Friday, July 30, 2010

Cracking The Code On Business Casual

If you are like me the phrase "business casual" conjures a picture of pleated khakis and a golf shirt, neither of which I would  be caught dead in. That term cropped up often in my corporate life, whether  on a memo for "casual Friday" or an off site meeting.  If was followed by "Jeans OK" I relaxed a bit. But mostly it caused me to break out in a sweat over what I was going to wear.

The definition is pretty clear if you are a man.  No tie, the dreaded khakis, sports coat, and for those really daring men, perhaps sockless as long as those feet are tucked inside an expensive pair of loafers. Definitely no sneakers and a pressed, pulled together look. But how does this translate for women?

I'll tell you it doesn't. In the post Mad Man era, this to me has always been one of those unspoken reminders that we women are relative newcomers to the business world and femininity has little place.

My closet never contained  "business casual" mostly because I never really figured out what that meant for women.  I had my work clothes, the suits and dresses that I collected that fit into my fashion mantra of look good and feel good with style. Then I had my play clothes, that for the most part would be looked upon as too distracting at a conference table.  So when "business casual" cropped up on the menu I mixed and matched some concoction that fit in with my mantra and made me feel  "casual".  There is no doubt that the longer my seniority and the higher up I went on that corporate ladder, the more I pushed the conventional envelope. I had, after all earned it.

When  I saw "Attire: Business Casual" on the agenda for a seminar I attended yesterday I felt that old famaliar twisting angst in my stomach. If I didn't have a lot in my closet that fit the bill when I was in the corporate world I have less now. And as a Personal Coach, Author and Blogger who works from her home "business causal' might mean yoga pants and flip flops.

I struggled until I found something that would work with temperatures hovering near 90 in NYC and worries about how high the air conditioning might get. I read a feature in  The Times on how New York women dressed to deal with the heat, but none of the suggestions would be deemed appropriate in any office I worked in, business casual or not.  I went with my fashion mantra, what I felt good in, was comfortable, looked pulled together and stylish and perhaps stretched the limit of what others might deem appropriate. If I am reinventing my business life, I can reinvent how I dress for it.

But I did giggle when I saw the speaker hit the stage, the same one who had written in the clothing attire suggestion, a self made millionaire, stood in a sleeveless magenta dress with a plunging neckline and strappy sandals that would be deemed worthy of Carrie Bradshaw. Clearly she too has struggled with what the term "business casual" means for women.

The bigger issue is that even in a new century  what women should or should not wear in business remains unclear and controversial, something that is not true for men.  For me what I wear is a statement of who I am, how I am feeling on a given day and where I am off to, business or otherwise. I dress  to please only myself with the caveat that I am pulled together and wearing clothes that fit well. Or as my friend Lori Sutherland,  soul stylist and founder of Dame Lori Ltd  says in a way that taps into "the essential life force spirit within each of us." 
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