2020 Update: We still stand by our advice for what to wear to a big meeting at a casual office, but you may also want to check out The Ultimate Guide to Business Casual for Women.
When you work at a company with a casual dress code, how should you step it up for a board meeting — or for other important meetings — when you want to look professional but don’t know what others will be wearing? Reader A wonders…
I have a fashion question: How does one dress for the board meeting of a “casual dress” company? We are a start-up — this is our first board meeting — so I really don’t have a precedent to call on. During a normal work day, my boss (the CEO, age 45+) and I typically wear jeans and a sweater or T-shirt, as we only have phone/email contact with clients. However, it seems like the board meeting calls for a more professional look. I asked my boss about it, he said “What you’re wearing is fine.” (Faded jeans, a long-sleeved Tshirt and a scarf.) He is not the type of guy I would normally take fashion advice from, and I’m not sure he fully understands the nuance of female dress! Most of the other officers and board members are lawyers, lobbyists, or CPAs. I don’t want to show up in jeans, but I don’t want to be the only one in a suit either. Is there something inbetween? Dress slacks and a cardi? I am age 35+, and a size 14 (XL), so I don’t want anything too clingy or “young”. Suggestions?
We’ve talked about how to do business casual without looking overdressed, a casual-but-professional uniform for women, what to wear to a casual office on your first day, shoes to wear with jeans at work, and more — but not this.
Interesting question, A, and I’m curious to hear what readers say. For my $.02, I would avoid the “dress slacks and a cardi” look when everyone else is in jeans because you inevitably end up looking like the mom of the group. So I’m going to offer you two suggestions and suggest you go with the one that feels right — but again, I’m curious to hear what the readers say.
A) Jeans and a blazer, preferably either with sleek heels or personality sneakers like Chucks or the New Balance x J.Crew sneakers that everyone has. Think confident! Think cool! Try adding a statement necklace or a scarf to the look, or try pushing up the sleeves of your blazer. On the shoe point, I am thinking of two different kinds of women here — one is sleek and sophisticated; the other is cool, smart and confident. (Note that the latter can also be a lot harder to style — like I said, go with what you feel comfortable with.) You can wear other shoes, of course, but the margin for error is greater with flats, boots, comfort shoes, or others. Stick to neutral colors if you’re in doubt, with a pop of color somewhere — possibly just a red lip. As always for business, look for jeans in a dark rinse with minimal distressing.
B) A sheath dress and, again, sleek heels. This is another suggestion based on the margin for errors — the “it” business dress is pretty much a no brainer. Sheath dress, black or beige heels, and if you think you might be cold or aren’t happy with your arms in the dress, bring both a cardigan and a blazer to work that day and choose your topper based on what the guys are wearing. This is more of a dressed up look, for sure, but a common one among women in tech — think Sheryl Sandberg. It does say that you’re the grown up of the group — but it doesn’t suggest you’re taking lunch orders or doing other office housework.
Ladies, what would you wear to a “big meeting” in a business casual environment? How would you decide?