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How to Look Stylish and Professional at a Business Casual Office

business casualWhen you’re used to dressing conservatively for work and your new office is much less formal, how do you put outfits together to look casual but still professional and stylish? Some women would react to a dress-code switch like this with a “Score! Jeans and comfy shoes EVERY day,” but others are bigger fans of dressing conservatively in a casual office, like Reader J, who wonders…

I just started a job as an in-house attorney at a tech company. Before this, I worked at a big law firm with a conservative dress code. Now I’m in the dilemma of having a closet full of clothes that are too dressy for my job. I enjoy dressing up, but I don’t want to look too stuffy in this new environment. My boss wears hoodies everyday, and I was told that I’d be teased if I dress up too much. Any suggestions for where to shop for casual outfits that are still cute and classy?

In the past we’ve talked about wearing jeans to work and what to wear for a big meeting at a casual office, as well as the stories linked above.  Now let’s revisit some of that advice and take a look at several examples:

(Pictured: Nordstrom’s very popular open front cardigan by MOD.lusive by Bobeau, $25-$42 in lots of colors and regular and petite sizes.)

Expanding Your Wardrobe

business casual but classySo, although I’m assuming you probably don’t want to go out and buy a whole new casual wardrobe, it’s pretty likely you’ll need to add some new pieces to make sure (as you pointed out) that you don’t look too dressy or stuffy at your new office. Try these ideas:

  • Stock up on basics like professional t-shirts and other classics, such as cashmere sweaters. Check out our recent post on colors and patterns, and have some fun wearing some things that just wouldn’t fly at your old office.  (Try playing Closet, Kat’s favorite game!)
  • Ask a personal shopper/personal stylist to help you expand your potential outfits. Many retailers, like Nordstrom, Macy’s, White House | Black Market, Neiman Marcus, J.Crew, and Anthropologie, offer these services free of charge at their stores and/or websites.
  • Look at the “weekend wear” at your favorite stores; for example, if you’re used to shopping at Ann Taylor, browse the racks to find the more relaxed pieces they offer. (Incidentally, if you’re shopping online, look for the “Casual Friday” sections at Ann Taylor and The Limited.) These selections might not be appropriate for a conservative office, but the more casual looks from stores like this might offer great “bridge” pieces between your old wardrobe and the one for your new office.
  • If you can’t spend a bunch of cash on new clothes right now — or you just really like saving money– try consignment shops and/or thrift stores (often a good source for brands like J.Crew Factory, Ann Taylor, Loft, Gap, Banana Republic, and also designer pieces when you’re lucky), find bargains at places like Target, Uniqlo, or H&M, and shop discount stores like Marshalls and T.J. Maxx. The online consignment store, ThredUp, may be of interest to you — you could repurpose some of your older, more conservative clothes and get shopping credits for newer, more casual clothes.
  • Have a certain “muse” in mind when you shop. Pick a TV character who looks casual-but-professional, or find a style blogger, or even keep in mind a particular catalog or store stylist, and start getting inspired! Kat has previously recommend the popular “Work Outfits” board on Pinterest — you can even sort the pins by “Business Casual,” “Casual,” etc. (but just be aware that the categorization is not 100% reliable).

(Pictured, clockwise from top left: Caslon Knit One-Button Blazer, $59 / Halogen Zip Detail Jacket, $98 / Nic + Zoe Four-Way Convertible Cardigan, $108 / Eileen Fisher High/Low Hem Organic Linen V-Neck Cardigan, $142 (was $238), Nic + Zoe Linen Blend Cardigan, $108 / Halogen Knit Moto Jacket, $98)

Pants

For pants, your best bet is to wear dark blue jeans with very little or no distressing — try trouser jeans — and pair them with things like a structured, fitted blazer, or a button-front blouse. Denim tends to make any outfit more casual, and if you incorporate one or two nice new pairs of jeans, much of your old law-firm workwear (button-fronts, blazers, etc.) will be much more wearable. Also, go with the five-pocket styles in fabrics other than denim — for example, cords, khakis, velvet, or even certain ponte knit pants. Your new office’s dress code may give you more freedom to wear trendier or somewhat edgier pants like wide-leg or ankle styles.

jeans + wide-leg + ankle(WH|BM Saint Honore Chino Trouser Jean, $84 / Halogen ‘Quinn’ Wide Leg Pants, $79 / LOFT Striped Denim Riviera Pants, $69.50)

Blazers & Cardigans

If your tailored black, gray, or navy blazers you wore to your previous job seem too formal for this new dress code — even when paired with jeans — try some alternatives with interesting cuts, prints, and colors.

blazers(Halogen Zip Pocket Jacket, $98 / Chelsea28 Scalloped Front Jacket, $98 / Halogen Stripe Collarless Zip Front Jacket, $58 (was $98))

Corporette readers have often recommended cardigans as a less-dressy substitute to blazers (especially those that are open-front, I’d say). Kat rounded up some good examples of jeans + cardigan combos in last month’s post on building work outfits around jeans.

