While our main focus here at Corporette® tends to be conservative business attire, we’ve offered a ton of advice on business casual for women over the years, so I thought we thought we’d round it up in one handy place.
Whether you’re transitioning from a conservative office to a casual office, or just looking for great advice on business casual for women, keep an eye on this page!
Note that whether you work in a business casual office or a conservative office, if you’re looking for work outfit ideas, our free four-week challenge has something for everyone. Check it out!
Table of Contents
- Big Tips on Business Casual for Women
- What Not to Wear to a Business Casual Office
- Tips on Dressing Well in Business Casual for Women
- Versatile Pieces to Add to Your Business Casual Wardrobe
- How to Elevate Business Casual Attire
- When “Business Casual” May Be More “Casual-Casual”
Big Tips on Business Casual for Women:
Know your office — and yourself.
If you’re more comfortable in formal clothes like sheath dresses (or perhaps you’re transitioning from a conservative office to a casual one) try to add in fun shoes, jewelry, and other accessories to make your look more “conservative business casual“.
If you’re more comfortable in casual clothes like jeans — and want to dress it up — find things like comfortable sweater blazers to add to your stylish, professional business casual look.
Seek a good balance between structured and unstructured looks
Combined structured looks like sheath dresses and more casual, unstructured looks like waterfall cardigans, as we advised one young woman seeking advice on what to wear to work in Silicon Valley (the most difficult of business casual offices, IMHO, because some people are dressing very casually and some people are dressing very formally).
Don’t worry too much about dressing “too well for business casual.”
If you’re worried about how to do business casual without being overdressed, “dressing too well” for work, or how to dress for work without looking like you think that you’re in charge, we’ve addressed questions about all of that over the years.
Actions speak louder than outfits.
Remember that professionalism comes down to how you act much more so than how you dress. So if you’re really freaked out, err on the more conservative side for the first week at work (or three) and start experimenting after that, even if you think you’re in a really laid back office.
What Not to Wear to Work in a Business Casual Office
Every office is different, of course, which is what makes business casual for women so difficult to define. Still, a business casual dress code doesn’t translate to “anything goes.” Some things are never appropriate in the office, including these classic “what not to wear to work” gaffes:
- Cleavage-baring tops/dresses, or anything else that exposes a lot of skin: a strapless top, a top with cutouts, a short skirt with bare legs, short shorts/a romper with short shorts, a low back or a big cutout on the back. Be wary of any “workwear” requiring a new bra. To be safe, remember the old mirror trick for double-checking your outfit — and if you’re wondering “how short is too short,” note that most readers thought C was the perfect length for work: within an inch of your knee. In more casual offices you may be able to go as high up as E with dark tights, but I’d avoid the mid-thigh F unless you know your office very well.
- Anything that makes a distracting sound — clanking bangles, shoes (particularly sandals) that make a slap-slap-slap sound, a pair of leather or corduroy pants that make a ZIPZIP sound when you walk, etc.
- Anything that you can’t move in easily. Leave the limo shoes at home and get a pair of heels you can walk a few blocks in comfortably. (If you’re new to heels or refreshing your acquaintance, check out our tips on walking in heels — and check out recently updated Guide to Comfortable Heels to see the best brands and styles we recommend.) Of course, it’s also possible to look professional in flats all the time.
- Anything costume-y — from time-to-time readers have wondered about vintage garb, all-pink attire, and other things — while these can be fine in moderation, a good rule of thumb is that if you look like an extra in a theatrical production, it’s a bad outfit for work.
- Anything where there’s an active debate over what category the item falls into — if you have to ask, “are these pants or leggings,” or “is this a tunic or a dress,” then don’t wear it.
In particular, be wary of wearing the following items to work — and know your office really well before you buy or wear them:
- Sandals (particularly flip flops, even if they’re leather)
- Over-the-knee boots
- Knee-high boots
- “Formal shorts” (N.B. that this was an April Fool’s post — but you can also check out this older discussion on what not to wear to the office that started with discussion over Bermuda shorts))
- Lingerie-inspired styles like mesh, lace, anything sheer, etc.
- Anything requiring a special bra!
- Anything ripped or distressed — if your grandmother would raise her eyebrows at it, don’t wear it to work.
Even sleeveless dresses or bare legs may be an issue in some workplaces — so know your office well before you start deviating.
Tips on Dressing Well in Business Casual For Women
That said, there are a few things that well-dressed women in business casual offices have in common to look great for work everyday:
They wear a “third item.”
Your third item could be a blazer, cardigan, or statement necklace or other accessory that features prominently, like a scarf, a belt on top of a cardigan or blazer, etc.
They wear clothes that fit properly.
Nothing should be too big (watch for hems that drag on the floor ) or too small (watch for shirts that gape across the front, pants or skirts that fit so tightly across your hips that they “smile,” and so forth. This may necessitate a visit to a tailor and/or figuring out the best brands for your body type. If you sometimes wear heels and sometimes wear flats, you may want to have your pants hemmed for different lengths — or find a pair of clunky and comfortable commuting shoes that are comfortable enough to wear on your commute, but maintain the same heel height (and hem) as sleeker heels.
They’ve paid attention to their undergarments.
If you’re very curvy you may want to check out our style advice for busty women; for other body-type issues that may be relevant, check out how to shop if your top and bottom are different sizes, as well as the brands are best for your body type.
They wear color with intention to work.
I’m a big proponent of the old idea that you wear “color with color, and black with black.” I almost never wear a pair of black pants with a blue sweater without adding, say, a green necklace or a purple belt (so there are at least two colors in the mix).
To get the most out of a minimal wardrobe, create a capsule wardrobe for work by choosing one base color and two accent colors. Other views on color that may make sense to you: some people prefer to wear black with a bit of gray, while others prefer to wear black with a repeating accent color. For advanced fashionista fun: try mixing patterns for a sophisticated feel, wearing a monotone look with different textures, or even wearing an unexpected combination, like black and navy.
- Comfortable heels — If a sleek classic pump doesn’t feel like “you,” note that we also recommend funkier brands like Fleuvog, Fly London, and more
- Comfortable flats
- Wine-colored pumps
- A black blazer — we’ve talked both about how to buy a black blazer to keep at work, as well as the best blazers under $50
- Blazers with working pockets (particularly great if you’re trying to look stylish while wearing an ID badge or otherwise want to be prepared for “workplace emergencies“)
- Washable pants – If this is key to you, note that over at CorporetteMoms we’ve rounded up the best brands for washable workwear.
- At least one sheath dress to layer beneath a cardigan, blazer, or other item — you may want to check out our roundup of sleeved sheath dresses with pockets.
- know your office, but dark rinse denim is a great way to wear jeans to work — also check out our post on which tops to wear with jeans to the office
Special Situations: How to Elevate Business Casual for Women
We’ve talked a lot about special situations that may require you to rethink “business casual,” especially in terms of elevating a business casual look:
- how to handle a “big meeting” at a casual office
- what to wear when you want/need to show authority — but cannot wear a suit
- what to wear to “business casual” networking events
- what to wear to a dinner reception as part of a business casual interview
- what to wear to an informational interview
- what to wear to a business cocktail party at a business casual office
- what to wear to a conference
Special Situations: When Business Casual May Be More Casual-Casual
- how to be super comfortable (but still look professional)
- how to do business casual in cold weather (and how to look professional but stay warm in a freezing office)
- what to wear to work in a heat wave
- what to wear on a long flight for work
- what to wear when canvassing for office (aka, how to do sneakers in a professional way)
- what to wear to a company picnic, to a company retreat, or for “resort business casual” events