Business Casual vs Business Formal: What’s the Difference?

March 4, 2023

Clients often as us, “What’s the difference between business casual vs business formal?”

It seems like there’s no definitive manual to these dress codes. Everyone has their own opinions (including employers), and no one wants to wear the wrong thing at the wrong time.

Especially if you’re starting a new position. No one wants to be the only one wearing jeans in a room full of suits. Yikes.

Luckily, we have tried and true guidelines to help you dress the part wherever you go. Keep scrolling to finally decode this dress code mystery and to find what closet staples work for both.

Business Casual vs Business Formal: Which is Which?

Here’s a simple explanation of business casual vs. business formal.

Business casual is a relaxed approach to office wear. It’s the midpoint between a suit and a pair of jeans.

(Though some workplaces allow well-fitting, hole-free jeans, which can work well with a blazer and heels.)

Business casual pieces include:
– Dress pants
– Chinos
– Casual and formal tops
– Knee-length (or longer) skirts and dresses.

At NLW however, we prefer to think of business casual as “power casual”.

Why? Because power casual says that you’re in charge without trying too hard. It combines the best part of modern casual clothes with sophisticated materials and silhouettes.

You’re not just throwing on any old pair of chinos and a T-shirt. You’re dressing with purpose.

A Business professional (or formal) dress code is more conservative than the business casual dress code. Here you should:

– Cover your shoulders. Some offices are less traditional about this, but it’s a safe starting point.
– Dresses and skirts should hit around the knees (or longer)
– No low-cut tops.
– Formal blouses and tops
– Heels or Flats only

Another tip is to wear clothing that doesn’t wrinkle easily. You represent your company or employer, so remember to put your best foot forward. Remember it only takes 7 seconds to make a first impression.

Avoid anything you’d wear on summer vacation or a laid-back weekend. Always opt for timeless, subtle pieces over showy, trendy items.

When to Wear Business Casual vs Business Formal

Not sure when to wear business casual vs. business formal?

When in doubt, dress like the most well-dressed employee at your office who is on your same “level”. By that we mean, if you’re a department director, take your cues from the most stylish director of another department.

No matter what, it’s better to look put-together than messy.

Business professional attire goes best with a formal setting. This is you if you work in financial, leadership, legal, or other professional offices.

Another time to opt for business formal is if you often see peers and bosses dressed up. It’s safe to assume that you should (literally) follow suit.

However, this doesn’t sentence you to rotate through the same three suits day after day.

Instead, it simply means paying more attention to integrating formal elements. This could include upgrading what type of fabrics you wear, or stepping up your shoe game.

Style Inspo for Business Casual and Business Formal Looks

Visualizing a full outfit for work doesn’t have to be difficult. When in doubt, turn to the internet. There are hundreds of resources to get your style wheels turning. Here are three of our favorite accounts to follow for business casual vs. business formal attire.

1. 9to5Chic

Anh at 9to5Chic shows you how to do power casual the right way. Visit her feed for realistic ways to style workwear must-haves with a contemporary twist. She’s also an excellent example of how to integrate pops of color into your wardrobe.

2. Lynn Mikolajczak

For women looking for business formal ensembles, Lynn Mikolajczak has you covered. She’s dedicated her account to true business professional looks. You’ll see how to wear a suit without feeling stuffy and what dresses work for upscale dress codes.

3. Next Level Wardrobe

Our founder, Cassandra Sethi curates the Next Level Wardrobe Pinterest with a mix of power casual and business professional outfits. You’ll find photos and advice for every office setting. (Plus helpful videos and blog links when you need more than an inspiration board.)

5 Closet Staples for Business Casual vs. Business Formal Dress Codes

Most people need a mix of both business casual and business formal pieces. They need something they can wear for an average day at the office plus something for important meetings.

That doesn’t mean you should overstuff your wardrobe with a hundred pieces for each situation. Doing that just sets you up for more closet-clean outs than you want to go through.

Instead, we recommend opting for pieces that can pull double duty. That way you have a streamlined, easy-to-use capsule clothing collection.

Below we’ve selected five pieces that work for all occasions. Say goodbye to playing the dress code guessing game.

1. The well-fitting black pant: a Must for Both Business Casual vs. Business Formal Closets

If you’re ever unsure of how to dress when there’s no dress code, black pants have your back.

Use them as a base for any outfit. Like a high-quality tee or a button-down. (Just make sure to always tuck in your top! It’s the easiest way to look like you know what you’re doing.)

Want to layer up? Add on a well-fitting blazer, and you essentially have a business professional-approved mix-and-match suit.

The same outfit becomes business casual if you simply remove the blazer and wear more casual shoes.

Fit and layers are important parts of determining what’s business casual vs. business formal.

Theory Demitria Wool Blend Flared Pants Business Casual Vs Business Formal

Product by Theory, shop here.

One of our favorite black pants to shop for is this pair by Theory. They have:

– A figure-flattering fit while still being office-appropriate
– A center crease for that touch of formal flare
– High-quality wool fabrication making them a lasting wardrobe piece.

2. The Ballet Flat

You can never go wrong with ballet flats.

For one, they’re a much more wearable, comfortable alternative to heels. If you’re on your feet all day or live in a city like NY where walking is essential, these are a lifesaver.

Secondly, the right pair of ballet flats always look chic. They’re understated, easy to partner with any outfit, and a cinch to put on for busy mornings.

Chloe Women's Lauren Black Ballet Flats Formal Vs Casual Office Attire

Product by Chloe, shop here.

