Business Casual dress codes fail all the time. Even if a company has a written policy on Business Casual, chances are it is ambiguous, and it may be contradictory, unfair, or lack “fashion sense.”

Some dress codes for women require hose but permit open-toed shoes. There are dress codes that let men wear slacks and a shirt but require women to wear skirts. Even fair dress codes do not always apply equally to every department or group.

Take, for example, an advertising agency. There are some strikingly different groups that probably should not all follow the same rules. People on the “client side,” interacting with clients, tend to dress more formally, reflecting the more commercial and financial aspects of their work.

The creative types tend to wear clothing that is more personally expressive. You would not expect an imaginative artist to be wearing a traditional dark suit. IT people need to look professional, but many of them also need to be able to crawl under desks. Their attire needs to enable freedom of movement and withstand occasional assaults by dust bunnies lurking under desks. How do you define a dress code that works for these three different groups of people?

Business casual is so hard to define that many companies are becoming frustrated with the whole idea. Recently, there has been a backlash against business casual because the failure to adequately define or adhere to a dress code creates problems. Some companies are reverting back to formal business attire. Others are defining their own ground. One of our clients, who had resisted the wave of full-time business casual, went from casual Fridays to full-time “Business Appropriate.” They defined a more formal version of business casual and put up posters to make sure people got it.

Part of the problem is not just that the rules are often unclear, but that people are ruled by their individual perspectives and objectives. This means that everyone has a different interpretation of how to dress and why. Some people actively dress to get ahead and have their own definitions of what that entails. Others dress to be fashionable. Some dress to express themselves. Others dress to be attractive. And still others dress with no particular goal in mind.

Here is a list of a few of the objectives and perspectives that guide business people in their choices of business attire. Most people span several of these categories but often without enough thought to the perceptions that result.

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Dressing for Ambition

While in many ways dressing for career advancement can be a useful objective, perspectives can get people into trouble. For example, back in the 1980's, there was a department where the entire group of men dressed just like their leader, right down to the gold bracelets, oversized glittering watches, shiny designer suits, mod ties, and contrasting white collars on colored shirts. While the idea of dressing one notch up the organization's hierarchy is usually a good one, it's important to recognize the broader corporate culture so that the idiosyncrasies of one manager do not unduly influence his or her direct reports.

Dressing for Self-Expression

Nancy Reagan “branded” herself as the First Lady in red, but you may not want to make your clothing your most memorable aspect. Many people credit Richard Nixon as our best-dressed president because there was nothing distracting — or memorable — about his attire.

On the other hand, one of our clients only shops at Hugo Boss. He finds unique but appropriate clothing. He explained that he wants anyone who notices to realize that his clothing is different. It works for him, but he also happens to back up his unique attire with tremendous personal presence and hard-won credibility. In other words, his clothes never overshadow him.

It's important to find the right balance. Too much self-expression could create a visual distraction or even become career limiting. In some companies, visible tattoos, piercings, and even facial hair can impede advancement. Too little self-expression could leave you blending into the wallpaper or create inconsistencies that will blur people's perceptions of you. Whether or not you choose to be particularly expressive, you should have a clear sense of tastefulness that guides your choices of business attire.

Self-expression is all well and good, but ultimately your professional attire should reflect your professionalism. There are some clear steps to help you look your professional best. Begin with the notion that you are representing not just yourself, but also your employer, your department, and your team. Make a clear assessment of current standards of dress, written and unwritten codes, within these groups. Next, think about your goals, both in your current position and for attaining your next one. Finally, dress for the particular circumstance, taking into account, for example, the expected attire of your audience for a presentation.

Dressing for Sex Appeal

There are many ways to be sexy. The more blatant ones are obviously less appropriate for the office. Clothing that is skin-tight, thin, or transparent can draw attention away from your eyes (this is where people generally should be looking). While tight leather, sheer Spandex, or diaphanous materials may accentuate a person's many charms, they have little or no role at the office. Similarly, shirts open to the belly button or skirts that don't quite reach the mid-thigh could easily be distracting. On the other hand, skirts needn't drag across the floor and shirts don't need to be buttoned to the topmost button. A skirt that just reaches the top of the knee or a shirt that has the top button undone is fine for most workplaces. You need to strike a balance and to accept some key concepts in how business attire directs the eyes of your colleagues.

Your clothing should generally direct attention toward your face. Choose clothing that has enough heft, structure, and material to avoid being too revealing and choose color and accessories that tend to draw the eye upward. Typically, this means that the lightest and brightest elements of attire are closest to the face. This is the essence of formal business attire in that the dark suit and lighter blouse or shirt, with a bright scarf or tie, all draw attention up toward the face.

Business casual attire is more complicated. While you can still keep the brightest elements of your attire close to your face, there are more opportunities for distraction. Examples include the wash-board wrinkles that beset most cotton and linen pants and skirts as soon as you rise from a seat and the clinging, open blouse that can leave far too little to the imagination.

Dressing for the Fashionista

Hugo Boss once said that style never goes out of fashion. On the other hand, fashions do go out of style. While there are industries that require more stylish forms of attire, it is often simpler and cheaper to stick with more “classic” clothing. Now if you happen to be an editor at Glamour magazine, you will have to keep up with the times; but if you work at an investment bank, regardless of the scale of your clothing budget, you may want to consider the kinds of “looks” that withstand the test of time.

Most business casual dress codes do not offer enough guidance in this regard. It's important to recognize your organization's look (if it has one). Once you understand the look, there is no obligation to conform, but you should understand the impact of any departure. Standing out as fashionable is not always positive. It can suggest a set of priorities that may generate negative perceptions. Also, anyone at the cutting edge of fashion runs the risk of looking “wrong“ in the eyes of others — either because of a departure from the norm or because the “fashion forward” look may rub the wrong way.

Dressing for ... Whatever

Leaving your clothing to chance prevents you from defining your image and shaping perceptions of yourself and your organization. Not caring about how you look can translate into sloppiness and slovenliness. These images can, however unfairly, guide people's perceptions of your work. Some people interpret business casual as “wear whatever I want.” That could be a torn t-shirt, tattered cut-offs, and battered flip-flops. While there may be some corporate cultures where that is appropriate, there are not many. We have also heard stories of managers needing to confront employees about dirty clothes, body odor, unkempt hair, and even making it clear that underwear is not optional.

While every organization has its own culture and standards of dress, there are a few universal guidelines. First, dress appropriately for your organization, your department, your team, your position, and yourself. Next, always think about the impressions you may be generating and decide if they match your objectives. Finally, if you are speaking in public, make certain your attire and grooming are appropriate for both the audience and the circumstance.

Reprinted from PS for Business Communicators®, ECG's client newsletter.