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
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