Accessories 

At your former office you may have felt limited to small and classic jewelry — small gold earrings, pearls, etc. — so here’s your chance to have more fun with your jewelry by expressing yourself and highlighting your style. Switching a pearl necklace with a striking, colorful one can definitely tone down the conservative feel of an outfit. So, where to get these new accessories? In the past we’ve recommended shopping at museum stores — for example, MoMAStore.org — and you might also check out the stores at galleries and museums in your area, as well as local arts & crafts festivals.

Etsy is always an option, of course, although with the current number of artists and offerings, handmade and vintage, shopping for anything there tends to be overwhelming. To make it easier by narrowing down your choices, browse the Editors’ Picks, see what’s trending, view the favorites on Etsy Pages, or look at blogs like A Cut Above the Retsy. Try venturing beyond gold and silver jewelry to wood, beading, or even fabric/textiles.

jewelry for casual office(Wooden Statement Necklace (Etsy), $47/ Mandala Necklace (Etsy), $31 / Indigo Bead Necklace (MoMA), $290)

Readers, what would you add to the advice for Reader J — what are your best tips for looking professional in a business casual office?  How have you changed your style or your wardrobe when you moved from a conservative office to a casual one? 

(L-#)

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N.B. These substantive posts are intended to be a source of community comment on a particular topic, which readers can browse through without having to sift out a lot of unrelated comments. And so, although of course we highly value all comments by our readers, we’re going to ask you to please keep your comments on topic; threadjacks will be deleted at our sole discretion and convenience. Thank you for your understanding!

Comments

  1. I agree with Kat’s suggestions, though personally I only wear jeans on Friday. I’m also an attorney at a tech company. I see a pretty big range of styles. Personally I like to wear pencil skirts with a blouse or shell & cardigan. I also wear dresses often – I like ones with sleeves so I don’t have to wear anything over them. I also agree with the suggestion for more casual type blazers like knits or tweeds. Generally I do dress nicer than most of my colleagues, I don’t get teased but several people do say things like “you always look so nice” etc (not sarcastically).

    • I agree with Suzie, tho I NEVER could wear jean’s except when we were packeing and unpackeing for our moove to 3rd Avenue. I usually dress very well (b/c you NEVER know when a cleint is goeing to come into the office). I wear alot of pencil skirt’s and nice blouses, mostly silk, and otherwise nice suit’s to court with 4″ pumps that I have Mason carry for me.

      Some of the peeople in the office are NOT as meticulus as me clotheing wise b/c they do NOT go into court and are generaly schlumpey. Madeline I do NOT think has ever argued a case in front of a judge and she does NOT wash her clotheing to often so she has a kind of stale smell around her and her office. It remain’s to be seen if her new furniture will cause her to shape up a bit. The guy who she see’s is also kind of schlumpey tho I supose when the two of them have at it in the bedroom, neither one knows which one is responsibel for the musty odor (or care’s). I supose it should be just live and let live, but I wish I were NOT the onley fashioneable one in the office. I do have alot to be thankful for b/c the manageing partner gives me a clotheing allowance that is worth alot, dad say’s and I agree! YAY!!!!!

  2. I feel like I really need this advice. I work in a business casual environment, where styles range from full suits when a client comes in to jeans and t-shirts on non-client days. I’ve taken to wearing dark jeans + blouse + cardigan, but I need more inspiration!

    Caveat: I’m plus size, so clothing on sites either looks too old-fashioned for me, has tons of sequins (why do they always bedazzle the pockets!?), or looks appropriate for a night at the club. (I’m saddened that Target’s new plus line isn’t very versatile as far as work-to-weekend wear.)

    • Calibrachoa :

      I am in the same boat as you. The eternal quest for things that are not beige sacks or bedazzled leopard print D:

      One thing that hasn’t been mentiond that I get a lot of mileage out of isdresses with leggings that look like tights, either with a cardsigan or a blazer depending on the day and what is happening.

  3. Miz Swizz :

    I currently work in a business casual office and I’ve been dressing more casual than business lately. Nobody seems to notice or care but I’d like to step it up regardless. If I’m being honest, there isn’t another woman in my office to emulate so I’m a bit lost how to proceed. I know I’m not going to wear suits all the time but there’s a pretty big gap between my current look and suits. I’m curious to see what others suggest.

