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Office wear has made great strides in the past few decades, and the work-from-home revolution of the past few years has helped push this trend even further. Gone are the days of needing to wear stuffy, stiff, uncomfortable clothes to work– workplace attire has evolved alongside the workplace.
At the same time, dressing business casual doesn’t mean you can show up to work in your sweatpants or sign on to a Zoom call wearing that oversized t-shirt you love to sleep in.
If the dress code in your office is decidedly business casual, it can be difficult to discern exactly where you’re supposed to fall on that spectrum. That’s why we’ll deeply dive into what business casual means, how the definition can vary between industries, and the guidelines you can use to ensure your look is always on point.
What Does Business Casual Really Mean?
Business casual for women is a style that, when done right, hits upon the perfect blend of professionalism and personal style, with a touch of comfort thrown in. It’s the dress code that lets you express your femininity while still nailing that work-appropriate look. Think of it as your chic and approachable work wardrobe.
At the same time, business casual isn’t a one-size-fits-all deal; the standards can vary quite a bit between different industries. Think of it as a fun opportunity to sprinkle some personality into your work attire. Depending on the type of office you work in and your industry, business casual can range from emphasizing the business side of things to the more casual side.
For example, working in a creative industry can mean you have much more wiggle room for self-expression– in this instance, you might feel free to embrace bold colors, quirky patterns, and unique accessories.
On the other end of the spectrum, working in finance and legal professions will mean that business casual leans towards classic and timeless. You’ll want to stick to a sophisticated color palette (blacks, grays, and navy are your best friends) and keep your makeup understated and elegant while opting for classic accessories like pearls or simple gold jewelry.
Business Casual: General Guidelines
Though what business casual really means will vary between industries and offices, there are some general guidelines you can use to help pick out the perfect outfit or build a solid capsule wardrobe.
Focus on the Fit
It’s easy to try and focus on particular pieces or outfit combos when thinking about the perfect business casual look, but more important than the specific blouse or casual dress you wear is how they fit and suit your body.
Fit is like the unsung hero of your business casual wardrobe. It’s the secret sauce that takes your outfit from just okay to absolutely fabulous. A great fit accentuates your best features and minimizes areas you’d rather not draw attention to. When your clothes fit you just right, it makes you look polished and professional while giving you a solid confidence boost as you go through the workday.
Stick With Clean Lines and Classic Styles
When you’re prompted to dress with a business casual style, getting creative and showing off some of your more trendy pieces can be tempting. Unless you work in a very casual or creative office, though, you can’t go wrong with sticking with clean lines and timeless favorites.
Clean lines and timeless styles exude sophistication, adding an air of refinement that’s hard to beat. When you opt for these classics, you look put-together and effortlessly graceful.
Another one of the benefits of sticking with the classic styles is their universal appeal. These pieces are designed with flattering cuts that work well for various body shapes and sizes. They accentuate your best features and provide a canvas to add your flair with accessories or pops of color.
Beyond that, investing in classic pieces will ultimately save you time and money. They stand the test of time, sparing you from frequent shopping trips to keep up with ever-changing trends. When you choose classic styles, you’re not merely buying clothing but investing in a timeless wardrobe that can serve you for years to come. It’s a smart financial move and a fashion-forward one at that.
Choose High-Quality Fabrics
Even though you’re attempting to meet that perfect middle point between business attire and casual wear, you don’t want to skimp on fabric choice.
High-quality fabrics will withstand the test of time and also help your look appear more expensive– even if you got it at a discount. These fabrics don’t wear out easily or lose shape after a few wears. They’re your trusty companions that you can count on season after season. Investing in quality pieces may seem like a splurge upfront, but it pays off in the long run as your clothing lasts longer and maintains its pristine appearance.
High-quality fabrics not only feel good but also look impeccable. They drape elegantly, resist wrinkles, and maintain their color and texture, ensuring that you consistently project a polished and professional image. When you choose quality fabrics, your clothing speaks volumes about your attention to detail and commitment to excellence in your role.
When choosing the best of the best, go with natural fabrics like wool, silk, cotton, linen, corduroy, and twill. Classic and time-tested, they exude an elegance that synthetics often can’t achieve.
Avoid Showing Too Much Skin
One guideline that applies to almost any industry or office is avoiding showing too much skin. Save your crop tops and blouses with plunging necklines for heading out with the girls after work.
Striking the right balance between femininity and professionalism is key in business casual. In the business realm, your appearance reflects your competence and credibility.
While expressing your personal style is wonderful, it’s equally crucial to maintain a professional image. Revealing too much skin can send unintended messages that may not align with your career goals. By keeping your attire modest, you communicate that you take your work seriously and respect the professional setting.
Beyond that, when your outfit is modest and tasteful, it allows your skills, knowledge, and expertise to take center stage. Colleagues, clients, and superiors can concentrate on your ideas and contributions rather than being distracted by your killer body. It’s all about creating an environment where your professional capabilities shine brightly.
Abiding by this rule also makes your outfit more adaptable as you bounce from client meetings to meetups with your team. Modest dressing ensures that you’re always prepared for any situation. You can easily transition from a casual office setting to a more formal meeting without feeling out of place.
Go With Simple, Classic Accessories and Jewelry
Keeping your accessories and jewelry simple and classic can help you exude the professional vibe you’re going for while still falling within the business casual realm.
Sticking with the classics is the epitome of elegance when it comes to accessories and jewelry. Think of a delicate pearl necklace, a pair of stud earrings, or a chic leather watch. These pieces have stood the test of time and will never go out of style. By keeping your accessories and jewelry minimalistic, you won’t exceed the boundaries of business casual while still achieving that timeless charm effortlessly.
