When it comes to the workplace, we have a few longstanding gripes: the glass ceiling, the equal pay debate, the 7am alarm clock (yes, the struggle is still real). However, topping the list is that completely confusing, seemingly contradictory, one-wrong-move-and-you’re-gone dress code: business casual.
Sure, we understand the concept of business dress for women. Casual? Had that nailed for years. But together, at work, where the fashion police (aka HR) are ready to pounce on any style slip-ups with a P45? Help!
What is the business casual dress code for women?
Business casual has become the uniform de rigueur within many professional organisations. The idea is that you mix traditional formal business attire with everyday casual wear for women. Yet, when we’re talking Monday to Friday style, it’s arguably the trickiest code to crack; after all, there is no exact definition of what constitutes business casual (sigh), and many offices have a different interpretation of casual work outfits versus business dress.
Guys have it easy, of course: a collared shirt, trousers, and any shoe that isn’t a sneaker or a sandal and they’re set. No worrying about whether a hemline is too high, a top too low, or ballet pumps too basic. Little wonder, then, that according to water cooler legend, the idea of business casual office wear was started by a Honolulu menswear company in 1966 who, wanting to sell more Hawaiian shirts, introduced ‘Aloha Fridays’ – an idea which spread to the mainland as ‘Casual Fridays’. In 1992, Levi’s took the concept a step further, sending a guidebook to Human Resources directors stating that casual business clothes would make employees happier at work. And so was born the most confusing dress code in existence for women: relaxed, but not too relaxed; free to interpretation, and yet restricted; fashion friendly, and yet fashion averse.
Blimey, this is bringing us out in a cold sweat (or could it be the overactive air con?…).
What are the do’s and don’ts for women’s business casual attire?
Whilst there are no rules in fashion, there are rules for workplace fashion. And confusingly, when it comes to business casual for women, these can vary: business casual in a corporate setting will likely be different to business casual in a creative setting, which will likely be different to business casual in a start-up setting – and on we could go!
However, regardless of your professional environment, there are a few basic commandments that cover most of the general do’s and don’ts when it comes to casual business wear for women:
- Do: use your best judgement. Take a look around the office and assess your work environment. What do the other women in your team wear? If you’re new to the company and not confident you understand the culture yet, err on the side of caution: you can always dress down an outfit by adding a scarf, cardie, or chunky necklace you’ve stashed secretly in your bag!
- Don’t: think that casual means careless. You should not wear any ripped, torn, or revealing clothing in the office. If you would wear it to the club, beach, or gym, you shouldn’t wear it to work. Avoid anything neon or shiny, and steer clear of sequins and logos. Never show more than one inch of cleavage, and avoid skirts that skim your bottom. A good rule of thumb is to ensure your hemline is never more than four inches above the knee.
- Do: ensure your clothes are clean and wrinkle-free. Although you don’t need to wear head-to-toe tailoring, casual business dresses, skirts and trousers should still be freshly pressed and presentable, and shoes should be scuff-free.
- Don’t: go overboard with accessories. Think sleek and chic. And leave the hats at home. Professionalism is still paramount.
- Do: dress to impress, even on casual Fridays. Nice casual outfits should still look fresh and put together – remember, you are on the clock! Don’t take dress to impress too far, however: you should never let your outfit outshine your work.
Business casual vs business professional
So, we’ve established that business casual lies somewhere on a scale between the formal and the everyday, and that archetypal business casual women will look professionally dressed in a relaxed yet pulled together way. But on this sliding sartorial scale, what exactly do formal and casual dress codes mean?
Formal business attire for women, often know as ‘business professional’, in short means one thing: a power suit. Whilst this doesn’t mean you must don pinstripe trousers and a tie, this dress code does come with the most conservative rules. Formal work clothes for women should be tailored and of a two-piece variety: a smart skirt and sharp blazer, a slim cut trouser suit, or a structured dress and jacket. Colours should be neutral – no bright pink in this boardroom, I’m afraid – and clothes should be well fitted (but not skin tight). Simple accessories can be worn, but make sure your overall appearance (which includes your hair and make-up) is neat and tidy: this look should scream ‘female powerhouse’ in a refined and authoritative way.
By contrast, a casual dress code means that almost anything goes – great for office workers who want to retain a sense of their own style. Casual work outfits for women should be comfortable and relaxed, yet still put together: dressing in your Sunday slacks will never be appropriate on the job. Cotton dresses, floaty blouses, knitted jumpers, faux leather leggings, scarves, boots, ballet pumps and yes, even (non-ripped) jeans, are casual workwear winners.
Is your workplace business formal or business casual?
Whilst some companies have an official dress code, at other companies it is simply implied – and at others still (and most confusing of all), employees are simply told to ‘dress appropriately’.
Judge what your workplace deems appropriate women’s office wear by taking a cue from your superiors. Your boss – or the highest ranking female in the company – is not only a great source of career inspiration (girl power!), but also an excellent fashion muse if you’re unsure whether your workplace dress code is business casual or business formal. This doesn’t mean you should steal her style or find out where she shops and buy the exact same outfits as her. Rather, base your business clothes on what she considers suitable: after all, they don’t say dress the part for no reason.
