‘Business casual’ attire around the world
Many Japanese executives have shed the traditional suit in favour of a more casual look. (Brent Winebrenner/LPI)
“Two of my least favourite words in the English language are ‘business casual’ as it means different things to different people,” said Joyce Newman, president of the Newman Group, which offers high-level speaker, media and image consulting to global executives. “The definition varies widely between cities, countries, cultures – even industries – and it’s a real dilemma for travellers because you never get a second chance to make a good first impression.”
Firstly, business casual dress varies between men and women. While men are often safe wearing khakis and a button down shirt, the permutations for women are endless. "Business casual for women can best be categorized by what it's not than by what it is. For example: no jeans, no shorts, no low necklines, no miniskirts, no stiletto heels,” said globetrotting Claudia Kozma-Kaplan, who heads up marketing for the Leading Hotels of the World.
In some regions, the term business casual simply does not translate. Frankfurt-based financial industry executive Johannes Jacobi said. “Most Germans feel more comfortable in the familiar suit and tie – invitations to business casual events in the US or elsewhere are usually met with angst and a lot of questions.”
Also, appropriate business casual attire in one country or region is not always acceptable elsewhere. An Indian executive might feel comfortable wearing a traditional kurta (a loose fitting shirt worn by men and women that extends to just above the knees; worn with pants) to an event in Hyderabad, but would probably feel awkward wearing one in New York. Similarly, a Puerto Rican executive who might wear a guayabera shirt to a business casual event in San Juan should probably leave it at home when travelling on business to London.
On the other hand, should a visitor wear a kurta or guayabera when visiting India or San Juan? Bermuda shorts in Bermuda? Maybe… or maybe not. According to Newman, calling ahead for advice is the best way to avoid the potential embarrassment of over- or under-dressing at an unfamiliar business casual function.
“Ask someone who has been to a similar event in that country before,” counselled Newman. “Use your travel agent, your friends or social media networks for advice about what to wear. Eventually, with ‘six degrees of separation’, you will find someone in-the-know.”
Beyond the safe global standard of jackets or blazers, khaki or gray slacks, and leather shoes, below is a primer to how business casual varies around the world.
“Business casual is essentially the same for both men and women in Australia,” said Sydney-based management consultant Peter Braithwaite. "If it's an event, men should wear a collared shirt, pants and jacket, with leather shoes. You may find jeans, but that is pushing it a bit. For women, a skirt, dress or pants are okay. Heels aren’t necessary, but never sandals -- for men or women.”
In Latin-influenced islands such as Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, local men frequently wear informal-looking guayaberas to business casual or formal events —even weddings. On the other hand, women tend to “dress up” in cities such as San Juan where “casual Fridays” usually mean high heels, flashy jewellery and bright colours. But proper attire could differ on the next island over. “When I first went to the Caribbean, I was expecting business casual to be the norm, but was surprised at how formally locals dressed in places like Trinidad, Barbados, Jamaica and Haiti due to the European influence on their cultures,” said international development consultant Linda Carlson.