The Rules about Dresses for a “Business Casual” Interviewing Event

The Rules about Dresses for a "Business Casual" Interviewing Event || CorporetteWhat are the rules for dresses in a business casual environment — and how do those vary if you’re interviewing, networking, or just working? Reader H wonders what to wear to a dinner reception/interview situation that has a business casual dress code.

I have a dinner reception to attend the night before a second/final round interview at a consulting firm, at one of their Midwest firms. Other attendants at the dinner will be employees from the firm including staff to partners, and also other candidates. The stipulated dress code is business casual. I have read your other posts on business lunches, and I understand you recommend trousers/pants. However, I almost always wear skirts or dresses. Could you give me some guidance in terms of what I can wear? Specifically, what kind of dresses or skirts would be appropriate? (e.g. sheath dress? pencil skirts?). Should I stick to solids, or are prints acceptable? What about colors? Should I keep it strictly neutral? As for tops, does it need to have collar? Are sleeves required? What about the sleeve length (is showing elbows ok?). Finally, should I wear a jacket, and if so, what type? Suit jacket? Slightly less formal? Is cardigan acceptable? Thanks for your help.

Wow — Reader H has a ton of questions here, so I’m going to bang out some answers, but (as always) I’m curious to hear what the readers say. A few things to note at the outset: obviously look at this dinner reception as an interview (or part of the interviewing process) since you’ll be evaluated in part based on the impression you make at this reception, and obviously the answer is going to differ a bit from region to region. That said, here are some quick and dirty answers from me… (Pictured: Theory – Betty Tailor Dress – was $295 now marked to $176.98 at Nordstrom (tons of sizes left in both indigo and charcoal).)

1) Pants/Skirt/Dress — I have recommended wearing pants to “business casual” networking situations, but I usually recommend wearing skirt suits for interview situations — here, where they’re saying it’s business casual but it’s definitely part of the interview process, I think a sheath dress sounds perfect.

2) What kind of dress to wear: The dress should be knee length — if there are any slits in the skirt please pull a chair in front of a mirror to check out the situation when seated. You should probably wear pantyhose, or at least tights. The dress should not be tight ANYWHERE — if you can see VPL, if the dress or skirt is “smiling” or pulling at your hips, or if you have a hard time taking a long stride, reconsider the dress for this event. No cleavage, period — either wear a camisole or choose a different dress. Finally, while ponte and knit dresses have come a long way, there’s still a margin for error there — if you choose a dress made of a suiting material (such as a seasonless wool) then the margin for error decreases tremendously.

3) Colors/prints: As long as the dress meets the above requirements, I think any color will work, provided it isn’t neon, but I’ve never seen a suiting material dress in a neon. (And hey, you guys know me, chances are good I’d have recommended it had I seen it, at least for a casual day at work.)  A pattern can be fine, but this is a margin for error kind of thing: if you’re unsure go with the solid color — one person’s beloved floral print may seem garish or “ladies who lunch” to someone else.

4) Collars.  If you’re wearing a skirt, I probably would lean towards a collared blouse — either something silky or a crisp button-front. But I’m really seeing a dress in this situation for some reason…

5) Are sleeves required? This subject is ripe for debate. On the one hand: anchor women everywhere wear sheath dresses without blazers, and it’s an acceptable “business casual” look these days. On the other hand: some conservative folks (particularly the Powers That Be at some firms) may be turned off if upper arms are exposed. So to be on the safe side, I recommend wearing a blazer or a fitted knit jacket with your dress. If, at the event, you see one of your interviewers (preferably an older one, not a recent hire) going sleeveless, you can consider taking off your jacket. Even then, an interviewee is always held to a different standard than interviewers, so I really recommend leaving your jacket on unless you’re boiling hot.  (I don’t know of any rules regarding covering your elbows — I’ve always thought it was just your upper arms — but readers, please feel me in if I’m wrong.) In this case I would probably go with a dress/jacket combo that are both clearly separates — for example, if the dress is a suiting material, think tweed for a blazer.  (I’d even say the margin for error is less with a ponte blazer/wool dress than it is with a ponte dress/wool blazer, but that’s me.)  It’s ok to wear a black non-suiting blazer with a colorful dress, and avoid wearing non-matching blacks.

