Business Casual Maxi Dresses

French Connection Brushstroke Print Jersey Maxi Dress | CorporetteHow should you style a maxi dress for a business casual office? Reader P wonders…

I’m lucky enough to work in an office where I can wear maxi dresses on more casual days. It’s generally a relaxed business casual environment, with employees adjusting their dressy/casual levels depending on their external meeting schedules (so one person might be suited up while another is donning khaki capris). Do you have any suggestions for styling a maxi dress (my summertime staple!) to be appropriate and chic for the office? Mine all have wide enough straps to be work appropriate, but they seem *too* casual without a layering piece. I’ve tried to pair them with jackets and cardigans, but for whatever reason, I can’t get the proportions to line up just right. Is there a particular style/shape/length of topper that you’d recommend? Thanks!

Hmmmn. I’m still pretty anti-maxi dresses for the office, but I’m going to take Reader P at her word that, for her office, they’re totally appropriate — and this also may be a useful question for people going in to the office on a weekend and unexpectedly getting pulled into a meeting, or so forth, so let’s discuss. (Pictured: French Connection Brushstroke Print Jersey Maxi Dress, available at Nordstrom for $94, was $158.) 

  • Wear a normal bra, and keep it covered. If you need a strapless bra or a special racer back bra, put the dress down — you shouldn’t have to wear special bras for office attire. As Reader P mentioned, make sure your maxi dress has wide enough straps to cover your bra. Be wary of a very low neckline, or of a maxi dress with skin-baring cutouts.
  • Keep your shoes professional. This can be the hardest thing — I think strappy flats look good with a maxi dress, but that’s me. Just because your dress covers your shoes doesn’t mean you can get away with flip flops or wedge sandals.
  • Cover your arms and shoulders with a fitted shape. I tend to like wearing shrugs with maxi dresses on the weekend, but that can also look casual. For the office I would try it with a shrunken blazer or perhaps a fitted blouse. You want to add structure to the looseness on the bottom.
  • Dress it up with accessories. A skinny patent belt, a delicate necklace, or a high quality statement necklace — all of these things can go a long way.
  • Keep your hair neat and tidy, such as in an office updo.

Readers, what do you think — assuming a maxi dress is appropriate to wear to your office, how would you style it for work? Can a maxi dress make a good business casual look?


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  1. I would definitely not do a blouse on top of a maxi dress. I’m generally opposed to maxi dresses in the office, but I think some of the short cardigans (I love the Old Navy ones, I think either Lands End or LL Bean have some that people like as well) work best with dresses. Look for something that hits at or above the waist.

  2. Maxi dresses look weird at the office, even if your office skews casual. I only think they look good if you have a layered look, like you’re wearing a hijab and a blazer and closed toe shoes. Otherwise it’s too beachy.

    • I agree! Unless you are an orthodox Muslim or Jew complying with some religious dictate, maxi dresses do not belong in the white collar world!

    • I agree. I work in a very casual office (in the entertainment industry! In Santa Monica! ) and cannot bring myself to wear a maxi dress to work. It’s in the category of shorts for me.

    • Totally agree. Unless it’s for a religious/modesty thing, maxi length dresses just look odd in the office

    • Agreed that maxi dresses just cannot be made to look more professional. I have seen a few maybe looks with maxi skirts but not with dresses.

  3. I can’t help but think that maxi dresses are a younger woman’s muu muu.

  4. Add me to the “wouldn’t wear it to the office” camp… But if you must, I actually think a shrunken blazer or shrug would not work that well. To me, something about that (esp. the shrug) is a very dated look. I think the jackets that look best with a maxi dress are about hip-length. If you do a google search for maxi dress and blazer, you’ll see lots of ideas.
    The other thing I’d say is there are maxi dresses and there are maxi dresses. I think the typical jersey maxi might be too casual (I’m picturing your standard old navy type dress) but if you upgrade the fabric to something nicer, it can work.

  5. The real reason you can’t make this look right is because it’s very difficult to make this look right in an office setting. Sometimes no amount of styling can sidestep the fact that some pieces aren’t really officewear, even in really casual offices.

    I’m going to pile on and say…even if your office is casual enough for maxi dresses, it’s probably not a look that screams…authority, competence or PROMOTE ME! There’s so many other, better ways to do business casual or even casual, that this is just really not a great idea, unless, again, as someone mentioned, you are covering up for religious reasons.

  6. I’ve worn a maxi dress to my uber-casual office a couple of times, when I had a date immediately after.

    I styled it with a Brooks Brothers buttondown shirt on top, untucked of course and belted with a slim leather belt. From the hips up I looked more formal that most of my co-workers; I was actually surprised that the look was more polished than expected, though it will not fall into my regular rotation.

    • I wear maxi dresses at my also uber-casual office on Fridays pretty regularly (our non-Friday dress code is no blue jeans and no plastic flip flops; colored jeans and other sandals are fine), with a cardigan on top. Judge away, but I still think I look more professional than the people in raggedy jeans and event t-shirts.

