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Dress Code
What “Business Casual” Really Means For Women
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What is Business Casual For Women?

In general, business casual means slacks (pants that are not jeans) and a blouse or nice top (think no crops, t-shirts or cotton tank tops), a skirt or a dress. Popular combinations often include a nice blouse with a blazer and black slacks, or a 3/4 length collared blouse and a skirt or a dress that's about knee length or longer. Some offices allow jeans and polos as part of "business casual," and others have even looser definitions. It depends on your workplace norms.

Business Casual Tips

For any recent graduate or professional who’s about to start working and needs some ideas for what a business casual wardrobe looks like during the interview process, as well as the day-to-day, we have you covered.

 1. For your interview, dress up a bit more than the average employee.

As Oscar Wilde said, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” Make your first impression one where the focus is on you and what you bring to the table, rather than your jewelry or the hemline of your skirt. When in doubt, there's never any harm in going for a knee-length skirt. 

If you’re interviewing for a job at a place that you know takes a relaxed attitude, you should still make sure your business casual looks smart. Classic combinations that never go wrong include a dress (with or without a cardigan, depending on the season), or black slacks with a nice, solid-colored top.

Source: Rostislav Sedlacek / Adobe Stock

Don't underestimate the effect pretty blouses or dressy shirts can have to dress up the most mundane of slacks. But certain items probably don't fit the bill for business casual for women, e.g. polo shirts (even though they are collar shirts) with khakis, probably are a bit too informal.

If you feel like putting on a blazer, that’s acceptable especially given the range of women's blazers these days, but you’ll want to avoid a business suit for business casual interviews. 

What if you’re interviewing in a more aggressively casual environment like a startup? Let’s put it this way: even if the CEO is wearing hoodies and jeans, doesn’t mean that s/he thinks people should show up for interviews wearing that. Also, to some extent, there is a uniform for people in startups.

Source: Mavoimages / Adobe Stock

Fairly or unfairly, male developers tend to get away with things like loose t-shirts and jeans and from what we’ve seen around startup offices, sometimes women are held to a higher standard. Look, that sucks, and we get it. But since you don’t yet know what the dress code is where you’re interviewing—and you don’t want to risk coming across as sloppy—just move on and avoid jeans and a sweatshirt to be on the safe side.

At certain startup interviews, jeans may actually be a totally appropriate and acceptable part of business casual attire. Whether jeans will work all depends on the rest of your ensemble. If jeans come paired with some jewelry, and a nice shirt with a blazer (and isn’t ripped or tie-dyed), you can pull it off and not worry too much, especially if it’s an office where everyone else is wearing them. 

2. Invest in some basics.

Even if you love shopping, buying work clothes sounds like, well, work. Imagine spending some of your hard-earned cash on something dull like black slacks that aren’t fun enough for a night out on the town, but don’t look frumpy either. While we haven’t yet met anyone who particularly relishes trying on pants for the office, once you find your brand for basics and figure out your size, you (hopefully) will never have to think about it again.

But how many of these basic items will you need? Nobody will notice whether your grey dress pants and your black slacks are the same brands: trust us. Or if you have basically one go-to designer. If you hate pants and like dressing up, there are ample possibilities with business casual clothing. Go for a smart pencil skirt, flattering sweaters, and stylish jacket options.

If you're not into fashion, you're in luck with business casual wear because ultimately, what matters is that you can throw on an assortment of tops to go with those slacks without worrying about fit or color coordination when you’re too groggy to think straight or super stressed out about being late to work in the morning.

Speaking of tops, what kinds are appropriate for business casual? It’s almost easier to talk about what is a faux pas than what to wear. Cross off anything that includes sequins, rips, graphic designs, shows too much cleavage, is too tight, exposes your midriff, is backless or looks like a wife-beater tank. In short, don’t look like you’re going out to a bar on a Friday night.

You’re staying on the safe side if you stick with neutral colors and are probably going to be fine with any type of button-down shirt, cardigan, sweater, turtleneck, dress (that’s not too formal or tight or involves spaghetti straps), or tunic styles. What about T-shirts? It all depends on whether they are “normal” t-shirts (like the kind you buy at a basketball game) or a dressy designer one. If in doubt, avoid it.

