Semi-formal, smart casual, casual dressy, dress codes can be complicated business! And speaking of business… Today we’re talking about one dress code in particular: business casual.
For men, business casual is really simple: it means dress pants or khaki pants, a button-down shirt and dress shoes. No jacket or tie required.
But what does it mean for women?
As we all know, women have a ton more options in terms of silhouettes and styles, and pinpointing one specific dress code can get a bit tricky.
Today we’re answering the question once and for all: what is business casual for women?
What Does Business Casual Mean?
Business casual means that you should dress in a way that’s smart, professional and work-appropriate. You don’t want to be too dressy, and you definitely don’t need to wear a suit.
For men it’s super easy: nice pants and a button-down shirt will fit the bill every time. But for women, there’s a ton more flexibility. Women can be “business casual” in dresses, sweaters and skirts, or even blouses and jeans. It’s less about the individual items and more about how those items look and fit.
We asked a few professionals to share their definitions of business casual.
Suitably Founder Annabel Gatto explains, “business casual is much more lenient than business formal—allowing for prints a color to pair with suit separates—but that, too, can leave questions about what’s work-appropriate and what’s not. For most employers, the goal of business casual attire is to project a more relaxed, informal attitude while still maintaining professionalism. Professionalism is the keyword here.”
Gatto’s mission is to simplify the process and make it more accessible while demystifying work dress for a new generation of young professionals.
Stacy Caprio, Founder of Growth Marketing, has a slightly different take on business casual for women. “I've found business casual to mean you need to 'match' the casual code in your particular workplace. I've worked in places where people are always super casual, so 'business casual' is more dressed up than what people normally do, but still less than the average 'business casual' and can even include leggings," says Caprio. "I've been at other places where it is normal to see people always in suits, so 'business casual' is more nice pants or long skirts and pressed shirts while being less nice than what people usually wear. I'd say a good rule of thumb is for women to look at the women leaders in the organization and model their business casual after what these women wear as business casual.”
Business Casual Dresses
Dresses are appropriate for every occasion! But with so many different silhouettes to choose from, it’s important to know which ones are apropos for a business casual environment.
Look for dresses that are more structured and tailored. Sheaths, shifts and classic A-line silhouettes are great options, as is the classic wrap dress. Keep in mind, business casual is not the time to be sexy. Avoid anything that’s too tight or has cut-outs or strappy details.
At the same time, you’ll want to avoid anything that’s too loose or flowy – you don’t want to look like you’re going to Coachella or heading to a wedding on the beach!
As for lengths, stick to hemlines that hit around the knee, either just above or just below. Midi lengths that hit at mid-calf also look chic and polished.
Here’s the bottom line:
If it’s too short, too long, too loose or too tight, it’s not business casual. Gatto suggests that a skirt and dress length should be no higher than three inches above the knee.
Business Casual Tops
Prefer to wear separates rather than a dress? When it comes to tops, blouses and sweaters are your best bet.
Like dresses, avoid anything that’s too tight. Look for tops that skim the body without clinging.
You’ll also want to be careful with sleeve lengths and necklines.
Sleeveless tops are perfectly acceptable, but strappy tank tops are not as for necklines, the more modest, the better. Opt for classic crew necklines, scoop necks, and high V-s as opposed to plunging necklines that show a lot of skin.
If you have a top you love with a plunging neckline, at least layer it with a cami for a bit of coverage.
Avoid tee shirts, sweatshirts and anything that looks sloppy. There are lots of ways to do business casual and still be comfortable. That doesn’t mean you need to look like you’re about to go to the gym, go grocery shopping, or clean your house!
If the fabric is sheer or it has cut-outs that show extra skin, it’s not business casual. Solids are always acceptable, but sophisticated prints can look even more chic, especially when paired with a solid pant or skirt.
It’s best to err on the side of caution and look for tops that are comfortable, well-fitted and unable to result in any wardrobe malfunctions!
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Business Casual Bottoms
If you work in a business casual environment, tailored pants are a must-have in your wardrobe. Full length or cropped. Slim or wide leg. Regardless of the length or silhouette, stick to woven fabrics as opposed to knits. With wovens, you’ll instantly have a more polished, professional look.
While it’s perfectly okay to wear patterns and prints, it’s usually best to stick to neutral tones, such as shades of black, navy, grey and brown. Yet the structure is much more important than the color.
To pull off a great business casual look, avoid pants that are sloppy, loose or super stretchy, like yoga pants or leggings.
It depends upon your office, but in most business casual environments, jeans are perfectly acceptable. But, like every other item, it all depends on the type of jeans.
Stick to well-tailored silhouettes in dark washes. If you want to look more dressed up, pair them with a blazer or a chic jacket and heels!
It’s All About the Shoes
The right (or wrong) shoes will make or break an outfit every single time. When shopping for shoes for your business casual office, here are some things to keep in mind:
Color is okay!
While black pumps and black flats are a staple in almost every woman’s wardrobe, a colorful shoe is a great way to add some personality to an outfit. A colorful flat or pump can put the perfect finishing touch on a classic black dress or a simple black pants and white blouse combo.
Flats with pointed toes are perfect for wearing with both trousers and skirts, as are slip-on mules with closed toes.
Want a bit of height? An ankle boot with a block heel is perfect for fall and winter, while a classic pump with a thicker heel is perfect for wearing all year round.
Sneakers, athletic shoes, flip flops and casual open-toe sandals are big no-nos.
Anything that’s too strappy, cut-out or sexy is also a no. Save your stilettos for dinner dates and nights out. In a business casual environment, they’re just not necessary.
When is Business Casual Appropriate?
The first trick to pulling off a business casual look is to make sure that everything fits you properly. You want to look poised, polished, professional and competent – and items that are too big, too small, or too tight can have the opposite effect.
What you wear to a business casual office all depends on your corporate culture.
When in doubt, take your cues from what your female bosses and supervisors are wearing. If they show up to work every day in pencil skirts and pumps, you might want to follow suit.