Every summer there’s one phrase floating around law firms that causes a great deal of stress, confusion and annoyance for the horde of twentysomethings 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.”
Business casual causes so many problems because people want to define it in isolation. However, to truly understand this fashion limbo you have to think of it in relation to two other dress codes: Business formal and dressy casual.
You tell a man to dress business formal, and he knows to wear a suit and a tie. It’s an instinct that’s in our DNA. We know to wear a suit the same way we know to defer our kick-or-receive decision to the second half.
Women, on the other hand, seem to have a bit of trouble with business formal. Sorry, I’ve witnesses it plenty of times, so it has to be said. I’ll let you blame it on the fact that women have way too many more clothing options than men. But really, we know if you mess up business formal, it’s for the same reason you’re still wondering, “Second half of what?”
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 the exact same cloth. End of discussion.
Dressy casual, however, is a look women have a lot easier time assembling. Women will be out the door and billing hours while men are still contemplating whether a polo shirt 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?
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. A good rule of thumb: It’s “business casual” and not “going-out-of-business casual.”
Dressy casual is business casual’s doppelganger. It’s a pair of pants that could have been from a suit paired with a nice collared shirt. It’s what you might wear to church or to meet your significant other’s parents. It’s dangerously close to business casual, but they are completely different creatures. Dressy casual is nothing more than nice clothes that fall short of being formal wear.
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 matches, 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 then 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 clients left. 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 OCI again?