 3. Consider your hair and makeup. 

There’s a lot of conflicting information on this topic. What if you’re inclined to be “au naturel” or conversely, always feel better wearing a full foundation and bright red lipstick? Just be conscious of your choice and think for a moment of how others may perceive it.  

The right answer for you may be that you don’t care. Or that your makeup is your choice and has nothing to do with your work output. Or that you do want to tone things down / dress things up a bit more. Whatever you decide, all we’re saying is there’s no harm in giving some consideration to something you may otherwise do as a matter of habit.  

4. Shoes are a much bigger part of business casual than you’d think.

For borderline casual-business-casual outfits, your shoes can make a huge difference. Slim-cut jeans with a sweater? Wear them with some Chuck Taylor’s and flip flops and you’ll look pretty casual. But pair them with a pair of patent leather high heels? Suddenly, you look a lot more dressed up and looking smart casual. Take advantage of this dress-up-or-down shoe power and transform some of the more casual items in your closet into work-ready wear. It’s one of the easiest—but least talked about—ways to “dress up.”

 5. Pay attention to social cues.

We know, we know. Authenticity is all the rage. And for a reason. Who doesn’t want to express themselves and be comfortable in the clothing of their choosing? Maybe you love hot pink and glittery colors but aren't sure how to pull off these hues in the workplace. It's important to listen to your instincts, here. While we’re not trying to cramp your style, you may want to be more conscious of how your clothing may be impacting the perceptions people have of you.

Even people who know you have perceptions of you that are in some way shaped by your choice of clothing. Your manager, colleagues, and even clients. In the end, as in so many complex topics, there’s no right answer for how a business professional makes her wardrobe choices. By all means, stand out and be your own person, but know what you’re getting into — the pros and the cons — if you’re someone who wants to make a fashion statement rather than fit in with the crowd.

6. Take dress code cues based on what your colleagues are wearing.

Dress codes for work — and definitions of business casual clothing — can vary widely depending on the company and company culture. While your company may not have a formal, definitive dress code in play, pay attention to both dress codes for women and dress codes to men simply by observing what they seem to wear on a daily basis. 

What about casual Friday?

Maybe your company has casual Friday at work, meaning there’s a casual Friday dress policy in place that allows employees to dress more informally on Fridays. You may want to invest in casual Friday jeans that don’t have a ton of holes in them. Always avoid inappropriate or overly revealing clothing and anything that looks sloppy. Casual still means office attire. 

Examples of Business Casual by Industry


IndustryClothing
CorporateBlazer, slacks, blouse, blazers, dresses (knee    length or longer)
Startup Nice jeans or khakis, blouse, skirt, or dress
Casual officeJeans or slacks, nice t-shirt or blouse, dress, skirt

Step-by-Step Guide to Finding Business Casual Clothes for Work

1. Taking into account your industry, the way coworkers dress, and your own aesthetic, make a list of items you will need for work. This might mean a few pairs of black slacks, a half-dozen blouses, undershirts and you're set. Or, you could consider a capsule wardrobe (Pinterest is great for inspiration), where you mix and match 30 or so total items for a variety of looks.

2. For the budget-conscious: Take a look at your closet. You might already have many of the items or be able to pair articles of clothing to make them work as outfits for the office. For example, if you work in a casual startup, pairing together some nice jeans with a basic top and jacket will work well. Also, remember that you can repeat a pair of basic slacks in one week if you switch up your top.

3. Go shopping for the articles you still need. Department stores, shops that specialize in business casual like Banana Republic, Express, the Gap are a great bet. TJ Maxx and Marshalls are also good options for office fashion on a budget. And remember, you can extend your wardrobe by looking for items you can mix and match, not just complete outfits.

4. Don't forget the shoes! Look for versatile, classy flats and heels that could work with multiple outfits and styles. Zappos offers free returns for those who like shopping from the comfort of their couch!

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