When the Meeting Agenda Says “Casual Attire”

Personal Branding

Recently, I attended a large business event in a warm and humid city in the Southeast. The agenda urged participants to dress “casual.” Not business casual. Women have largely cracked that code. For those who haven’t, there’s no shortage of advice. And retailers have special sections featuring business-smart brands like INC, JCrew, Lafayette 148, and my everything-old-is-in favorite, Halston Heritage.

But casual? You’re on your own.

The problem with “casual” is particularly acute when the occasion is an industry conference where you may be meeting many people for the first time—customers, competitors, potentially valuable contacts, or industry experts—whom you would like to impress.

Or it’s an internal gathering of the top tiers of your company’s leadership. “One thing that particularly stresses me out when I hear ‘casual’ is that senior company leaders may be at an event or meeting,” one senior female professional told me. “The CEO sets the tone and what he or she wears can be a wild card.”

And if the company is a multinational the event could include colleagues from around the world, each with a different definition of casual. You don’t know what small feels like until an effortlessly stylish Parisian has given your attire a coldly appraising once over.

At the gathering I attended, the conundrum of “casual” dress at a business event was a primary topic of hallway conversation among the approximately 25% of attendees who were women. “It’s stressful to find the right outfit that isn’t too casual or too formal” was a common refrain. “You don’t want to be over-dressed but you don’t want to come in yoga pants and a t-shirt” was another.”

How about splitting the difference with jeans? Okay, but what kind? Trouser jeans? Skinny jeans? Definitely not jeans with holes. And shoes—they’re a big enough problem any time. Everyone agreed that sneakers and flip-flops are a no-no, but beyond that the right footwear was up for grabs. From head to foot, women must ask themselves this question: “What impression will I make if I wear [insert item of clothing or accessory]?”

Husbands are no help. Said a female attendee whose husband was also at the event, “He wasn’t stressed at all about the dress code. When I asked him what he was planning to wear he said shorts and flip flops. I said no way. He said: Way.”

We took an informal poll of the men in attendance. Approximately 90% of those we asked said that they were perplexed by the word “casual” yet not concerned about clothing or accessory choice—or the impression their choices might make.

The good news for women is that we’re right to stress out about clothing. A salary.com survey of 4,600 business professionals found that 56 percent of respondents admitted that they make assumptions about people at the office based on how they’re dressed. Nearly a quarter of respondents said the dress codes in their workplaces are too lenient.

The next time you’re advised to wear casual attire to a business event you can reduce the stress by following these guidelines:

Use common sense: Dress for comfort. Wear clothes that fit. Avoid low cut or backless tops, tight dresses or skirts, ripped or faded jeans—and keep your tattoos and body piercings private.

Wear layers: If you are unsure just how casual your group is going to be, wear a few layers. You can always take off layers or put them back on based upon the formality or informality of the group. Your innermost layer should be the most casual, like a t-shirt or modest tank top, and then formal up to a casual blouse, and finally a cardigan sweater and then a jacket. And don’t forget, most meeting rooms are cold, so layers help keep you warm.

Accessorize: Nice accessories can redirect eyes from that blouse or pair of pants that you felt unsure about. You can always remove earrings, bracelets and necklaces or put them on depending upon the formality of the group and the activity you are engaged in.

Leave the bright red shirt at home: If you are unsure of how casual to go, choose pieces with more conservative colors – blues, black, gray, and tan are always safe. Brands like Iris and Ink and Eileen Fisher offer comfortable and elegant pieces in more muted tones.

Don’t cut corners with your shoes. Definitely, do not wear sneakers, flip flops, or strappy sandals. Select and wear stylish shoes that protect your toes. If nothing else, a good pair of shoes attracts favorable attention from people in the know.

And a final plea for meeting organizers: When you decree casual dress please be more specific. “Business casual” was enough of a contradiction in terms when it first appeared. “Casual business” is even worse.