  7. Office Help :

    I am in love with my co-worker. Like totally, completely, can’t stop thinking about him. It’s never going to happen, for a variety of reasons. Suggestions on how to get over it?

    • If I were you, I would take a chill pill NOW, otherwise, you could find yourself haveing sex with him and then him moving on. FOOEY on that! There are SO many men in the working world on the lookout for women like you who are SMITTEN with them and willing to have sex. The onley probelm is that after they have sex with you, they will NOT be there any more. Do you realy want to pine after a guy after he has had sex with you and has MOVED ON? I don’t think so. I had Sheketovits profesing his love for me but then choosing the bottel over me. Do NOT do what I did. Stay away from guy’s like Sheketovits. There will be better guys out there for you. YAY!!!

    • Try posting this on the Coffee Break open thread, as this is supposed to be a “substantive” thread and your comment may get deleted. I don’t have suggestions for getting over a crush, but will note this sounds like a garden-variety crush rather than “in love,” but you probably know that and were just exaggerating a bit.

  8. While I agree with all of the above, that maxi dresses/skirts are not for the office, isn’t it weird that a dress or skirt that stops at our knees and shows our legs is appropriate but one that goes to our ankles and keeps us covered up isn’t? I initially was thinking that it’s the maxi material or design that makes it too casual. But then I thought about my favorite work dresses and imagined the material coming to my ankles and I would still say no. Why is that? Is it just social conditioning? A formal gown that goes to our ankles is more formal than a short cocktail dress. Why has it always been different for office attire. Just some food for thought.

    • espresso bean :

      It’s really weird! I can’t always put my finger on why certain things just “feel” wrong or not appropriate even when there’s more coverage.

    • I think that might be it – maxi dresses are typically the same length as formal gowns but in a much more casual fabric, jersey, that skews more beachy than work-appropriate. If you use a nicer, more substantial fabric it starts to veer into the formalwear category, which as others have pointed out, you also wouldn’t wear to the office. I also think the types of fabric used for suiting / knee-length dresses would be harder to drape nicely for a floor length skirt, so your options are more limited.

      Also, I don’t know how to style my maxi dresses with anything other than sandals so that wouldn’t work for my office regardless of the dress fabric.

    • For me it’s because I will run over the skirt with the wheels of my chair. Just not a practical choice.

  9. RecoveringLawyer :

    Couple of thoughts: 1. Maxis in the office are probably far less acceptable in some regions than others (think the Northeast vs. LA or the Deep South). I am an attorney recruiter and work in a small office in the Southeast, comprised of fashion conscious women, and we all wear maxis in the hottest months from time to time, but never when we have external meetings. That said, I feel like if I were still practicing law in any major market, I would NEVER be caught dead at work in a maxi, with or without another layer. 2. I’m curious what thoughts are about maxis in the office when pregnant. I lived in them during the warmer months and my co-worker who is currently pregnant probably wears a maxi or two a week. I feel like this should fall into the “wearing for religious reasons” exception bucket for any region! Thoughts?

    • I think that a maxi dress looks good for religious reasons if you have a lot of fabric all over. If you google it, there are some women who make them look really elegant with hijabs because the fabric balances out the bottom of the maxi. I think perhaps your office is fashion conscious, but not professionally dressed. To me it’s like wearing a party dress to work – it covers everything and can be technically appropriate, but it is off and looks strange. Though if you are all on board, then ride that train. I think there is a pass on professional dress when you are pregnant.

  10. ClinicianResearcher :

    I am 7 months pregnant and have been seriously considering the maxi-dress as an option this summer (in Texas). I would normally NEVER consider this otherwise, but have been fantasizing about whether there is a way to make this somehow acceptable. Perhaps colleagues would give me a “pass”?! I work in an academic medical center and see patients on some days (would not wear a maxi dress) but other days just do research with no patient contact.

    • Moonstone :

      Absolutely you get a pass while pregnant.

    • You get a pass. :) A friend of mine who worked in executive recruiting lived in “polished” maxi dresses (ones that didn’t look like she was on her way to the beach) during her entire pregnancy.

    • Agreed – pregnant women get points for even putting clothes on in that kind of heat.

    • Yes, I had a simple maxi dress that I wore with a blazer and Oxfords several times when pregnant. I needed to wear support hose to prevent varicose veins and wasn’t in the mood to show off my legs. Do not miss being pregnant!

    • I’m over 8 mo. pregnant and in my gov legal office in the NE, pregnant ladies, including myself, wear maxi dresses. They can be a lot more appropriate at the end of the pregnancy than a shirt that’s getting too short, for instance – and they kind of look more like a gown, when you are pregnant, than a casual dress. I’ve gotten a lot of compliments on the maxi dresses I’ve worn – sometimes styled with a waterfall style sweater, and sometimes with a nicer top to make it look like I’m wearing maternity top and a skirt. But I don’t think I could pull it off non-pregnant, although I agree with the comment above that it’s strange that a shorter, less modest skirt is considered office-appropriate.