    • Wildkitten :

      Ponte blazers.

      • Worn like a cardigan? (I own 1 blazer and it’s brought out for interviews, so pardon my ignorance.)

        • Wildkitten :

          Over a shirt and with jeans or a skirt that are different colors than the blazer.

      • Yep, ponte blazers (or 3/4 sleeve linen in the summer), silky top, dark skinny jeans, with cute flats/pumps/sandals. Add a necklace and you’re good to go.

    • 1. Nice pants with button downs or if you don’t like the latter, with some really good quality tops. You not need that many, so I’d go to brands that may be bit expensive but will deliver on quality

      2. Sheath dresses in either solid colours or prints. Former can be dressed up with statement necklaces. You can wear nice sandals if that’s ok in your office …instead of pumps

      3. Friday : dark denim plus nice tees

      4. Pencil or A line skirts

      Bring out the Blazers, cardis, colourful belts, colourful shoes but keep it all classy!

      I also accessorise a lot with jewellery.

  4. x

  5. Anonymous :

    So, here’s my related question (because I have the same office environment):

    If the boss wears hoodies, why do I have to dress “boring” casual? Why can’t I wear my regular casual clothes that skew trendy and/or really casual (never revealing or tight).

    I grapple with this. I started wearing only “appropriate” casual clothes, but I’ve since veered towards whatever I want — boyfriend jeans with ankle boots, maxi dresses, skinny jeans and big sweaters, sneakers.

    Is this a terrible idea?

    • For me, dressing nice/businessy puts me in my work frame of mind. Like how when you don’t want to go to the gym, just putting on gym clothes can be half the battle. Plus I like the way it looks!

      My boss dresses a lot more casaul (I’ve seen her in open sandals! horrors!) and I wouldn’t emulate her in this respect. She has he “earned the right” so to speak, ie established her credibility by her depth of experience and everyone knows how knowledgeable and competent she is. Me, I look young and haven’t been with the company too long so I feel like my clothes need to project something more.

    • Anon in Cali tech :

      Depends on your job, the situation (big meeting, presentation), & what you want to accomplish (angling for a promotion or raise). For everyday, trendy casual that’s still neat & tidy is probably fine in a hoodie-boss environment. Up your game a touch if you want to impress, that’s all.

  6. I worked in software development for 2 years, where the standard attire was hoodie+shorts+flip-flops, which was something that took a lot of getting used to. It is a weird world where if you wear dress pants/suit skirt bottom, people assume you have an interview elsewhere, a funeral, or just act like you’re better than everybody.
    My regular outfits were spot on with Kat’s suggestions. Dark jeans, cardigan, blouse/tshirt of any kind, and leather ballet flats were my usual. I’d mix up my outfits with my bottoms. Skirts of all kinds including pencil and jersey knit knee and ankle length; patterned and solids. I also had a number of knee length shorts in wilder patterns and a couple Capri length pants in bright solids (purple, teal).
    If you go casual with the colors and patterns, you’ll fit right in without having to wear frumpy shapes.

  7. Great thread!
    My office when from business formal to casual overnight. I’m in a senior exec position but am chronologically younger than my peers and look young for my age, so need keep up some polish and authority. I’ve tried pairing my suit jackets with jeans, but don’t love the look on me. What has worked really well for me is to pair suit skirts with button down shirts and cardigans. In the winter, I swap out suit pants for the pencil skirt. Moving away from suits has forced me to buy more accessories: better belts and statement necklaces. I didn’t have many before because the suits stood on their own with little embellishment.

  8. I like stylist/blogger You Look Fab for business casual/casual outfit inspiration.

  9. I think you can still wear your conservative blazers. Just pair them with trouser jeans or skinny jeans, and some color – like maybe a hot pink pair of heels, or some patterned blouse, something fun. It makes the conservative blazer seem more “casual” but you can still get some wear out of your conservative clothes so they don’t sit sadly in your closet waiting to be worn.

    Like Kat, I spend time on Pinterest. Sometimes I’ll look at a piece of clothing in my closet and wonder how I can wear it so it’s more casual, but still professional – so I just type in, for example, “ankle pants casual” or even pairings like “black skinny jeans sneakers” to see what ideas you can get from it.

