How to Blend Conservative Style with Business Casual

business-casualHow should you follow a business casual dress code (and avoid looking overdressed) when your personal style tends toward classic, understated, and conservative — without buying an entirely new wardrobe? Oh, and also: you’re in a technical field, you’re the youngest employee in your office, and the only woman there besides the secretary. Reader K wonders:

I have recently started at my dream job which is a technical one and I work with men only (besides the receptionist). I am on a very tight budget but have invested in basic pieces such as good quality black suits, classic dresses, blouses, black pencil skirt. The dress code is business casual. Yet the other day I wore a classic grey dress, black blazer, heels, and pearls and the CEO made a comment before a meeting insinuating I was overdressed. He wears cords and a polo everyday. What can I wear to work? I prefer to wear more conservative clothes and feel more professional in blacks, and greys and dark color palettes with a small pop of color (like a maroon or emerald blouse). I am in my early 20s and look especially young and am the youngest in my office and prefer the clean cut conservative professional look so am at a loss of what to wear. Any help would be much appreciated.

We’ve talked about how best to dress in business casual in a male-dominated, technical workplace as a younger woman, dealing with other women’s backhanded compliments about dressing well, and being told by a male boss that you dress too well and need to dress “frumpier,” but not exactly this.  Personal style is often important, but sometimes showing that you can “read” company culture requires dressing in a different way than you might otherwise.  Furthermore, when you look young, it can come off even worse — like you’re playing dress up.  So here are a few ideas…

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Over-the-Knee Boots at the Office?

otk boots for workWhile doing our round-up of knee-high boots, I was struck by how things have changed in such a short time — when I first started this blog, knee-high boots were still pretty scandalous, and over-the-knee boots (or OTK boots) were completely, totally risqué.  Cut to today, and they’re EVERYWHERE — flat versions, high-heeled versions, on most best seller lists, with rave reviews from everyone from 20-somethings to 60-somethings.  I know Jean at ExtraPetite has talked about wearing her 5050s for the commute, but I thought it might be interesting to have a poll: are over the knee boots so omnipresent that you can wear them to work? (Pictured: Screenshot of the Stuart Weitzman 5050 from Zappos, where they’re $635; they’re also at Nordstrom for the same. Here are a few under-$200 alternatives.)

As always, you have to know the specifics of YOUR office.  But because a poll can be fun, I thought we’d have this in two flavors: one poll for folks working in conservative offices, and one folks for the women in business casual offices.  Just for ease of discussion, let’s define a “conservative office” as one where, on any given day, 30% or more of your coworkers are in suits.

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Fun But Professional Patterns and Colors

Fun but Professional Patterns and Colors | CorporetteCan fun colors and patterns ever be professional? Reader S wonders:

The only black piece of clothing I have is one blazer and I don’t have a single white thing. You could find me in a floral skirts with striped tops, long bright dresses, and when I occasionally wear jeans, I always pair them with shirts and blazers. My favorite patterns are stripes and florals, favorite colors are purple, red, orange. Can this ever be professional? I feel very uncomfortable in black and would hate to give up my favorite pieces. The field where I hope to find a job is business causal.

Great question, S! We’ve talked about how to start wearing prints, as well as how to mix prints — but not in a long while (other than this brief mention in our post on how to shop your closet and Play Clothes). So let’s talk about it. First: I don’t think there is anything inherently unprofessional about prints, colors, and patterns — indeed, some of the most adventurous dressers, who mixed prints and patterns in the boldest ways, are some of the male partners I knew at my old law firm.  The easy advice here is that it’s very, very easy to throw on a solid cardigan or blazer that picks up one of the colors in your print, throw it on with a neutral trouser or skirt, and go to work.  But let’s have a bit more fun with it…

Fun but Professional Patterns and Colors | Corporette

Layer multiple patterns and anchor them with a solid piece, either in a neutral (black or white) or a color from one of the prints. (Check out our new Professional Prints board on Pinterest to see the pictures bigger, and click through for the sources.)