    • Is it a Research Medical Center? I find that those are often much more casual because the Postdocs, Research Assistants, and students are often in shorts, jeans, t-shirts, tank tops etc. so a maxi dress can actually make you a little fancy and no one would notice the dress at all. The few times I have worn them I have actually gotten comments about how dressed up I am.
      Also, if you are wearing a lab coat, I have noticed that it makes people look a lot more professional even if what they are wearing is crazy.
      I totally agree that wearing a maxi looks much better than showing your stomach at the end of pregnancy, so I say go for it and be comfy.

    • 100% agree. I am 7 months pregnant, in Houston, and I am working the maxi dress every Friday (and then some when I can push it). I think we definitely get a pass, and no one has commented once (other than positively). I don’t think i would do it when not pregnant, but I think it is perfectly acceptable at this point. Its hot. I’m huge. Something has to give!

  11. I will say that I work in a creative industry in a popular southern town, and maxi dresses are totally acceptable in the summer. We have a lot of female designers who wear them in the summer on non-client meeting days and look totally professional and put together (for our industry). I think a belted button down layered over it is a good look, as is a shrunken blazer or cardigan.

    Just wanted to chime in to say that in some offices and industries, a maxi dress is totally normal and fine. I agree 100% with the commenter who said they prefer someone put together in a maxi dress to the people who wear ratty jeans for “casual” days!

    • Meg Murry :

      I agree that if ratty jeans are ok, or shorts, a maxi dress is probably ok, and probably looks nicer than ratty jeans or shorts. If the most casual people get are really nice jeans (dark wash trouser jeans, for instance), then a maxi is probably too casual.

      At a ratty-jeans casual place I worked, the HR director often wore a maxi dress and jean jacket on Fridays, and she pulled it off since she was often still the best dressed person in the room – it also helped that she was tall, so able to pull off the maxi without looking like it swallowed her, and sh always had perfectly done, well cut hair, neat but not too much makeup, and was well accessorized with jewelry. Her overall look was a very deliberate outfit, not throwing on an “I’m going to the beach after work and I don’t care” maxi.

    • OP here. I get that many folks don’t think that maxis are acceptable, but they are in my office, which is why I asked for suggestions on styling them for maximum “deliberate stylish outfit” factor instead of “en route to the beach.” I appreciate the advice on belted sweaters or tops – I’ll try that and see how it works! Like I stated in my question, I’d never wear a maxi to an external meeting, but on slow days where I’m just camped out in my office working? Definitely! I’m a director, if that matters, and our entire executive team is pretty casual (polos/sweaters and khakis, skirts and dresses in fun colors/patterns, etc.) unless we have external meetings or hearings.

  12. I’m curious whether these sentiments also apply to maxi skirts? I’d define maxi skirts as those super long flowing skirts . I have a black one with plain breathable fabric.

    I also try to steer clear of maxi dresses in the office. I’m a younger attorney and most of my maxi dresses are strapless weekend dresses or come off as too carefree. I saw a younger attorney around my age with an appropriate maxi dress and formal blazer. She pulled if off well but it was too trendy for me in such a formal environment.

    • Philanthropy Girl :

      I work in a pretty casual environment (our CFO shows up in maxi dresses sometimes and no one bats an eye), so take my thoughts with a grain of salt. I think a plain black maxi skirt paired with something a bit more structured on top – a blazer or structured blouse -maybe a small belt, and some statement jewelry, could work very well in a more formal environment. I think it’s definitely a know your own office situation, and also know what you’re comfortable in. If you feel conspicuously trendy or dressing too young – you’ll project your discomfort and others will pick up on it.

  13. SteelCityMagnolia :

    Hmmm… Even in our extremely casual office environment, I think I’d shy away from a maxi dress. Something about them screams way too unprofessional to me. But then, too, this is not a look I’d be comfortable in at all even outside the office.

  14. I work in a very casual office- and I prefer not to wear maxi skirts/dresses, just because it’s not my style. There’s a lot of women who do, and I’ve noticed a few ways to make them look really put-together:

    -Rayon or anything that’s not jersey– wrinkles are a huge NO here
    -Streamlined silhouettes – a straight skirt with a slit looks better than a really flowy one
    -Being really put-together in every other part of your outfit– shoes, top, hair, jewelry, nails (like palazzo pants, which skew pajama-ey if you’re not DRESSED everywhere else)
    -Tops in a material that’s not t-shirt-ey

  15. The other problem with many maxi dresses is that many are made out of a material that clings and reveals every imperfection in your behind as you walk. Any desire to try to wear one to work was killed by seeing several women walk by in them. As an attorney in a state government agency, I think it’s too casual for us, just looks like a nightgown or something. And they are usually paired with very casual shoes. However, there are some really mid calf summer dresses that can be styled professionally for casual Friday.

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