Defining what is considered business casual for women can be tricky. Acceptable attire can vary based on the workplace, and it can be hard to get a firm answer on what’s expected before you start your job!
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This guide will cover everything you need to know about business casual clothes for women and give you some helpful tips to get you started.
What is Business Casual?
While the expectations of attire can vary from company to company, business casual usually refers to a more relaxed aesthetic that’s still fit for an office environment. It’s a step down from the formality of a stuffy three-piece suit but maintains that air of professionalism and sophistication you need to succeed in a business setting.
Think of it as a unique combination of traditional office attire with casual elements thrown in for comfort. The goal is to find a happy medium between formality and an effortlessly casual look. You want to look respectable and put together but don’t want all the pomp and circumstance.
Figuring out what business casual means for your company is the most important thing. Dress codes like this are becoming increasingly common, but there’s no standardized definition! As a result, many women struggle when putting suitable work outfits together.
If you’re one of them, we have you covered. Here’s some general advice when it comes to business casual attire for women.
1. Start With the Basics
The days of having to invest in an expensive woman’s suit to start a job are long gone. Nowadays, it’s about building a fresh business casual outfit out of separates. While there are obviously advantages to this, these dress codes can be a lot tougher to abide by when it comes to business casual attire for women.
Instead of grabbing a put-together suit you already know works, you have to combine separate pieces to create something that looks halfway decent. It’s no easy task!
However, things are much easier if you focus on the basics first. Instead of attempting to create outfits in the store, invest in some high-quality essentials that you can use as foundational garments. Look through your closet, and you might already find some you can add to the mix!
Basics are clothing pieces that are universally appealing and versatile enough to work with an assortment of different styles. We’re talking about simple black slacks, white button-down shirts, no-frills blazers, and so on. These items always have a place in your closet.
While you can certainly get more creative, you can’t go wrong with the essentials. Start with basic pieces as your fundamentals. You can mix and match as you see fit, creating new outfits in the process.
Those basics already fit the bill when it comes to business casual attire for women. The trick is to dress them up or down for your work environment. As long as you have those essentials in your wardrobe, you have the building blocks of a great business casual outfit.
2. Shoes Make a Big Impact
The shoes you decide to wear with your outfit have more impact than most realize. Some treat it as an afterthought, but it can be the element that pushes your look in the right (or wrong) direction.
Don’t believe us? Put on a formal outfit with a pair of old sneakers and see what you think!
Your shoes can make or break an outfit. They’re the final touch that either cements your business casual look or makes you look unprofessional. Don’t overlook this detail!
So, what kinds of shoes are best for business casual outfits? You have tons of options here, and any fashion-forward gal can find shoes that work. The key for business casual is keeping things a bit more dressy.
Whether you decide to wear flats for comfort or wear a modest heel, make sure your shoes have an overall dressy look. It doesn’t matter how fancy the rest of your outfit is. An overly relaxed tennis shoe or sandals will drag the entire ensemble down.
Keep the colors muted and the overall design more on the formal side. Ditching the fancy colors and keeping things conservative will also give you more options later on.
3. Get Ideas From What Your Coworkers are Wearing
The definition of business casual for women can change depending on the company. That means one of the best ways to get some insight into what your company expects from you is to look at your coworkers. How do they dress on a typical workday?
Pay close attention to how other ladies in the office put their business casual outfits together. If you have a chance to do a walkthrough during your job interview, take some notes! The women in the office already understand the ins and outs of the dress code, so you can get ideas in order to play things safe for your first day. There are a million things on your mind when starting a new job, but this one should be pretty easy to remember.
Keep in mind that many companies have different outfit guidelines for special events. For example, some organizations have “Casual Fridays.” Meanwhile, others might expect formal attire for conventions or significant corporate events.
Whatever the case may be, pay attention to what the women in your office wear. You don’t necessarily have to copy their outfit, but using their ensembles as inspiration can help you fit in seamlessly and avoid any business casual fashion faux pas.
4. Dress More Formal for an Interview
While it might be tempting to go with a more relaxed outfit to the interview (especially if the company says they’re fine with business casual), it’s always a good idea to lean toward the formal side during your interview.
The interview is your chance to leave a great first impression. One of the ways you can do that is by walking into your scheduled interview looking a cut above the rest. Hiring managers are already comparing you to existing employees and the person who just vacated the position.
Why not send the message that you’re taking things seriously right from the start?
You don’t have to wear a traditional power suit. However, it pays to spend a little extra time ensuring that your outfit is slightly more “business” than “casual.”
Tops That are Business Casual
Arguably, business casual tops will be one of the more critical pieces of your outfit as a woman. You could wear the same dark-colored bottoms each day and very few people would notice. However, your colleagues and clients would realize if you wore the same top every single day!
Use this piece of your outfit to provide some fun variation. The best business casual tops for women include button-down shirts, elegant blouses, turtleneck sweaters, and more. As always, try to keep the colors relatively neutral.
That said, you don’t have to stick with black, brown, and beige. Feel free to add some pops of color or pattern. Just make sure that the aesthetic isn’t too vibrant or over the top. Subtle and muted colors tend to work best.
Pay close attention to the neckline. This can be a controversial aspect when it comes to business casual attire for women, so it’s best to play things conservatively and avoid plunging necklines.
Pants That are Business Casual
Your pants should be comfortable but not too comfortable in a business casual setting. Basic slacks are one of the most versatile pieces you can get. Pick up a pair in black, navy blue, and other neutral colors! Then, you can mix and match the bottoms with the tops to get an easy business casual outfit in seconds.
The great thing about slacks is that they come in a myriad of materials. Keep things light and flowy during the summer, or go with a thick tweed for the winter. Either way, you’ll maintain that touch of chic professionalism.