Can jeans be business casual?
For many people, the default way to ‘dress casual’ is simply to slip on some denim. If your office is an explicitly casual environment with a corresponding dress code: great! Jeans are a go. If, however, you are expected to be business casual, then save your jeans for the weekend. Opt instead for cotton, silk or chiffon. A leather pencil skirt would also be appropriate. The one caveat here is if your office does dress down Fridays, when a nice pair of jeans can notch down your Monday to Thursday work wear nicely.
How to dress business casual
Working women have no shortage of decisions to make – often starting with the pre-coffee question of what to wear. Luckily, there are a wide range of options when it comes to business casual clothes for women, and we’ve put together some simple, seasonal looks to see every ‘biz-cas’ girl through the week in style.
Spring/summer business casual outfits for work
- Prints Charming
Prints, patterns and colour pops make a stylish business casual choice during the summer months. Depending on your work environment, either team a bold burst with neutrals, or go the whole hog and mix it up. As long as you stick with patterns in the same colour family, your fun summertime look will remain office appropriate.
- Feeling Shirty
Whether you opt for fitted or flowing, when it comes to summery office clothing for women, the shirtdress is a flattering workwear winner. Pair with heels or pumps as you prefer, and a boxy jacket or sharp blazer to combat fickle weather. The best part? You won’t need to change anything when leaving the office as this look ticks all boxes, boardroom to bar.
Autumn/winter business casual outfits for work
- Modern Classic
When you’re searching for trendy business casual wear, don’t shy away from a skirt and sweater combo. Do make a statement by mixing up your materials, however: wool and chiffon do not have to be confined up top. Brighten up a dull day by throwing in some colour, too. It may be a simple update to a tried-and-tested classic, but it’s oh so stylish.
- Miss Tomboy
Although we believe the best man for the job is a woman, when we’re talking office wear for women, the androgynous look is still a sartorial smash hit. Simply pair a blouse with your trouser of choice: tapered for a timeless and tidy look, or flares for a leg-lengthening 70s silhouette. Opt for punchy colours to prevent this from being too conservative and, if wearing a jacket, scrunch up the sleeves for a cooler, more modern vibe.
What about business casual shoes?
Learning to dress the part at work doesn’t stop with a boardroom-busting outfit. To ensure female business attire truly sings, we need to talk shoes.
If your office subscribes to a business casual dress code, then you’re lucky: your shoe choice is fairly extensive. The only absolute no-no is pool sliders or flip flops. And trainers – but that’s common sense, right?
Put your best foot forward in shoes which tick both comfort and style boxes. Heels remain a classic choice for work, though don’t feel you have to stick with a stiletto: smart-sandals or low-rise wedges are also a winning office option. If, however, you’re on your feet all day, you may prefer ballet pumps, penny loafers or Chelsea boots, all of which get the ‘biz-cas’ seal of approval.
A word to the wise, however: whatever shoes you choose, ensure they are polished (or at least scuff-free if not leather) and presentable. Making an impression with your workwear comes down to the little details, and tatty shoes will sink your chances before you’ve even left your front door.
- Finery London Fawn Leather Sling Back Shoe £79
- L.K.Bennett Kay Trench Leather Courts £210
- Finery London Embrook Italian Made Loafer with Tassel £109
- French Sole Burgundy Crocodile Effect Leather £120
- Christian Louboutin Pipina Veau Velours £495
- Finery London Chryssel Closed Toe Ankle Strap Sandal £99
- Kurt Geiger Anita Nude Mid Heel Court Shoe £55
- Dukes Boots Lola £150 (customise with own initials for £164)
Best places to buy business casual outfits for women
Whilst you shouldn’t sacrifice your career for the sake of your style, when it comes to a business casual dress code, you don’t have to sacrifice style for the sake of your career. Here is a selection of our favourite stores for buying business attire for women so you can wear it – and work it – with aplomb.
- For contemporary classics that are detail-driven but priced for real-life: Finery London.
- For timeless wardrobe essentials that last beyond the season: COS.
- For design-led pieces that don’t compromise on quality: Reiss.
- For all the labels you love in one place: ASOS.
- For classic continental style at affordable prices: Zara.
Cheap and trendy work clothes for women
Shop alexie’s favourite business casual workwear for spring/summer 2016:
- Zara Boatneck Blouse £29.99
- COS Belted High-Waist Trousers £69
- ASOS Selected Chrissie Sleeveless Shirt Dress £50
- Reiss Textured A-Line Skirt Ruby £110
- COS Top with Silk Back Panel £59
- Zara Embroidered Culottes £59.99
- ASOS Warehouse Clean Cotton Tie Front Shirt Dress £45
- Laura Orchant Crazy Daisy Scarf from £90
- Zara Embroidered Poplin Shirt £29.99
- Finery London Angrave Grafitti Floral Tuck Front Skirt £49
Read more great articles on women’s fashion here at alexie.co.