    I work in a business casual office, and even though I see people wear hoodies, that’s the one thing I won’t wear to work. Maybe if it is a knit fabric that happens to have a hood on it.. on a Friday. But you can liven up your conservative attire with fun accessories, like colored scarves, or necklace, even less conservative hairstyles, etc. Another good place to look for cheap but casual professional clothing is h&m – some of it might not last until next year, but it’s a good place to start…

  10. I also work in Legal at a Tech company with a casual dress code (forget ‘business’ casual lol). I wear jeans a lot more often and formal blazers a lot less often than I have in traditional business casual offices, but I still wear a lot of the same outfits like trousers and a blouse/sweater or a dress (never a suit though). The corporate side of the firm is a bit more conservative anyhow so no one would look askance, and also I don’t care if people think I’m overdressed. I don’t see how it’s a detriment as long as you are not in a suit all the time. I’m in NYC, so that might be a factor too.

  11. I’m in the same boat. Dresses are my new bestie. I pair them with my jean jacket, a cardigan, or a colorful blazer. They are so versatile. And if I feel like I need a little more structure, I add a belt. It makes me feel shapely but still put-together. Finally, a few years ago, I “banned” black and beige from my wardrobe. It forces me to find other neutrals to wear, as well as more colorful items. It makes shopping more fun, too.

  12. Anon in Cali tech :

    An alternative to denim is knits. Pair a structured piece with knits, like a jacket with a knit dress, to casual it up. Or tailored trousers with tees & cardis.

    Also, shoe choices can make an outfit much more casual – flats, boots high or low, fancy sneakers (leather, Chuck Taylor’s, etc). No pumps or very selective & unusual ones.

  13. I applaud anon101’s comment that she doesn’t care if people think she is overdressed. I could not agree more. I am a senior attorney at a major Silicon Valley tech company and I am so sick and tired of the pajamafication of the American workplace. I routinely see women at my company in track pants, plastic croc shoes, stripper heels, leggings-worn-as-pants and too tight tops with their tummies spilling out. Is this really what business casual has done to the workplace? And it is almost always the women who can’t seem to get it right. When was the last time you saw a man inappropriately dressed in the workplace? Maybe sometimes, but not very often. I am happy to take on the challenge of inspiring my coworkers to give up the sloppy I-don’t-care image (has this ever worked for anyone other than Mark Zuckerberg?)and dress for respect for yourself and your colleagues. Plus, the sloppy, I-dont-care image is REALLY hard to pull off after you hit 30. After that point, if you continue to dress like that, it just shows poor judgement and you look crazy. I love dresses, skirts and blazers. Why in the world would I care if my horribly dressed colleagues think I am overdressed? These are people I should take fashion advice from or care about their opinions? I think not. Error on the side of being overdressed and do it with pride!!

    • Calibrachoa :

      “When was the last time you saw a man inappropriately dressed in the workplace”

      … Where do I start? I work in IT; and although business casual, our workplace does have a very detailed dress code. And the men break it constantly. Theres senior systems guys in flip-flops and too-small shirts with their bellies exposed, so much ripped denim and flat out offensive band logos, brightly colored sneakers, unkempt beard and hair, and all that underwear on display… and of course, the HR does nothing about this. I remarked to ou HR manager about someone wearing a Marvin the martin t-shirt yesterday (it made sense in context), which would be blatantly against the dress code, and his reaction was to whistle the looney tunes theme.

      So it is definitely not just the women.

    • Michelle, thank you for the shoutout and LOVE the “pajamafication” term you came up with.

      I have to agree with the reply commenter above me though, that sloppiness/ inappropriateness is not squarely in the women’s domain at the office. Men look like slobs in the tech space all the time, some even make Mark Zuckerberg look chic. Which is precisely why I don’t care what any of them think about my dress style. I dress to feel good and polished, even if I’m the only one. In fact, sometimes my coworkers remark on how nice I look and make verbal note that they themselves have been stuck in a jeans rut and should step it up more.

    • SteelCityMagnolia :

      I don’t care how much money Mark Zuckerberg has, what his position is, or what company he owns. That hoodie looks totally unprofessional.

    • “Pajamafication” just made me snort — guilt as charged, I am currently wearing literal pajamas right now (tank/cami pj top that passes for normal tank and yoga pants), and working late (1oPM-ish).

      There’s a lot of risk involved in appearing too well-dressed aside from people thinking you’re going to a wedding or a funeral. At least for women.* For instance, I don’t really want to risk a visitor mistaking me for biz dev or a lawyer, because they’d probably sooner assume that I’m an executive assistant … and if I’m in a t-shirt, hoodie, and yoga pants, people assume I’m a software engineer and don’t question my competence.