Skirts That are Business Casual
Skirts are a great way to break up some formality of traditional office attire. They can be quite comfortable and help break up some of the monotony of pre-planned outfits.
Many cuts are available, giving you plenty of opportunities to mix things up as you see fit. Go with a simple A-line skirt, a more traditional pleated skirt, or a fashion-forward pencil skirt.
Whatever you do, make sure to pay close attention to the length. This is an issue that can pose many problems when it comes to the business casual dress code in the office. Too short of a skirt might be considered unprofessional, while a piece that’s too long and flowy can make you look more boho-chic than you intended.
As a general rule of thumb, aim for a knee-length skirt. As for color and pattern, follow the same conventions you would when finding pants. That means versatile colors you can mix and match.
Suits That are Business Casual
You can’t go wrong with a put-together suit. When many people think of suits being used in an office, they automatically picture super formal stuffy outfits. However, there are plenty of great business casual suits for women out there!
They are more relaxed in design, providing plenty of versatility. However, the matched pieces make it far easier to put an outfit together.
Generally, business casual suits for women contain a matching top and bottom. That could be a blazer and a skirt or a vest and some slacks. You may even find pantsuits and rompers that fit the bill.
Keep the colors relatively neutral and avoid any over-the-top patterns. The suit should fit well to avoid looking sloppy.
Shoes That are Business Casual
As mentioned earlier, business casual shoes should lean a bit more toward the formal side of things. Anything too casual could end up making your entire outfit look unprofessional in the workplace.
Avoid tennis shoes (unless stated otherwise), flip flop sandals, or anything that’s brightly colored and branded. Look for universally appealing shoes and capable of going with most outfits. Leather shoes are always a good choice.
As for the style, that’s up to you! Flats are usually the most comfortable, but many ladies like modest heels. If you like to wear chic stilettos, maybe try with something more subdued for work.
You can try chunkier heels or wedges if you want to maintain the height of heels without the overt flashiness.
You have a lot of room to play when it comes to business casual shoes. Experiment a bit and see what you like! Whether it’s loafers or chunky chelsea boots, you should have no problem finding something that suits your style.
Colors to Consider
When most people think of anything corporate, they imagine neutral colors. That’s the best way to go if you want to play things on the safe side and be more conservative with your business casual outfits.
You can’t go wrong with blacks, navy blues, grays, and browns. The goal of neutral colors is to blend in and not draw too much attention to yourself. It’s the best way to go for office settings.
That said, you can experiment with colors once you get comfortable dressing for the workplace. Business casual doesn’t necessarily mean that everything has to be beige and boring!
Many women continue to wear color while still staying true to the business casual dress code.
Start introducing color more subtly. The goal is to make the hues more discreet than anything else. You don’t want to show up to work in a head-to-toe pink outfit! However, you can wear a pink top with your black blazer and slacks.
It’s all about finding that professional balance. Try to maintain a sense of subtlety by choosing pastels and softer hues.
That applies to patterns as well. Patterns can get very busy, making your outfit look over the top for a professional environment. But if you choose something that’s not too busy or bright, it can work well.
Think about all the classic formal patterns. Houndstooth and pinstripes all have strong connections to the business world. Incorporate them into your own business casual outfits to add some fashion-forward flare.
Do’s and Don’ts
To help summarize this guide, we’ll wrap up this guide with a section of do’s and don’ts that will serve as a quick reference when it comes to business casual for women. Once you get the hang of it, dressing for the workplace will be a piece of cake!
- Pick clothes that make you feel comfortable and yourself! Business casual is all about removing some of that old formality from the workplace. Your company wants you to be comfortable in your own skin while still maintaining a sense of professionalism. If you still feel out of place, you’re not doing it right.
- Invest in a formal outfit. Just because it’s a business casual setting doesn’t mean you can’t have some strong outfit choices for those moments when you need to impress.
- Keep your shoe choices professional and formal. For many women, shoes are where business casual attire goes wrong. What you wear on your feet has the power to change the entire look and feel of an outfit.
- Focus your attention on basic business casual staples. Building an entire wardrobe for work can be tough when you’re just getting started. But if you have plenty of high-quality basics, you can put together many outfits that fit the bill.
- Look around and see what your colleagues wear. You can easily tell if you stand out in the office. Use other women in the office as inspiration when developing your outfits.
- Don’t be afraid to ask the human resources department for help if you’re still having trouble. They’re there to assist you and can guide you in the right direction.
- If you like to wear jewelry, keep things tasteful. Avoid over-the-top costume jewelry or gaudy pieces that attract attention (unless it’s clear that they’re acceptable in the office). Like your shoes, the jewelry you wear has a big impact.
- Make sure to iron and press your pieces. Business casual clothing for women should still be presentable and elegant-looking.
- Don’t wear too many bright colors or patterns (at least initially). There’s nothing wrong with having a little personality in your business casual outfits. However, you don’t want to be distracting or create a look that stands out too much.
- Don’t assume you can wear denim. Some companies allow it, but others don’t. Read up on your company’s dress code to get some clarity. If you can incorporate denim into your outfits, do so tastefully and avoid any ripped detailing.
- Don’t wear sneakers or baggy clothing. The goal is to maintain your professionalism while still being comfortable. If you wear sneakers and ill-fitting pieces, you might be taking the “casual” part too seriously.
Hannah Morgan speaks and writes about job search and career strategies. She founded CareerSherpa.net to educate professionals on how to maneuver through today’s job search process. Hannah was nominated as a LinkedIn Top Voice in Job Search and Careers and is a regular contributor to US News & World Report. She has been quoted by media outlets, including Forbes, USA Today, Money Magazine, Huffington Post, as well as many other publications. She is also author of The Infographic Resume and co-author of Social Networking for Business Success.