A business casual dress code is supposed to be a good thing. After all, it means an escape from the restrictive world of suits, pumps, hose, and button-down shirts. It allows you to wear clothes that are perhaps more colorful and definitely more comfortable.
In theory, it allows you to express your sense of style more than the typical office dweller might be able to. So why do so many women grimace when they hear those two words? It’s because many of us aren’t sure what “business casual” really means.
“Business casual” is a common term, but it can cover as many different dress codes as there are offices. The good news is, if your employer hasn’t spelled out exactly what you are or aren’t allowed to wear to work, you can stay in the sartorial clear by remembering a few basics. Essentially, the rules of business casual for women are the same as those that underlie any dress code: what you wear communicates a message about who you are, and that can be positive or negative.
Here are six suggestions for you if you’re ready to de-complicate business casual for women:
Keep your casual classy. The biggest mistake most women make with this particular dress code is to go too casual. No matter what your office policy is (even if it does require a suit every day), what you wear is still making an impression on your boss, coworkers, and clients. Make sure that your work clothes fit you well, are made of quality materials, are flattering, and are age appropriate. Tomazin is adamant that casual does not give you the leeway to wear flip flops, old scuffed shoes, tight or revealing clothing, or ripped jeans. When you are purchasing new pieces (or just choosing what to wear in the morning), remember that you can’t go wrong with classic.
Start with a good foundation. Having a few quality pieces in basic colors will give you a lot of coordinating wardrobe options throughout the week (and will place less stress on your wallet). Consider buying key pieces like skirts, t-shirts, and pants that fit you well in browns, grays, blacks, or navy blues. Tomazin points out that business casual for women allows for you to choose fabrics like gabardine, cotton, or Lycra blend.
Go for quality over quantity. It can be tempting to stick with the sale racks instead of shelling out for more expensive pieces. But Tomazin says that instead of buying several lower-quality items, it’s much smarter in the long run to invest in fewer, higher-quality pieces. And if an item is worn or your shoes are scuffed, she says, toss them (or have them fixed). Your clothes speak for you, and the message that low quality sends speaks volumes.
Take casual to the next level with column dressing. Column dressing is a great way to make sure you look pulled together, no matter what you are wearing. Choose a color that flatters you and build from there. The column look—a top and pant or skirt in the same base color—is vital in extending the wardrobe and will make you look thinner and taller. Then you have many options for a jacket or cardigan in an accent color. Tomazin recommends giving your column a little pop with a fun accessory.
Have fun with your accessories. Take advantage of business casual’s relative freedom by having a little fun with your wardrobe. A great way to add punch to your outfit (without going overboard) is to accessorize with fun prints and bold colors. Try an animal print scarf, a playful pair of brightly colored flats, or a colorful or chunky necklace that makes a bold statement. (But please don’t wear them all in the same day!) In order to really let your accessories shine, Tomazin says, wear them with basic pieces and colors (like black).
Dress up your denim. If your office allows you to wear jeans (lucky you!), then you shouldn’t abuse the privilege. Just because jeans are allowed, don’t assume it’s okay to wear your oldest, slouchiest pair. Jeans in a darker wash convey a dressier, refined look. Tomazin suggests choosing a tailored fit or a trouser jean and pairing it with a fitted blazer and ballet flat.
Ultimately, you should take the opportunity to express yourself that business casual offers. You should feel confident when you get dressed on a business casual day or if your firm is having an off-site event. Always err on the conservative side and you will make a good impression. Add your personality with a fun accessory that you are comfortable in. Remember, if you keep it classy, you won’t accidentally overstep the bounds of business casual for women.