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Time, Place, and Manner

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Business Casual: The Definitive Guide

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Every summer there is one phrase floating around law firms that causes a great deal of stress, confusion and annoyance for the horde of twenty-somethings starting their first professional job.  No, not “law firm hot,” I’m talking about “business casual.”  Even for seasoned attorneys its meaning can be harder to pin down than “substantive due process,” and unlike pornography, you don’t necessarily know it when you see it.

The reason “business casual” has eluded common understanding for so long is the attempt to define it in isolation. But, the name itself implies a necessary relationship to another dress code, standard business attire, now often referred to as “business formal.” And, there’s a third player you need to deal with to truly get business casual out of fashion limbo, and that is dressy casual.


Business (Formal)

You tell a man to dress business formal and he knows to wear a suit and tie.  It’s a piece of knowledge that’s in our DNA.  We know to wear a suit the same way we know that cheese goes above the meat on a sandwich, mustard below, and that you should defer your kickoff or receive decision to the second half.

Women, on the other hand, have struggled with business formal since the first time they were allowed in an office to do something other than answer the phones and break up families. But, it’s not their fault …on both counts. It’s not their fault that men didn’t hire them for real jobs, and it’s not their fault that business formal for women is so much more complicated. Men only get it right because it’s so easy, not because we’re so smart.

As far as fashion is concerned, there are two completely distinct worlds. There’s the men’s world, which approximates the cheesy science fiction views of the future, in which everyone wears the exact same thing every single day with an occasional color variation.

And then there’s the women’s world, which is more like being in an M. Night Shyamalan film. It could go in about a thousand directions, has some really great potential, but there’s just too many chances to make a bad decision and odds are everything you’ve worn since seeing The Sixth Sense has been dreadful.

When women get tips on fashion, the fundamentals tend to get glossed over, and people leap right to debating the appropriate length of dangling ear rings, and the minimum age at which you can wear a brooch. So, sorry if this comes across as entirely condescending, but you may have never been told this before:

Ladies, business formal means a suit.  A suit means a jacket and either pants or a skirt that are cut from literally the same bolt of cloth.  It’s more than a jacket and bottom that match.  They must be from the exact same cloth.  There are no exceptions.

Don’t feel bad if you’ve been messing this up. For how easy things are for men, plenty of us screw it up too. Yes, that’s right lads, a blazer and a pair of khakis is not a suit.


Dressy Casual

Ladies, if you feel indignant over having such a harder time than men in dealing with fashion, know that dressy casual helps you even the playing field.

Women will be out the door and billing hours while men are still contemplating whether a polo is acceptable.  The polo probably isn’t dressy enough, but…I don’t know…it really depends on the situation.  What month is it?  Am I below the Mason Dixon Line?  Maybe not a good idea for the office, but what about for just dressy casual in general?  Does it help that it’s Lacoste and not Express?  And, if one polo is acceptable…what about two, or even three popped collars?

Long after we’ve settled debates over the designated hitter and which Godfather movie was best, we still won’t know the full range of situations in which a polo shirt is okay.  For now, let’s presume it’s off limits at work, even though I’ve seen it done and no one cared.

Dressy casual is business casual’s doppelganger.  It’s a pair of pants that look like they could have been from a suit, matched with a nice shirt. For men, that shirt is going to look a lot like the dress shirts they wear with suits, and it might even be one, but there’s a little more range in colors and patterns (just not Hawaiian).

For women, the top is going to be …anything from a whole range of choices. It looks like we’re back into the problem of having too many options, but we’re not. There are a ton of options, but what’s great about dressy casual is most of them are right. Women are given a huge target to shoot at here. It doesn’t matter if you went a notch too casual or played things a little conservative, you still look dressed appropriately. For men, a little bit too casual is way too casual, and a smidge on the formal side makes you look like you have a permanent stick up your ass. Ninety-five percent of the time, men miss the mark and land on the formal side.

Depending on the situation, dressy casual is what you would wear to church, meeting your significant other’s parents, or on a first date that you think has a lot of potential. If you’re going to work on the weekend when the dress code isn’t in place, dress like you just came from church. If you’re going to a partner’s house for a barbeque, dress like you’re meeting the fiancé’s parents. If people from work around going to be around, don’t ever dress like you’re hoping to get laid (or hoping that some guy hoping to get laid will be picking up your tab).

Dressy casual is incredibly close to business casual, but they are entirely separate creatures. The two are like bananas and plantains. They look pretty much the same, but as soon as you bite into them, you know the difference. The names tell it all. Dressy casual is nice, but still casual. Business formal is relaxed, but it’s business.


Business Casual

The way to tell the difference between dressy casual and business casual is how the two outfits are created.  Dressy casual goes from the bottom-up.  You start with one dressy piece of clothing in your closet, find another that goes well with it, and you’re pretty much done.

Business casual takes a top-down approach.  You start with business formal, and then strip away the jacket and maybe the tie.  It’s not just nice clothes; it’s half of a suit.  The heart and soul of the business casual look is that you can add to it and create business formal.  Business casual means if you’re suddenly asked to meet with a client or accompany a partner to court, you may need to “get dressed” by putting on a jacket and tie, but you won’t need to change clothes.

If you do not have the matching jacket on a hanger somewhere, you are not wearing business casual, you are wearing dressy casual.

The truth is you probably can get away with dressy casual when there’s a business casual dress code.  You’re not going to be invited to a surprise client meeting because, let’s face it, the recession means there just aren’t a lot of paying clients, and if the client isn’t paying, it doesn’t matter how you dress.

But, the recession also means you have to be extra careful not to give your firm any excuse to give you a no-offer, or to pull your offer when they realize down the line that they over-hired.  You don’t want to be the summer associate who had to turn down accompanying a partner to court because you didn’t have the right clothes that day.

Keep the extra jacket in your office.  Men, be sure you have a couple neutral-colored ties in your desk, just in case.  And ladies, if you change shoes to commute, you do it outside of the office, in the morning before you enter the building, and after you’ve left in the evening.  Sure, maybe your desk is only thirty feet from the elevator and odds are no one will see.  But, imagine you bump into a partner who starts up a conversation right then.  Do you really want to explain why you’re wearing flip-flops in the office?  Do you really want to explain why you’re doing 3L OCI?

[Read more from BL1Y]

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