6) Can you wear a sweater? You could, sure. I wouldn’t recommend it — I always feel like the sweater + sheath dress is a look best left for “I’m friendly/not too intimidating, honest!” situations (I think this every time I see our First Lady) or practical “I’m cold and working late and want something comfier than a blazer” situations.

All right, readers — those are MY answers — what are yours? What “rules” do you associate with dresses in general for “business casual”/interview events versus “business casual”/networking events?

Comments

  1. J.Crew PSA :

    No. 2 Wool Pencil Skirts are currently $68 with the Fallsale code

    http://www.jcrew.com/browse/single_product_detail.jsp?PRODUCT%3C%3Eprd_id=845524441835027&FOLDER%3C%3Efolder_id=2534374302030685&nav_type=SEARCH&bmUID=k6WF9Hr

    Petite, Regular, and Tall sizes in neutrals and colors

    This is the good one, not the cotton wrinkly mess.

    • Are the wool ones better than the cotton? I hate how the cotton ones wrinkle so quickly.

      • J.Crew PSA :

        SO MUCH BETTER. I have six of the wool ones (4 from last F/W, 2 from this F/W) and they are awesome. The cotton ones are a hot mess, but the wool ones are great!

        • I live in these all winter. THANK YOU for posting this. I’ve been waiting for them to go on sale. I have the green already and it’s so gorgeous. THANK YOUTHANK YOU!!!!! (ellen caps intended).

      • I agree… the wool ones are awesome! The weight is beautiful. And they only get wrinkly if you keep them folded, for example, for a long time.

    • Oh heck yeah! Thanks for posting.

    • Thanks for posting. I’ve been wanting to try these… Any comments on sizing?

      Their sizing chart doesn’t ask for hips measurement, and I’m worried that my smaller waist (26″) but bigger butt (37″) might have a hard time. Nevermind that I still can’t ever figure out with skirts where the heck the waist is supposed to fall…. my true waist? my low waist? Just above my hips?

      Obviously, I don’t wear many skirts, but want to start wearing more this winter with boots as I am tired of having my pant hems becoming a mess in Chicago snow/weather.

      • Oops… found the better sizing chart, but would still appreciate more info on how generous the cut truly is on these skirts.

        I’m always fantasizing about buying a piece of clothing for work that does not need altering….

        • I wear a 4 (here and nowhere else). I am generally a Talbots 6 and a LE curvy 8 / Gap curvy 8. My waist is larger than yours though.

          • That helps – thanks a lot for sharing your comparative sizes. I suspect I will need to do as I normally do – size up for the butt and take in the waist.

        • Circadian Screwup :

          Same boat. I just wish I didn’t love pencil skirts so much. I can do the flared A-line without problems but I don’t really love those.

        • I wear a size 4 in this skirt. I’m generally a size 4 in skirts/dresses, 6 or 29 in pants. I can sometimes swing a size 4 pant at Banana.

          This skirt will rest right above your hips, where your natural waist starts. It also hits me just above my knee cap. In case it helps, I’m 5’7″, 135 lbs.

  2. (Former) Clueless Summer :

    I would wear a dress with sleeves – no blazer makes it firmly business casual, and there’s no potential awkwardness with being too hot/wanting to remove the blazer but having a sleeveless dress. (Firmly in the no sleeveless dress is appropriate camp). J. Crew has a few that might be appropriate. Ann Taylor too. Just make sure it is very strongly in the business side, rather than cocktail party side. Navy, black, grey – even a darker more muted colour would be fine IMO.

    • sleeves are good :

      I agree with this advice. A dress like that is good to have around anyway so it won’t be a purchase just for this interview

    • Agree. I have a Tory Burch dress that is perfect for this type of situation, navy, short sleeve, wool. It is my go to dress and I am on the lookout for a few more like this.

