A Feminine Approach to Business Casual

Dressing Femininely at Work | CorporetteBusiness casual can be tricky — particularly when you’re transitioning from a conservative office.  But what if the culture at your company isn’t just business casual, but ultra-feminine business casual — and you’re still most comfortable in a gray suit?  When you’re in a new job and feeling pressure to dress a certain way to fit in — even getting critical comments from coworkers — what should you do? Reader E wonders…

I recently relocated and am in the middle of a career change, and I’m really stumped about how to dress for work. I work in a business casual environment in a small, Southern city. Women tend to dress hyper femininely here: today my boss is wearing a pink ruffled tunic over flowy trousers with embellished flats. The job is entry level, but it’s an important step career-wise. I’m all for dressing to fit with office culture. But, really, yikes.

Right now my pencil skirts, sheath dresses, flats, and cardigans are getting a lot of “why are you so dressed up?” and (from the office mean girl) “do you always wear such depressing colors?” I guess these are my questions: how far do I really need to go to fit in with office wardrobe culture? and how can I femme-up my wardrobe without looking like 5’10” wedding cake?

Hmmn.  Well.  It seems like a few things are going on here, some of which we’ve talked about before, such as transitioning a corporate wardrobe to a casual office, looking stylish and professional in a business casual office, as well as surrendering a bit to office culture (but as the song goes, don’t give yourself away). I may also detect a smidgen of . . .  judgment? superiority? in your email, which we’ve also talked about before when you take a job that’s beneath you.  I know all about finding your groove with one set of work clothes, having a rough time transitioning to a new office with a very different culture, and then feeling a bit like you’ve lost yourself in the process.  So I definitely have some thoughts, but I can’t wait to hear what the readers say.

  • Be you… but don’t judge them for being them.  If you’re more comfortable dressing up or maintaining a sleek, urban wardrobe, great!  Your boss and colleagues prefer another style of dress. Since you’re the interloper here… no judgment.
  • Generally it’s best to try to align your style with that of your boss’s style.  Look to her first for cues on how to dress, not your other coworkers — so don’t worry too much about what the office mean girl is saying. Bottom line: you don’t want to be overdressed for your office.
  • That said, don’t compromise your style and wear stuff you dislike — it’s all too easy to feel a bit lost in the process.  Pick a core thing that’s you — the way you wear your hair, your distinctive eyeglasses, your favorite watch, and or your base structured wardrobe — and leave that part untouched.
  • Add a few key “business casual” pieces to your wardrobe. You don’t need to look at it as “Project Femme Up,” per se, but you probably do need to make it more casual. Make a shopping trip and look for the following things that YOU like:
    • a drapey cardigan in a color.  You’ll find that this will instantly dress down a lot of your sheath dresses and pencil skirts.  I always like Bobeau’s drapey cardigans (including, ooh, one with a peplum detail), but you may also want to look at the Nic + Zoe four-way convertible cardigan for versatility.
    • Ankle pants in a fun color.  Whether it’s Old Navy or J.Crew, these are a great staple to help transition a conservative wardrobe.
    • A fun pair of shoes.  Maybe it’s the color, maybe it’s the style, or maybe it’s the casual-factor, but look for something fun that you wouldn’t have necessarily worn to your conservative office.  Booties can be a great business casual look.
    • a more casual and/or feminine top than what you usually wear.  A chambray top can be great if you feel comfortable in it, a lace top can be great, or a fun, colorful blouse or print with a feminine detail like a peplum (Boden excels at this). These kind of tops might push the envelope a bit at a conservative office, but they all blend well with conservative clothes — it’s a great way to transition your wardrobe. Pictured below: 1) Madewell ‘Perfect’ Chambray Shirt, $72 2) Vince Camuto Lace Trim Colorblock Sweater (Regular & Petite), $99, 3) Vince Camuto Side Pleat Asymmetrical Top (Regular & Petite), on sale for $29, 4) Ravello Top, $78.

corporate to casual office

  • A note on adding color: It doesn’t have to be pink, but don’t be afraid of it if you find a pink piece you like. If you’re used to a very conservative wardrobe, though, do consider looking at men’s ties or men’s shirts for color inspiration.  Pale pink or lavender may say “Barbie” to you — but I’ve seen a million pink button-front shirts at men’s stores.  Another thing that might work for you: switch your base color from black to white — or even black to navy.  Maybe it’s just me, but if I think to myself, “I need a new basic shirt,” I almost always buy it in black — t-shirt, sweater, blouse, whatever.  But white can be a lot more friendly.  As far as bottoms are concerned, again, if I need a new basic pair of pants, I look for it in black — but navy can be a lot more friendly as well; gray can also work well.  For budget purposes, you may want to think about purposely creating a capsule wardrobe for work so everything goes together. (You also may want to shop your closet to see what you can repurpose.)

