Business casual dress codes can be difficult to navigate. To some people, ‘business casual’ means dressing down to jeans and a t-shirt, but to others, it simply means that you don’t have to wear a suit. Depending on your industry, your geography, and your company, the pendulum swings far and wide. But luckily, the varying degrees of business casual can be boiled down to three main camps:
- Traditional business casual, where the norm is just shy of a business suit (mostly found in finance and the legal world).
- Middle-of-the-road business casual (the vaguest one), where it’s an ‘anything goes’ approach, with various unwritten but in-practice rules. Many industries fall into this category, especially fashion and marketing.
- Super casual business casual, which I sometimes refer to as ‘Bay Area business casual’ (since I’m based in San Francisco). Tech companies are typical of this, where it’s common to see graphic t’s and cargo shorts roaming the halls.
So how do you dress in a business casual environment, in a way that aligns with your corporate culture, supports your career goals, and doesn’t force you to be someone you’re not?
That’s the question I answered in a recent presentation to a team of event planners. This group has the unique challenge of working with clients from various industries, each with an established dress code of its own - so their wardrobes need to be über-versatile and transition seamlessly among the range of dress codes. So whether you need to maneuver among differing dress codes in your own job, or you just need a little help deciphering what works in your office, read my tips on how to take a few basic pieces and outfit them for the three degrees of business casual.
The great thing is that no matter how you dress for work, there are key styles that form the backbone of any working woman’s wardrobe. These essentials transcend dress code guidelines – it’s all about how you outfit them (and they also work off-duty, as well!).
A solid, structured knit dress is one piece that you’ll grab again and again – and it’s ideal for work travel, too. Take this straightforward navy sheath – if your industry is on the traditional/conservative side of business casual, pair it with a basic (but not boring) shaped twill blazer. Add a floral print scarf for a dash of pattern, and some walkable heels. You’ll be ready for any business meeting where the standard is below the formality of a suit, but still on the very professional side.
The same navy dress works if you’re in a middle-of-the-road industry, where it’s more of a ‘you be you’ approach, or you work in marketing, fashion or a creative function. In this environment, a leather jacket is your best friend, especially this grey one from Nordstrom. Finish off your outfit with a standout necklace and sleek booties, and you’re oh so good to go.
Can you wear a dress if your office is super casual? Definitely! Throw on this Kut from the Kloth dark denim jacket (the ultimate casual-izer) and some easy metallic flats, and get on with your day.
A third piece (aka a jacket, blazer or cardigan) is key in completing an outfit and making you feel pulled together – which means it’s perfect for the office. This Theory tweed jacket is sort of a closet chameleon – it works in so many ways. Over an asymmetrical blouse and tailored pants, it fits in a traditional dress code, while still being super stylish.
If your office is a little more trendy, put that jacket over a floral dress for a fun and timeless print mix.
And if you work in a very dressed-down environment – the same tweed jacket goes with a striped turtleneck and dark jeans, just add some slip-on sneakers to complete the look.
Yes, jeans are accepted in many business casual offices – but you can never go wrong with a pair of tailored ankle pants. Again – it’s not 100% about the specific item, it’s about what you wear with it! Pair charcoal stretch pants with a tailored blazer and this Equipment abstract print blouse, and you’ll command attention at any and every meeting.
Take it down a notch with a cozy Rebecca Taylor sweater layered over a crisp white shirt – the longer top under a cropped sweater is a fun, fashion-y touch. Add grey suede booties or menswear-inspired flats to complement your polished, office-ready outfit.
Is your workplace super casual? Then a simple tank and cardigan ensure a comfortable but put-together look.
Remember – no matter how you dress, keep it appropriate, professional, and authentic to you. Feeling great about how you look supports your confidence, and don’t we all want to feel confident at work?
How do you dress for work? Does it align with these examples, or is your office dress code somewhere in between? Let me know in the comments!