These pieces are also a great investment because they are versatile and adaptable. They seamlessly blend with various outfits and styles, making them perfect for different occasions and settings. Whether attending a client meeting, a team brainstorming session, a casual office day, or heading to the bar with co-workers after you clock out, these accessories are always on point.
Stick With Timeless Colors and Patterns
Are you sensing a theme? Though business casual can be a huge relief when it comes to your comfort at work, trendier items are best left for after hours.
If you work in a creative field, you can get away with being a bit more playful. In most sectors, patterns and prints should lean towards the small and subtle. Similarly, colors like navy, black, and gray are safe bets, off of which you can add a pop of color through your bag or other accessories.
Choose Darker Denim With a Slim Silhouette
Depending on where you work, jeans might be totally acceptable or a bit too casual for the workplace.
If you’re going with denim, stick with a slim silhouette in a darker wash. Acid-washed, ripped, or baggy jeans are best saved for a relaxing weekend or an outing with the girls.
Don’t Forget the Details
Sometimes, it’s the little things that really count. When keeping your look fairly classic and tame, attention to the small details can elevate your outfit to the next level.
This works in both the positive and negative sense– you don’t want your business casual clothes to be torn or covered in pet fur, for example. At the same time, a hem with a well-crafted and contrasting stitch can make your slacks appear more expensive and stylish.
Breaking Down the Business Casual Outfit
Now that we’ve taken a closer look at what business casual is and the general rules you want to follow, let’s examine what this means for each component of your outfit.
Blouses and Shirts
When choosing a business casual blouse or top, choose a solid-colored piece or one that has a simple, tasteful pattern.
Unless you plan on donning a cardigan or blazer for the workday, ensure your blouse has sleeves and steer clear of anything sheer.
Slim-fit tapered trousers or bootcut trousers are the way to go when it comes to business casual pants. Depending on your office culture, you might feel comfortable getting a little creative with the color or even pattern of your pants. If you’re unsure, it’s best to stick with neutral-colored pants and add a pop of color elsewhere through your top or accessories.
If you feel confident that jeans fit the dress code, choose darker washes without rips, tears, or stains. The fit should be slim (but not skin-tight.)
Dresses and Skirts
For many offices, dresses and skirts should be below the knee, even when the dress code is business casual. In warmer months, stick with dresses that have sleeves to ensure you still look adequately professional.
In cooler months, you can add some layers, like a blazer or cardigan, to make you look exceptionally polished.
Shoes and Accessories
Your shoes and accessories can help you add some interest to your outfit without appearing too casual or unprofessional. At the same time, it’s best to stick with more timeless options unless your office is uber-casual or you’re in a creative field.
You don’t want to look too stuffy or formal, but you also want to come off as polished, professional, and comfortable. Playing around with more formal pieces (think a pearl necklace or diamond stud earrings) with a more casual blouse to help strike the perfect balance.
When it comes to shoes, great options include penny loafers, kitten heels, loafer mules, and even classic white sneakers for more casual offices. This is an awesome opportunity to keep your feet comfortable while complimenting the larger concept of your outfit.
Tips From The Experts
Let’s look at some valuable insights from iconic fashion figures. Each of these offers a unique perspective on curating a refined, stylish, and professional business casual wardrobe.
Let’s dig in!
- Coco Chanel: “Simplicity is the keynote of all true elegance.”
Takeaway: Keep your business casual wardrobe simple and elegant. Invest in classic pieces like tailored blazers, button-down shirts, and well-fitting trousers or pencil skirts.
- Diane von Fürstenberg: “Style is something each of us already has, all we need to do is find it.”
Takeaway: Prioritize comfort and confidence in your business casual attire. Opt for pieces that reflect your personal style while adhering to the professional standards of your workplace.
- Christian Dior: “Simplicity, good taste, and grooming are the three fundamentals of good dressing and these do not cost money.”
Takeaway: Choose business casual pieces that flatter your figure without being overly revealing. A well-cut dress or structured top can convey both professionalism and style.
- Rachel Zoe: “Style is a way to say who you are without having to speak.”
Takeaway: Don’t be afraid to inject a bit of your personal style into your business casual attire, whether through a statement accessory or a unique piece of clothing that remains professional.
Remember, the key lies in balancing comfort with elegance, personal style with professionalism, and timeless pieces with current trends.
If you’re not comfortable, it’s hard to be confident. If you overthink your outfit, you may lose its simplicity and elegance. Wearing something that doesn’t align with your personal style can make it hard for you to feel like yourself. Despite this, it’s entirely possible to achieve comfort, confidence, and personal style while still adhering to your workplace’s dress code.
As you navigate the world of business casual attire, let these expert tips and quotes be your trusted companions on this stylish journey.
Parting Words of Advice
At the end of the day, the most important thing is that you find a style that works for you. After all, fashion is a way for you to express your true self and help you feel confident and amazing as you go through the day. When considering your outfit choices, you don’t just have to think about each look as an island– you can conceptualize a more holistic vibe that you exude, whether at a formal gala or just kicking it on the weekends.
Whether you’re allowed to dress business casual every day, on Fridays, or only every once in a while, starting off more conservative in your choices and taking a look at what business casual means for your office through the looks of your co-workers can be a great strategy. This way, you don’t have to deal with the anxiety of worrying that you’ve taken the “casual” side of things a bit too far.
Not sure exactly what your signature style is? Check out our guide to dressing your style and finding the right pieces to complement your unique look.