Readers, what would you do if you found yourself in a new company where your boss and colleagues dressed the opposite of you? How would you navigate the style transition and still hold on to a piece of yourself? 

Pictured at top. 


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!


  1. I hope this isn’t the same poster, asking about Southern dressing norms, who told a helpful commenter “Don’t worry, I don’t want to be anything like you.”

    Anyway, Southern women do like a cheerful demeanor, so any case of ‘resting b!tch face’ combined with solid neutral colors might make you look standoffish. Your easiest bet would be to add a colorful scarf. It doesn’t have to be pink or even pastels. A jewel toned scarf will add color without requiring you stop wearing what you already own. You can also try a colorful necklace or tights.

    I would warn against trying to swap out your entire wardrobe. Fitting in in the South is a lot about attitude and if you have a cold attitude, no wardrobe change will fix that and make your officemates more comfortable with you. You don’t have to be Pollyanna but a cheerful greeting will go a long way.

    • Anonymous :

      Yes — be Miss Enthusiasm whenever you are the new person (even if you are the office goth). A smile goes a long way; so does a good attitude.

      If I moved to Portland, I wouldn’t swap my clothes for oversized flannel (but I might go on a Pendleton bender).

      At any rate: check out the Lily Pulitzer Murphee / Murphette scarves. They are happy and add a bit of color. And you can still wear your regular clothes.

    • I remember that thread from a while ago. I have to say, the people who are responding on here to represent the Southern contingent are coming off a little badly to me, maybe a little aloof? Holier than thou? I mean, that past commenter made a mean statement. But then everyone piled on her — casting her into the fire for being mean. Pot paging kettle?

      Maybe I just don’t get it. All this talk about how Southern women are so nice and love a great disposition, but many of the comments — especially when they’re talking about “northern women” or transplants — seem incredibly passive aggressive.

      I am not trying to start anything. I don’t really have a loyalty one way or the other. (I’m from a border state, so I don’t really identify one way or the other.) I suppose that I just want to point this out and suggest that maybe we can all be a little more welcoming and supportive.

      • Anonymous :

        Not debating but trying to explain:
        I think part of the passive aggressive resistance comes from posts and comments that make it feel like we are somehow such an “other” that someone moving here must research how to dress to fit in with us. On one hand, we love our differences, but it can feel really dismissive to act like we don’t understand what is fashionable in the rest of the country. I know it’s hard to move somewhere new and if it comes from a place of genuine interest, it is nice. In person (where everything comes across as more sincere than on the internet), I would think and hope that any attempt to try to fit in would be met with warmth. If it isn’t, the office mean girl is the one who isn’t being a good southerner.

        • AnonInfinity :

          Yes. I’m the person who made the comment that the poster got upset about (and I later apologized for my snarky tone). This is precisely what irritates me. There are so many negative stereotypes about the South–that we’re all dumb, backward, frumps who don’t understand how to obtain a copy of Vogue or use the internet to search for fashionable clothing. It gets old.

          I’ve met lots of people who have moved here from all over the place. Those who are genuinely nice and sincere are welcomed and mostly end up loving it. Those who come with judgments about What Southern People Do are often met with a little more caution because no one likes to be negatively stereotyped. I would assume the same thing happens everywhere in the country–people who are nice and sincere are met with a warmer welcome than those who come with negative judgments.

          • Anon @ 3:24 :

            I appreciate these thoughtful responses. It kind of feels like you may be “on guard” for being stereotyped negatively as women from the South. And I can kind of see where that may come from in our culture, where prejudice against Southerners seems to still be pretty socially acceptable.

            For what it’s worth, my own two cents from reading the question today as well as the question from a few weeks back is that the posters didn’t have negative views about the South. I didn’t interpret a judgmental tone in the original questions — I read the posters as really just trying to fit in.

            But I guess in the end, this all goes back to the difficulty of communicating via Internet!!

          • Today’s OP did say “I’m all for dressing to fit with office culture. But, really, yikes.” which does sound judgmental to me. I think the problem isn’t how colorful or feminine she dresses but that she is dressed too formally for the environment. Also if her colleagues feel she is acting aloof or standoffish, dressing more formally than everyone else is just going to make that worse. I am an introvert and in the past people have thought I was snobby when they first met me when in fact I am just very shy and reserved.

