Reader Request: How to Do Business Casual

business casual dress code

Reader Kass had this request:

I would love a how-to on business casual! I have a hard time with the in-between look of either suits or non-office wear, beyond black pants and a button down! Ugh.

So. I used to push the envelope a little at my “business casual” office, allowing myself to don the occasional leopard-print miniskirt or nutty hairstyle. And my boss couldn’t have cared less, and even complimented me on some of my more adventurous ensembles. But every office is different, and although you’ll certainly want to capitalize on the leeway that this dress code affords you, be careful how far you push that envelope. Use your judgment, as I’m sure you always do, and if you’re ever in real doubt, consult HR. Most companies have an actual description of their workwear policy, and it never hurts to find out if you’re going to be breaking it by donning your corduroy minidress or jersey knit romper.

That said, lemme give you a few basic guidelines for fun, creative looks that fall within my personal definition of “business casual.”

Start with TWO classic pieces as your foundation

Following this formula can help you fulfill the “business” part of the deal without compromising personal style. If you can build each outfit atop two clean-lined, classically-styled pieces and then add color and texture, sparkle and flash, you’ll look chic and pulled-together every time. A khaki blazer and red pumps are both conservative pieces, but paired with dark-wash jeans, a fitted tee, and a long chain necklace they lose all semblance of stodge. A knee-length pencil skirt and button-front blouse are steadfast classics, but pop a leather jacket over the shirt and slip on a pair of platform ankle booties and they’re both elevated to sleek modernity.

Go conservative with clothes, wild with accessories

While a pair of silk harem pants or a zebra-print sweater dress might thrill you, they might unnerve your clients and coworkers. Accessories, on the other hand, can be darned near outrageous when splashed across the canvas of a reserved outfit. Bold printed scarves, statement necklaces and earrings, stacks of bracelets, even the occasional hat will all pass muster when paired with solid colored, cleanly-tailored garments. And as for shoes … well, we’ll get there in a moment.

Only one shiny thing at a time

Shiny is good. GOOOOOD, I tell you … even in an office setting. But limit its application to a single item lest you earn the nickname “Disco Queen” from your coworkers. A sequined skirt with a like-colored cowl-neck sweater, a pair of metallic shoes with a matte sheath dress, a rhinestone-embellished tee under a fitted blazer … but never all three sparklies at once.

Clean jeans only, please

My business casual office limited jeans to Casual Friday, but I know that many offices are more lenient. If you’re going to do denim, pick any wash or color that tickles your fancy, but make sure that the jeans are in excellent condition. No rips, stains, bleach-tie-dyeing, exaggerated whiskering, or other embellishments. Crisp white, rich dark indigo, a uniform fade are all acceptable. Destroyed, studded, or trend-driven styles are typically ill-advised.

Buy exciting, eye-catching, OUTRAGEOUS shoes

Lawyers and execs generally limit their footwear to classic pumps and slingbacks, throwing in the occasional dressy sandal to spice things up. But you! You can buy insane Poetic License constructions that look like a seven-year-old on a sugar high designed them, and totally get away with it. And what’s more, indulging in fantastic footwear is a great way to add some spice to generally conservative looks. A plain old sheath takes on new life when paired with flower-embellished t-straps. Even jeans and a tee are made less casual and more adventurous when topped off with some studded platform pumps. Don’t spend big if you don’t want to, but bring a couple pairs of kooky shoes into the mix. You won’t be sorry.

When in doubt, err on the side of simplicity

Yes, there’s some “casual” in business casual. But you’re still in a workplace, and still want to look professional. Limiting ruffles, bows, embellishments, even wild prints will keep your looks clean and chic. I’m not saying never try a pussybow blouse or mixed-print ensemble. Just that business casual outfits can be comfy and cute but still somewhat conservative. Especially if you’re in a client-facing role, keeping your looks grounded in office-wear is a wise move.

I believe that the key to pulling off business casual with aplomb is to invest in some gorgeous-but-conservative pieces for your basic building blocks, and then sprinkle on the dressed-down funk via flourishes and footwear. I don’t think that business casual should mean black slacks and a button-down OR jeans and a tee every damn day, but instead a mixture of both formal and informal pieces united by eye-catching accessories.

For another great post on navigating the waters of the “business casual” world, be sure to check out Susan Wagner’s Business Casual Dos and Don’ts.

