of trouble with your firm, but in line with your own fashion personality.

First, the don't's. Avoid spandex, team logo shirts, shorts, halter or tank tops, sweats, tennis shoes and probably sun dresses. And get Erin Brokovich and Ally McBeal out of your mind -- don't let bras show and avoid mini-minis. Other potential no-no's include open-toed sandals, capri pants and anything leather (though a tailored brown or black leather jacket is probably fine). Check with your employer about whether jeans are acceptable -- some places may allow them only on Fridays.

And now, the do's. The best thing to do is start with a nucleus of interchangeable wardrobe pieces in neutral colors (black, white, gray) that you can mix and match. Women, think tailored pants and a sweater set. Guys, you'll be safe with khakis and an oxford shirt. Of course, you don't have to stick with just these suggestions. After all, if you still had to dress up, not all your suits would be navy. So let your personality show through cool shoes, a fun jacket and accessories. If these guidelines seem really stiff, remember, they're still better than ties and pantyhose. And, of course, you can still totally funk out on the weekends.

In general, err on the side of over-dressing. Some lawyers even pick one day a week to entirely dress up, just to show they mean business. Basically, you want to prove to your employer that your casual dress doesn't translate into a casual attitude towards your work. You want to command respect and convey professionalism to both your opponents and your clients as well.

Finally, keep a traditional suit (don't forget the shoes!) in your office at all times in case you have to cover a court hearing at the last minute or you get an unexpected visit from a stuffy client. But you can safely part with most of your old suits, and when you do, consider donating them to one of those charities that provides professional attire to low-income individuals entering the workforce.


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