What Is Business Casual for Women?
What is business casual for women, anyway? The rules for appropriately chic office wear are constantly evolving. Here's what you need to know to accomplish the look with ease.
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Versatile monochrome dresses are always a hit
“You can always add color or print to a basic solid shirt dress,” says Sasha Bowlby, a professional stylist and fashion expert of Sash & Bow Boutique in Lexington, Kentucky. She suggests choosing a basic that can transition from day to night with ease, like a sophisticated shirt dress or mock wrap dress. “Pair the look with flats for a comfortable, stylish look for business casual,” she says. When heading out after work, add heels, metallic accessories, and a bright, printed blazer for a more sophisticated look. This White House Black Market shirt dress is easy to wear, a cinch to take care of, and can easily move between your business casual lunch meetings and your weekend functions.
Crisp white button-downs are essential
You can take your favorite crisp white button-down shirt and pair it with more casual staples like dark denim, on-trend flats, and a blazer for a photoshoot-worthy version of your most comfortable self. It’s the go-to centerpiece for any business-casual wardrobe according to Bowlby, who believes, “Business casual for women is less traditional but still appropriate for the office.” Try pairing this Chico’s No-Iron Coolmax button-down with just about everything you own as your first step. Once you stock up on this must-have, keep it looking bright; here’s how to whiten your laundry without bleach.
Joggers are better than leggings
Sure, leggings are popular and widely available—but Bowlby doesn’t believe they’re acceptable in business casual settings. “Never wear leggings as pants. These are meant for athleisure only.” If dresses, skirts, and denim are too constricting for you, try tucking your crisp white button-down into a pair of effortless cabi Pivot Joggers, the much more elegant distant cousin of your favorite leggings. If you feel like splurging, order a second pair just for the office and keep them in tip-top shape—joggers happen to be one of our favorite Christmas gifts that teen girls will actually wear.
On-trend denim is your new best friend
“Casual Friday is the perfect opportunity to try on-trend denim pieces,” explains Bowlby. “Darker washes of denim are more appropriate, and pair well with other core business casual pieces.” Try a versatile staple like Kut From The Kloth denim culottes, which transition easily from casual Friday to sleepy Saturday. Culottes are one of the jean styles you never knew you needed—they work in many fashion-forward settings.
“You always want your clothing to fit appropriately well,” says Jasmine Snow, style expert and founder of The Black Bib, a fashion destination for modern moms. She suggests steering clear of even the most traditionally appropriate dresses and denim picks if they’re too tight, snug, or revealing. Instead, opt for wear-anywhere basics, like this ruffle-accented tee by Amour Vert.
Flats are encouraged, sneakers are not
Business casual is meant to be a step down from the stuffy business attire of yesteryears—but what is casual for women in terms of footwear? Definitely not sneakers or sandals, which you should save for the weekend, according to Snow. “Always try to stick to closed-toe shoes in the office, casual or not. Otherwise, have fun! Prints, textures, embellishments are always good to play with if the rest of your look is going in a classic direction.” These Aerosoles Homerun flats come in a number of prints and textures. You can keep your shoes smelling fresh with these tips and tricks.
Elevate your top layer
Snow encourages her clients to always wear a mix of “sophisticated pieces with casual,” emphasizing that too much of one or the other can tilt your ensemble completely the wrong way. Looking “pulled together, not sloppy,” is a simpler task when outermost layers are work-appropriate. Opt for elegant sweaters, layering cardigans, drape-front jackets, or blazers to top off your look instead of sweatshirts or hoodies. This wrap is a go-anywhere appropriate choice that still denotes the comfort of curling up with hot cocoa and a book.
Turtlenecks will take you places
“Classics with a twist are a huge fall trend, so that means lots of closet staples imagined in new ways,” says Snow, who is enthusiastic about classic white shirts of all kinds. This slim-cut turtleneck in white will pair well with your favorite work-ready skirt on Monday. Then wear it again with the dark denim you recently discovered for casual Friday. Here’s how to wear a turtleneck in every setting.
Invest in a bold blazer
A bold, well-made blazer will work with just about everything from your shirt dress to denim, skirts, narrow black pants, and everything in between. “Blazers are by far my favorite business casual piece,” says Snow. “Try something that feels a bit more like a schoolboy blazer type of shape for a modern approach.” She suggests going for a dark shade of navy, red, or other neutral color instead of plain black. Your blazer will take you through several seasons and endless outfit options. A blazer is just one of the 12 classic jackets every woman should own.
Be mindful of how much skin you show
Both stylists suggest playing it safe with hemlines, fit, and exposure and avoiding deep v-necks, short skirts, and other daredevil wardrobe moves. You don’t need to wear a low-cut top to show your wild side; try an on-trend animal print accent like this like this Shanghai tee from n:philanthropy.
Avoid anything “short”
“If your outfit feels like something you’d wear on vacation, chances are there’s too much skin,” explains Snow, who suggests instead incorporating your favorite styles in toned-down ways that are appropriate for the office. While those beloved short denim cut-offs and short jean skirts are not acceptable, you can still take denim to the next fashion level in the form of a knee-grazing asymmetrical skirt, like this midi skirt from Wash Lab. “Pair it with a rolled-up sleeve or buttoned crisp white shirt for a great business casual look.”
When in doubt, go back to black
Black is always appropriate for the office, especially in slim, flattering silhouettes that you can mix and match for variety or customize to suit the culture of your workplace—say, in the form of pops of bright color or animal print. A foundational piece with great layering potential is this classic cashmere Henley. Yes, cashmere is a splurge, but it’s super-soft and incredibly flattering, and as you can wear it every week with different separates and accessories, it’s actually a smart investment in any business casual wardrobe. When it comes to your word wardrobe, you don’t need a ton of pieces—simply follow these tricks to get 6-week’s worth of new outfits out of 17 pieces.