    • I just got this Tahari by ASL dress from 6 pm — short sleeves and a v-neck, which is my holy grail — and it is great. It looks very loose and even frumpy on the model, but I found it to be very fitted. I’m an hourglassy 12-14, with a big bust, and the 14 fit really well (well, with spanx). I wore it with fancy jewelry to a charity dinner and can wear it with blazers and sweaters to the office. Although you can’t see it very clearly on the photo, it has fancy seaming/origami type detail around the bust that I had always thought would not work on me, but it looked great. Strongly recommend.

      http://www.6pm.com/tahari-by-asl-s-s-bi-stretch-basic-shift-black

  3. Former consultant in the Midwest. I’d say a sheath dress with a jacket/blazer is about perfect. If you are able to pull it off, you could maybe do a skirt with a cute blouse, but I think that’d be difficult unless you know the firm culture. I’d stick to solid colors (with coordinating accessories) as much as possible, and try to avoid looking too “suit-y” – typically business casual is a signal that they want to get to know you on a personal level, so a suit-type outfit gives the vibe that you would be awful on an team assignment.

    Think about the persona you want to project – you should be professional and tasteful, but able to have fun when traveling for work on the weekends. If going with a solid sheath dress, your accessories could reflect your persona, so look for a big statement piece if you’re a little more outgoing, something smaller and quirkier with an interesting backstory if you’re more arty, something global if you have traveled extensively, etc.

  4. I’d probably go with a suiting dress with 3/4 or bracelet length sleeves, a scarf or 8-12 mm pearls, no jacket, plain pumps,

    or

    a tropical wool pencil skirt, blouse (print would be okay, but no fussy necklines), cardigan, and plain pumps (tights in demure colors might be okay, but please, no boots).

    But then, I kind of hate pants.

  5. I admit, the bit about smiling always ends up confusing me because I can’t figure out where the line goes between that and why yes this is the size and shape of my body I am not going to wear a tent to hide it….

    • “Smiling” shows that it’s pulling, meaning the garment is too small for you. It’s not saying the shape of your body is wrong. However, I wonder if you’re thinking of VBO or visible belly outline . . . which you can have even in well fitted outfits, and some women are commendably trying to reclaim, but I still think would be judged in most professional environments, unfortunately.

  6. I just finished going through the interview process at several consulting firms in the midwest as well (two offers- yay!) and had to attend similar events as described. For the “business casual” dress code, I wore a tropical weight wool skirt with a silk blouse and a casual blazer (but not the same color as the skirt) with the sleeves rolled up and heels. If you stick with neutral colors, any variation of that will be fine. Another firm had a similar event with a “smart casual” dress code, which I had never heard of before. They said jeans were fine, even encouraged. After much consideration, I decided on dark wash jeans, neutral heels, a silk blouse and a casual blazer, again with the sleeves rolled up to dress it down. The other attendees had a wide range of dress, from suits to rather inappropriate (IMO) tight, sleeveless sheath dresses.

  7. What is wrong with this statement?

    Male acquaintance @ social event, not at work: “The women of [our Florida town] are just so insanely rich, that when they have babies, they are too spoiled to push so there’s a really high rate of C-sections. Oh, but you know, I’m a man, I’ll never give birth, so I guess I really shouldn’t judge.”

    First, he seems to be engaging in the bloodsport known as hating on rich women.

    Second, he seems to not understand all the reasons why someone might have a C-section.

    Third, I am not comfortable with the idea that if you’ve never done some activity, you shouldn’t judge it. For example, I’m not a police officer and not likely to be, but it doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t have strong, educated opinions on the issue of police brutality.

    What else did I miss? I am still bristling from hearing this guy’s thoughtless remarks. People good with logic and philosophy – tell me what to say next time when this bloviator babbles at me.

    • I don’t think you need logic or philosophy to disassemble that mess. It’s sexist, ableist, and completely ignorant. And if he really thinks he shouldn’t judge, he should stop judging.

      • You can laugh at me, but I admit I just stared at him like he was an alien with five heads but I don’t know if he really understood why he was out of line.

        I felt I was letting the team down by not directly challenging the assertions. I felt like I missed an opportunity to educate and debunk, ya know?