A pair we recommend to clients is this scalloped version from Chloe. Why?

– It has just enough detail to feel fresh and new.
– The round toe keeps your toes comfy
– The Italian leather make is high-quality.

Add them to jeans and a lightweight sweater for your Monday kick-off meeting. Slip them on with a bateau-neck work dress for a conference. The possibilities are endless.

3. Business Casual vs Business Formal Staples: The Versatile High-Waisted Pant

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The high-waisted pant, especially one that ties, is another essential to both the business casual and business professional work environment.

A well-fitting pair will make you feel instantly put together on days when you just can’t find anything to wear.

Level up with a button-down or formal blouse and high heels. Also, consider pairing it with a blazer for added formality.

Business casual employees can use more casual tops and flats with this combination.

Whether you’re in a business casual vs business formal environment, the fit of your top matters here.

No baggy tops. It’s essential to wear a fitted top tucked in. This way, you balance out the flowier shape of your pants. Wearing too many loose pieces at the same time swallows up your silhouette and looks sloppy.

Ralph Lauren Herringbone Pants For Women's Business Formal Vs Business Casual Outfits

Product by Lauren Ralph Lauren, shop here.

We’ve already set you up with excellent black pants. So instead, try something more modern like these brown trousers from Lauren Ralph Lauren. With these you get:

– An updated cropped, wide-leg silhouette to keep you looking stylish, not stuffy
– A herringbone pattern to add variety and visual interest to your ensemble
– A breathable wool-cotton blend for seasonal versatility

4. The power dress: a business professional suit alternative

So often, women forget about wearing dresses to the office. But if you look at some of the most powerful women in the world, they wear dresses, not suits.

The Power Dress can replace the suit as a staple throughout the week. All it takes is picking the right fit, fabric, and style.

The best work dresses feature phenomenal tailoring and a conservative cut. They’re made from clean, high-end fabrics that don’t wrinkle or show signs of wear instantly. Above all, they’re time-proof. You can wear them in any year and still look like a leader who knows what she’s doing.

But let’s be real.

The best part about wearing dresses to work is their simplicity. Our clients tell us all the time that they prefer dresses because they can throw them in in a flash. They don’t have to fuss with pairing separates and worrying that they’re mismatched.

A dress is a one-and-done workwear solution.

But of course, there are some rules to follow.

1. Avoid anything low-cut. High necks, conservative bateau, crew necks, and minimal Vs are all safe options.
2. Triple-check your length. Women’s professional dresses should at least hit your knee and never be full-length. Knee-length or midi styles are welcome.

Product by Ted Baker, shop here.

A dress that never goes out of style is this design from Ted Baker. This gives you:
– A Sleeveless cut so you can wear this dress year-round
– A Figure-flattering silhouette that isn’t too tight or too loose
– V-neck detail that doesn’t show cleavage

5. How to Wear a Pantsuit: Business Casual vs Business Formal

When you’re thinking about business casual vs business formal a pantsuit probably seems to exist firmly on the formal side.

But you can wear your favorite suit pieces for either dress code. It all comes down to how you style them.

When you’re sitting in important interviews or presenting to the board, the full pantsuit conveys power and poise.

But when it’s a regular day, pairing a pant suit separates back to casual staples makes sense.

Individually, blazers go with dark jeans, a blouse, and heels on a casual Friday. Dress pants or a pencil skirt spiff up a casual tee in no time.

By rotating a few different shirts, you get weeks of wear before you’ve even repeated an outfit. Plus, you have the ability to tailor your professionalism to the day’s tasks.

Product by Alice & Olivia, shop here.

Take this power suit from Alice And Olivia, for instance. Here you have:

– A monochromatic color palette for a commanding look
– Velvet details to keep your ensemble interesting and personalized to your brand
– A trend-aware fit in the blazer and pants

All of these factors together make this suit a powerful player for your most important work days. Now take away the blazer and add a casual top. Or pop on jeans with the suit jacket. Now you’re ready for business casual.

Business Casual Vs Business Formal T Tahari Gingham Slim Leg Ankle Pants

Product by T Tahari, shop here.

The same applies to this checkered suit from T Tahari. Wear this as pictured with a black mock neck for a keynote speech. Or take off the jacket and add white sneakers for a lunch look.

Regardless of the pantsuit, few suits fit off the rack. Take the time to have a tailor ensure fit regarding pant and arm lengths.

Whether you need something business casual or business formal, Next Level Wardrobe is here for you. Our expert team offers image consulting and personal styling services to geared towards professionals ready to enhance their style.

About the Author - Cassandra Sethi
About the Author - Cassandra Sethi

Personal Stylist & Image Consultant

Cassandra Sethi is a Personal Stylist and Founder of Next Level Wardrobe, a luxury Personal Styling and Shopping Service that helps successful professionals of all ages and sizes. After working in the fashion industry for over 25 years, she used her expert knowledge to create a proprietary styling system called ‘The Next Level Wardrobe Style System' which guarantees clients more outfits with less items in their closet. NLW has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, The Tamron Hall Show, NY Mag, Huffington Post and more.

*Disclosure: Next Level Wardrobe only recommends products that we’d suggest to our clients or personally wear ourselves. All opinions expressed here are our own. This post may contain affiliate links that at no additional cost to you, Next Level Wardrobe may earn a small commission. Read the full privacy policy here.

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Cassandra Sethi

is a NYC Personal Stylist and Image Consultant. She is the Founder of Next Level Wardrobe and 'The NLW Style System' that guarantees clients more outfits with less items.

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