All images via Nordstrom

**Disclosure: Actions you take from the hyperlinks within this blog post may yield commissions for See Already Pretty’s disclosure statement for more details. Sustainable options are either used, handmade, made in the U.S., artisan made in non-sweatshop conditions, or made using sustainable/fair trade practices.

Originally posted 2009-05-22 05:46:00.

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29 Responses to “Reader Request: How to Do Business Casual”

  1. Gillian

    I’m so glad you talked about this, I should print out a bunch of copies and throw them around my office. A lot of my co-workers dress like they have no lighting in their apartments. I’m also trying to invest in shoes this summer, since I’m not really allowed to buy clothing.

  2. ~B~

    I fully agree with this post. It is much easier to enter your personailty via accessories like necklaces, brooches, shoes and rings(I am a sucker for a big cokctail ring) that way you are still going by the dress code for your office and not being blah. I did once work for a place that was so strict it had times you could wear open toe times you could not, and had policies on earrings. It was blah and I soon got bored and quit.=)

  3. chic

    Great advice! I think you’re right on with your points! S.

  4. salem

    Very interesting post, the are very practical.
    Thanks for sharing all this.

  5. The Raisin Girl

    This is so helpful. I used to hate dressing business-casual for work, but after this I wish I had a job that required it so I could give these suggestions a try.

    I’ve used earrings to spice up otherwise conservative outfits before. I used to have an outrageous collection of earrings, ranging from simple pearls or diamond studs to a pair of hot pink dinosaurs. I also had a few pairs of the same very large, dangly chandelier earrings in different colors that I would mix and match with my outfits (like, a navy blue one in one ear, a white one in the other).

  6. dapper kid

    Business casual is more of a minefield for women than men, but that being said, women are usually far more creative from what I have seen. I agree wholeheartedly on the accessories front, even the most boring outfit can be transformed entirely with a splash of well measured colour. It can help add that sense of personality to an otherwise ‘uniform’ like outfit. And dark jeans are definitely the way to go, they are the perfect smart casual touch 🙂

  7. Clare

    While my office is pretty uber-casz, I often pump up the dress code to “business casual” just so that I can feel like what I’m doing is serious and worthwhile (unfortunately, it usually isn’t!). I still rely heavily on jeans (you’re absolutely right, clean is key!), but try to spice things up with color, shoes, and accessories. I LOVE your how-to, as it perfectly encompasses most of the hard-and-fast rules I try to follow with my workplace dress. Thanks for pointing these out!!

  8. WendyB

    I’d like to meet the person who would dare call me out for a dress code violation!

  9. Leanna

    Love #2 and #5…two great ways to allow oneself to still feel like an individual while adhering to work-code attire.

  10. Tina (SoontobePhD)

    Good god I’m glad I teach at the college level. If I have showered and brushed my hair I am ahead of half the profs. Seriously.

    The big rule I follow is to look more conservative than my students, even though sometimes that means looking like a nun next to Lil’ Kim.

    Navigating the business-casual jungle can be downright daunting.

  11. vespabelle

    One of my rules is that open toed shoes can only be worn with long pants or skirts. If I’m going to show leg with skirt, the shoes have to be closed toe and back. It’s part of the “not too much skin rule.”

    I do violate the official dress code by wearing denim pants, but they’re dark trouser cut jeans so I don’t feel too rebelious!

  12. Christina Lee

    very sound advice Sal (this is the first time your site hasn’t booted me off- I havent been able to get on for some strange reason) arghhh!

  13. AsianCajuns

    What great tips, Sal! I usually don’t have to do conservative (I’m a graphic designer, so people don’t blink if I wear cycle shorts and heels), but Catherine does. She works for our local city government, so even shoes we consider to be “demure” are sometimes questioned. I like to add her work outfits on our blog, so people can be inspired by real clothes instead of the what I can get away with at work.
    Your break down takes it to the next level and makes dressing for work sound more fun 😉

  14. allison

    When trying to retain a sense of style at the office it’s all about blouses, blazers, and belts. Those three things will transform any pencil skirt or trouser into a funky outfit. When it comes to saving money on work clothes, I always shop where I get cash back at stores like J.Crew, Nordstrom, and Shopbop!

  15. Winnie

    Yes yes to the statement jewellery. I have always loved that look with office wear. Keeps it fun and less drab.

  16. The Seeker

    Very informative and interesting post, my dear.
    All the tips are here.


