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Business casual: It's one of the most dreaded word combinations in the office.

What was supposed to be simple has turned out to be wildly complex. Are short-sleeved shirts permitted? Denim skirts? Capri pants? And if a golf shirt is OK, why not a collared soccer jersey?

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The business-casual trend has created entire companies of people who are unsure of what to put on in the morning. Too often, they make the wrong choice. People think "it's OK to wear a tank top with bra straps showing because the tank's Dolce & Gabbana," says Alicia Kan, global head of communications for Synovate, a market-research unit of London's Aegis Group PLC.

Little wonder that Rachel Donaldson, a Denver image consultant whose clients pay her for work-wear advice, calls business casual "the black hole of style."

If you work in a corporate environment, it's just as important to get business casual right as it is to nail traditional business dress. Maybe more important: Savvy corporate politicians know that casual days are the times when their appearance will be most closely watched.

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"People actually judge more on those days because they assume they're seeing the real person," says Jonscott Turco, a New York psychologist and human resource-consultant.

Traditional business dress is seen as a uniform; it does for the office what uniforms do for prep schools. It simplifies decision-making and makes hierarchies easy to read. We all want to identify the upperclassmen when we step into the elevator.

When the uniform is put aside, people feel free to set aside the power signals and express their style sense. But they often fail to recognize that, just as in high school, they're still being judged. It's human nature to respond to visual cues. Bell-bottomed pants may be back, says Ms. Kan, but "the best dressers resist the urge to wear them, because clients balk when you show up looking like Charo."

Creative expression aside, there are few upsides to the business-casual trend for workers. Think it saves money on expensive suits? If only. Since different offices interpret it differently, moving from company to company can mean acquiring a new business-casual wardrobe at each career stop.

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A business casual look

Consider the progress of Neonu Jewell, export compliance counsel with Accenture in Chicago. At a Fortune 500 hospitality company where she used to work, a dress code barred denim -- so some people wore sweats. At her next job at a Washington law firm, senior attorneys were disapproving of women who wore open-toed shoes on summer Fridays. At Accenture, 37-year-old Ms. Jewell says, business casual still involves suits or at least carefully maintained slacks, shirts and blouses, which she says reflects the highly professional work environment there.

For some workers, the only solution to casual-dress confusion is to try to send the same messages of confidence, capability and power that traditional business attire conveys. Melisa Wilson, senior vice president for Union Bank of California in Los Angeles, works in the relatively new field of financing renewable energy, such as wind and solar power. But when it comes to dressing for work in her business-casual office, she prefers to upstage the khakis-and-golf-shirt masses. "I have been wearing more skirts and pants with heels," she says, noting that she tries to think "business appropriate" rather than business casual.

My survey of a half-dozen corporate style and image consultants indicates that women take more leeway with business casual than men, possibly because they have more choices to make. And that is creating business for the style consultants. "We're generally called in because a human-resource department has gotten sick of how the women are dressing," says Evelinda Urman, a Greenwood, Colo., image consultant whose company, Style Matters LLC, is often hired by human-resource departments to solve business-casual dilemmas.

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Without exception, the consultants I spoke to advised both men and women to stick close to traditional business attire. Men might remove a tie or wear dress pants and a nonmatching jacket. Women shouldn't reveal any more skin than they would in traditional office clothes.

Slacks and unmatched jackets are an oft-recommended option for women. Power signals, such as shirts with collars, well-made shoes and good watches, are important. And no garden-party looks, like capri pants and sun dresses. If you work in an office that frowns on open-toed shoes for traditional events, don't show up in sandals on casual Friday.

Ms. Urman suspects that one of the reasons that dresses have been such big sellers for women professionals is that they simplify the what-to-wear decision in a business-casual office. Dresses, though, should still signal competence and power. No plunging necklines, and keep the length near the knee.

The whole idea of dressing for business is to put a suit of armor around the body. Gretchen Neels, a Boston communications consultant, says she was asked recently by an M.B.A. student about the wisdom of buying a suit with trendy, long "city" shorts. "I told her, 'No way. Spend money on classics that include a skirt or pants, but preferably both,' " Ms. Neels says.

Sandy Dumont, a Norfolk, Va., image consultant, says she gets regular calls from corporate clients asking her to do workshops explaining proper business-casual attire. "I say, 'No,' because there is no such thing," Ms. Dumont says. "You are either dressed for business or for casual activities."

Write to Christina Binkley at christina.binkley@wsj.com

Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page D1

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About Christina Binkley

Christina Binkley has written for The Wall Street Journal since 1994, covering real-estate scams and follies, gambling and the hotel industry -- leading to an inevitable question. No, she is not a gambler.

In 2006, Journal editors decided that anyone who spent so much time in the Las Vegas wilds was a natural for the woolly fashion and luxury business. Christina writes On Style each Thursday, trying to make consumer sense of the world's oldest industry. (After all, people have been preening and pampering themselves since Eve gave Adam a fig leaf.)

Christina's book about the gambling moguls who turned Las Vegas into a luxury hub, "Winner Takes All," was published in March 2008 by Hyperion Books. She is a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and is married, with two children. She lives in the fashion outpost of Los Angeles.

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