      The whole point of dressing well is so we put our best foot forward and bias the observer towards taking us seriously. If dressing super-casually gets us respect, are we missing the point here? I can’t really wear the vast majority of the things suggested in the blog post. Granted, I didn’t say people take me more seriously in a bathing suit, it’s just that they treat me better and assume I know more when I’m in jeans and a t-shirt than a dress.

      Also relevant:

      “The science of a tech company shirt is really complex. Wearing newer shirts could signify a newbie—a new hire.
      Non-company shirts may be worn by a longtime staffer comfortable in his role. Or these longstanding employees might also wear older company T-shirts, with outdated logos, to indicate all the years they’ve put in. At this point in the conversation I felt as though I was being taught the etiquette of a 17th-century French court.

      This idea that specific T-shirt customs within a tech company can follow certain rules and imply meaning, power, and hierarchy is a fascinating one.” (http://www.businessinsider.com/tech-uniform-2014-5#!IUb2q)

      * https:[email protected]/coding-like-a-girl-595b90791cce

  14. Pajamafication!! :

    I’m adding pajamafication to my dictionary! So funny Michelle. I make a point of reminding staff that CASUAL day is not CASUALTY day, so don’t come in looking like you got hit by a car or something…

  15. SteelCityMagnolia :

    I used to work for a company where, while suits weren’t the norm, the women did dress up all the time. I was laid off for 18 months and was hired through a temp agency at a construction company that was VERY casual. After 18 months of not working, I really did not have the money to buy jeans to get me through an entire work week and I was definitely not comfortable dressing as casually as some of my new co-workers (workout gear, cropped sweatshirts, Aeropostale and Pink logos, flip flops… YIKES!) especially if it was only going to be a temp position, so I just adjusted my wardrobe. I do have a few pairs of dark-wash trouser jeans. I paired those with jackets and dressy boots. Most of what I wore with skirts and hose and heels, I wore with dress pants. I ended up being hired on permanently and my work “uniform” now is mostly black dress pants (it’s a construction office and it can get dirty around here!), and camisoles and cardis that I dress up with scarves and jewelry and heels. Nobody has really said anything about how I dress, but I have noticed that the biggest office-inappropriate clothing offenders have started to step up their game a little!

    PS – I, too, applaud Michelle’s term “pajamafication” and anon101’s attitude of not caring if people think she’s overdressed. I was just thinking that I still have a lot of awesome clothes I’ve put away that I miss wearing. I’m going to break a few of those pieces out and if they still fit, I’m putting them in circulation. If they don’t fit, I’m going on a mission to get into shape so they DO fit. There’s no excuse for going to work sloppily dressed, and I honestly feel that if you don’t take pride in how you look, you won’t take pride in how you work. Someone needs to set a good example, so I’m stepping in line behind Anon101 and Michelle. Let’s get to work and look great doing it, ladies!

  16. Anonymous :

    i

  17. You are right ladies. Maybe I was too hasty in giving the guys a free pass. Though for me, the women in my office make fashion mistakes that are more in-your-face inappropriate (tight and revealing clothing) that I find more offensive than just the general sloppiness of some men. Plus I was generally referring to the male attorneys in my office who have a standard uniform of khakis and button downs that none of them ever really deviate from, so that is pretty safe. I agree though that there is a ripple effect. Like so many of you, there are NO senior females or executives at my company that are really good examples fashion-wise, but I did have a female attorney who is senior to me comment that she has been inspired to dress up more, due to my example. So I will take that small success. Plus, hopefully I am inspiring some of the younger employees as well (although ironically the younger employees seem to dress better than most of the offenders!) I am glad I have some like-minded cyber friends out there!

  18. MissDisplaced :

    I think you can “break up” the suits you own with more casual pieces such as t-shirts or cardigans or wear the blazer with jeans or black leggings and tall boots instead. Also, just think, you can probably add sandals this summer! Otherwise, the advice is spot on for a more casual office.

  19. I’m now in higher ed, and transitioning from a mixed management/faculty position to full-time faculty. Especially when I’m teaching undergrads, I can’t wear a suit. My go to more “casual” outfit in the winter is a cute shorter tweed or print skirt (or camel) with black tights and boots or booties with a cashmere t-neck. I also like to wear skinny black pants (side zip) with a cardi or blazer. It’s a tough blend – professional enough to be respected, but not “corporate” as that is eschewed at the university. Interesting blouses that I’d wear with jeans on Saturday I’ll wear with the black pants. My most casual work outfit is khakis, a white tank, and a cool fitted chambray shirt from Banana Republic. I’m still not quite comfortable wearing that to work though.

  20. Many thanks for the mention! Mel x

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