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What to Wear to the Company Retreat

What to Wear to the Off-Site Company Retreat | CorporetteWhat do you wear to an off-site company retreat at a center with both a conference center and hiking trails — and a dress code of “casual”? Poor Reader M is stuck with this problem on her first day of work, adding yet another layer of complexity…

I’m starting a new lawyer job next month that I’m very excited about. I would normally wear a suit to my first day of work, but my department has scheduled a retreat for the same day I start work. I have been asked to attend the retreat, but I have no clue what to wear. The retreat will be at a facility that has both a conference center and hiking trails. The email said “casual.” What on earth does that mean!?!? Are we talking work casual, like a respectable dress with flats? Weekend casual, like nice jeans with a blouse? A sundress? How do I make the right first impression without being overdressed?

Wow.  To Reader M, my apologies — this situation stinks!  I don’t think there’s any way you’re going to get out of this without just picking up the phone and talking to someone in HR.  My $.02: pick out what you think you should wear and run it by the person during your brief phone call.  In general I think you want to look friendly, detail-oriented, and responsible, so if this were me I’d probably go with washable trousers, a “nice” t-shirt, flats or comfortable heels (maybe a wedge in case you have to walk on grass), and an accessory that looks good both with a non-suiting blazer (to be kept in your car? folded on the back of your chair?).  A good question to ask during your conversation: whether there are any pictures of last year’s event in the company newsletter or whatnot.  Another option here: call the manager of the facility and ask what he or she sees most often.  You never know — she may be able to give you extra insight into the day’s plans (such as, well, you wouldn’t want to wear X because it might get dirty during the fire walking portion of the day!).

In general, though, readers, let’s discuss — have you been to any off-site company retreats that have both a conference center and hiking trails — and if so what did you wear?  Would you dress differently if your FIRST DAY were the day of the company retreat (such a new-kid-new-school vibe, right?!)? What does a “casual” dress code say to you anyway?

What to Wear to the Off-Site Company Retreat | Corporette

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Guest Post: 7 Stores to Shop for Summer Workwear

Summer Workwear | CorporetteWhich are the best stores for summer workwear? Everyone has their own list, it seems, but today’s comes from the online shopping experts at SHEfinds, a blog I’ve been reading since before I started Corporette. Welcome! – Kat. 

Whether you live in the city or the country, drive to work or commute, every woman knows the perils of dressing for work during summer. It’s hot when you’re outside, cold in the car or on the train, hot on your walk to the office, and then cool again in your office. How the heck are you supposed to dress for this?

One word: layers. Yes, it may seem like a bother to carry something extra when it’s 80+ degrees out, but not only will a good blazer, cardigan, or jacket keep you warm in A.C., but it will also pull together a professional outfit like nobody’s business.

So as we embark on sweltering summer months, we rounded up seven stores every woman should hit up for workwear to survive the season. Whether you’re looking for business attire or something more casual, these spots won’t fail you. (Pictured: Notch Neck Shift, $67-$134 at Boden, marked down from $168.)

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Guest Post: Figure-Flattering Business Casual

Figure-Flattering Business Casual | CorporetteI’ll be honest: a lot of my hesitancy with newer, trendier looks for the office is that they never seem to be that figure flattering.  So I’m thrilled to bring you today’s guest poster: Angie Cox of YouLookFab, offering her expert style advice on how to elongate outfits and achieve figure-flattering business casual style. Angie was awesome enough to guest post for me back in my first maternity leave, as well, on stylish eyewear.  Welcome back, Angie! – Kat.

Today’s fashions put much less emphasis on conventional figure flattery. Silhouettes frequently surrender the waistline and make lengthening the leg line a lower priority than it used to be. This is generally a very positive thing. It is liberating, and often leads to outfits that are a lot more comfortable and forgiving around the midsection.

But that doesn’t mean letting go of the conventional approaches completely. As I help my business casual clients refresh their wardrobes with newer fluid and oversized fits, and trendier items like cropped pants, boxy jackets, high vamped footwear, flat shoes, and high-low hemlines, I’ve found that we are striving for an attractive and current look that is “just flattering enough.”

With that in mind, here are ten ways to elongate an outfit that might come in handy as you experiment with conventionally unflattering proportions. You can use more than one of these strategies in the same outfit:

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