  17. lisa

    Great tips! Dark wash jeans are a near-daily staple for me. I try not to show to much skin; cleavage or a V-neck that’s a bit too deep are definite no-nos. In the summer I like knee-length dresses, skirts, capris, and bermuda shorts. I’m not too fussed about baring my arms, but I’m not comfortable with the idea of wearing a strappy cami to work. The tank shouldn’t leave my back and shoulders too bare!

  18. Jenava

    It’s such a coincidence that you posted about this today. I saw a young lady wearing flip flops and a halter maxi dress at work today. I know it’s Friday, but we’re not on a tropical island or outdoor concert, people!

  19. ♥Jozee

    Hmm– no higher than the knee? I personally believe it’s ok to wear dresses/skirts just above the knee (1-2in) in business casual offices.

  20. Kari

    Sal, thanks for posting this. I’m currently working in a more-on-the-casual-side of business casual kind of company where just about anything goes, and it’s allowed me to have some flexibility to try out both casual and professional looks and find a style I’m comfortable with. However, since my job will be ending soon, I’ve been curious about how to incorporate my developing style if I end up in a strictly business casual environment again. These guidelines are great!

  21. bifocalsandrippedjeans

    Hi Sal, I love your blog! Business casual is my life time work wear. I recently retired as an elementary school teacher and well remember my mother’s shock, back when I first started, that I wouldn’t be wearing skirt suits and hose!She had soooo wanted to take me shopping, but was NOT into the casual clothes we wore back then in classrooms where we sat on the floor with the kids! Time passed and I realized that some outfits lent me a certain “gravitas” – very handy when meeting with parents (my real “clients” after all) – things like jackets, cardigans, turtlenecks, scarves. Structured clothing items with a collar that emphasized shoulder and face. I found “approachable” and “casual” were in the fabric choice – like tweeds or the collar style like shawl collars. Some schools don’t allow teachers to wear jeans. So my work wardrobe “uniform” was slowly born – tweedy suits, often vintage, worn “broken up”; colorful solid or print blouses with a collar; turtlenecks, cardigans in colors or neutrals. A typical teaching outfit might be, chocolate linen wide leg pants, a pale lime silk blouse, and a 60’s tweed jacket in turquoise, yellow, green and orange, pewter pointy toed flats.(I love heels and big jewelry, but they don’t combine safely with children!) I might also wear a multi-colored psychadelic print blouse, bright cashmere cardi and a conservative gray herringbone suit with chocolate suede flat boots. When I worked in a flower shop soon after I retired, I switched out the bottoms for dark wash jeans…and was constantly mistaken for the owner! That’s another story. You are right that your personality can and should shine through in your outfits. For me it’s all in the mix.

  22. Spandexpony

    Those poetic license shoes are seriously insane. In the best way possible!

  23. fleur_delicious

    I started building my professional wardrobe when I put myself through college working at upscale retail boutiques. For years, I only purchased investments in my professional look. Now, eight years later, I might be the only TA in my doctoral program regularly sporting heels and blazers for regular days of teaching and classes, but it’s because business cas long since overtook the majority of my closet!

    I like Ann Taylor LOFT, great basics and super deals in their clearance sections; J. Crew is still expensive for me, but it’s been invading my wardrobe piece by massively-reduced piece because their fabrications are glorious; I keep a weather eye on anthropologie clearance racks (adds some funky flair to my more buttoned-up pieces); Banana Republic’s clearance rack for sweaters, skirts, blazers. I also really encourage people to check out their local second-hand shops, and even ebay, either for staples on super discounts (I don’t buy anything expensive on ebay – what if it doesn’t fit?) or for fun/funkier pieces at less of an economic investment. Women’s consignment shops also rock my world lately; there’s generally less of a ridiculous markup than at chains like Buffalo Exchange, Redlight and Crossroads Trading Company (you listening, you three?), and the clothes are usually better quality AND less youthful-trendy. Wins all around.

    These days, I find I’m upgrading my shoes, though slowly. I agree; footwear with flair is huge. I’m still surprised that straight men actually notice shoes. Who knew?

  24. tis serendipity

    Nice post! I like what you said about going outrageous with accessories as a way to elevate the outfit from conventional workplace gray/black/white humdrum styles. Will definitely be coming back to this post when I enter the workforce next time 😉

  25. joliefille

    Love it! I'm a new teacher and I need to build my business casual wardrobe. Fabulous article, great advice and a wonderful blog!