    • Blonde Lawyer :

      Ignores the fact that c-sections can be more painful and harder to recover from and thus, not a spoiled alternative to v-birth. Could be the Florida rich MEN are too spoiled and thus demand their wives have lady gardens not “sullied” by birth. *eye roll*

      PS: I’ve never had kids so I could be wrong on the c-section “worse” than v-birth remark.

      • It’s abdominal surgery. they cut a hole in your tummy big enough to pass a baby through. I’d say that’s a bit worse than the baby coming out through the natural way….

      • As I’m slowly unpacking this, he sounded also like he was implying that C-sections are easy and therefore “bad.” Others here note that they’re not “easy” – hello! abdominal surgery!

        It occurs to me now way too late after the initial convo, that one overarching issue is mother as martyr.

        The claptrap that you can’t be a “real” mother (whatever that is) unless you suffer and suffer terribly/horribly in pregnancy, birth, and in parenting.

        My god I really hate this guy right now.

  8. Diane Lockhart :

    Just bought the J Cr*ew Emmaleigh slevveless sheath dress on sale for only $97 in black to wear on a business develoment trip with a variety of blazers. At night for socializing, I can pair it with a nice cardigan and a statement necklace. One dress, many outfits is great for travel.

  9. I was nominated for a year-long leadership development program at my company. The program involves some multi-day seminars/classes and regular coffee sessions with company executives (CEO, CIO, etc.). My company is generally very informal day to day – attire runs the gamut from suits to t-shirts and shorts. What would you wear to these events? I am generally thinking I could go more casual for the seminars/classes (dark trouser jeans + blazer) but would dress up more (dress or skirt +blazer) for the executive events. Or should I dress up for everything?

  10. I think this is a great option for the kind of situation you are talking about: http://www.jcrew.com/womens_category/suiting/dresses/PRDOVR~03717/03717.jsp

  11. I disagree that you shouldn’t wear a cardigan. I’ve been to these kinds of things for law firms, and if you’re wearing a nice wool sheath dress, I think you can definitely wear a nicer cardigan. One that is made of nice wool or cashmere, maybe has some detailing or pattern, and is fitted well. Not the pilled frumpy one from Old Navy, but if it’s nice I think it can work. Especially if you add some kind of necklace or belt to pull the outfit together.

  12. As a former Big 4 consultant, I used to be on the other side of those Friday night interview weekend dinners. It was NYC, so business casual wasn’t really an option, but when I would attend similar events for my clients in the Midwest & West, sheath dresses were “too” dressy. Most of the men were in golf shirts and khakis. To this day, I still hate golf shirts on women!

    If you can’t do pants, if it’s fall or winter, I’d go with a sweater dress, tights, and boots or booties. That’s much more casual than a sheath, and you don’t have to worry about the sleeve issue. Another alternative would be to wear a knit pencil skirt and short sleeve turtleneck with a printed blazer and a sharp belt. You could easily go monochromatic, either all in grey or black (I’d vote for black). I think if you go with a skirt/sweater combo, you’d look too much like an intern or an assistant. If you do wear a sheath, wear a statement necklace that is a bit more casual, and definitely wear a jacket. A sleeved dress would be too formal, I think.

    Lastly, it is definitely part of the interview process. We would be very business-like at dinner, to see how the recruits could do in a schmoozing environment with food (client dinners and lunches are part of the job), and then we’d hit the bars afterward to see who could handle less formal social situations. Anyone who couldn’t hold their booze was pretty much an automatic out, and certainly anyone who was hungover the next day during the interviews was at a huge disadvantage. Stick to Perrier and lime during the cocktail hour, a glass of wine at dinner, and a glass of beer or scotch at the bars depending on who you’re with. Good luck!

  13. I was thinking of buying a dress for similar situations– entering business school in the northeast next fall. Would a dress like this fit the bill?
    http://www.bowanddrape.com/clothing/The+Golightly/79_10029_10033_t_2519#.Ul3p5znD8cA

    Also- has anyone tried this brand? I just heard of them recently.

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