  2. heatherskib :

    To quote Ellen….
    Phooey on the office mean girl! I’ve gotten the drab color bit (as I’m currently dressed in shades of ivory and grey myself, and definitely have an addiction to LBD’s) I just reply with “Oh I just couldn’t carry off the bright pink cheetah print thing, but you rock it so well!”

  3. Amelia Bedelia :

    I had this issue when I lived in the “south” (though I was coached on here that Texas does NOT equal South) a few years ago for a few years. I was used to wearing very sleek styles and very muted (ok, drab) colours. I felt very out of place in my new office. I didn’t completely change my wardrobe, but I did try to adapt. I did so by following a lot of Kat’s advice here. I added bright skirts/pants and cardigans to my daily outfits (but never both in the same day, because that was just TOO much colour for me). I wore fun jewelry and/or fun shoes almost every day. That dressed me down and “funned” me up quite a bit. And I found out I LOVE girly shoes! I still wear them now when I am back on the east coast. And I switched my “base” colour from black to grey/taupe. So, I didn’t change the actual structure of what I wore — because I like pencil skirts and very boring shirts — but I changed the overall look.

    Honestly, the thing that helped me the most was changing my own attitude. I don’t like the “ladies who lunch” look, and I lumped all of my colleagues into that without giving them a fair shake. I started appreciating elements of their style while realizing I could pick and choose what I like and not look down on them for being girlier than I. That helped me immensely.

    I do think it is important to adapt somewhat. I received negative comments from clients when I dressed in all black with severe jewelry. And, honestly, I think there was a bit of gender bias happening in many situations. like I was trying to look too manly or something? But that’s a discussion for another day.

  4. I think this is a perfect situation for the crux of the old school J.Crew look. What do I mean?

    Ankle pants (can be navy/black/grey if that’s what you’re comfortable with) + Tippi sweater (in some sort of color…dark purple, burgundy, or whatever you’re comfortable with branching out color-wise) + a necklace/bracelet/other piece of statement-ish jewelry.

    You can mix it up by wearing a button down shirt (chambray, plaid, polka dot, just something casual) or a silk shirt with your ankle pants. When it gets cold, you can wear full length skinny pants with flat knee high boots in your usual black or dark brown leather.

    Obviously, none of these options have to be purchased at J.Crew, but I just wanted to help you visualize what it could be that might still be in your comfort zone but is more lively or in-style with what your coworkers would like you to wear.

  5. Anonymous :

    On nice vs mean, N vs S: the South can say the meanest things in the nicest way. Don’t understand that? Well, bless your heart!

  6. Anonymous :

    Not the same exact situation, but I shifted a little when we changed CEO’s. The former was East Coast traditional business formal, the new person was decidedly business casual. Meanwhile, I naturally preferred sheath dresses, pencil skirts and fitted cardigans in black, grey and navy. To go with the flow, I started buying pieces in deep, cool tones (blue, green, eggplant) because they were flattering to my skin tone, often on sale, and much more in my comfort zone. I surprisingly even enjoyed the infusion of color. Fun shoes worked well for me– strappy sandals, red shoes, patent leather, shoes with bling, lower heeled boots, over-the-knee boots. Costume jewelry was easy to add– I went with natural/organic looks like shell, glass, quartz and cord. I also had a big drape-y, slightly boho scarf/wrap for when it felt cold.

    I’m still more formal than most folks, so to echo others, it’s important keep a part of your style that’s true to you. And in my case, it doesn’t hurt that I always look ready and feel confident to meet VIPs.

  7. T is for Texas :

    Pencil skirts and sheath dresses sound pretty feminine to me. In fact, they sound more feminine than a tunic and trousers–however pink, ruffled, or flowy. But it seems to bother you, and you seem worried about embellishments and color, so I second the suggestion of less-structured/colored cardigans or jewelry.

    My 10 cents: I am an urban southern woman, but I come from a small town and know the culture of which you speak. Your wardrobe sounds fine to me. I wouldn’t change anything.

    I have received similar comments at works. Here is my response. Them: “Why are you so dressed up?” (I get this fairly often–it’s normally a compliment. As in “you look nice.”) Me: “This? I have had this thing forever. Aren’t you sweet!” Them: “do you always wear such depressing colors?” Me: “Well, gray IS my favorite color. It goes with everything! I just can’t be bothered to match colors before I’ve had my coffee.”

    Whatevs. Just act like it’s a compliment, even if it clearly isn’t. And be a little self-effacing. Also: I got this a lot in Berkeley, where women wear clogs to cocktail parties. No ma’am I did not join the orthopedic shoe brigade. Just laugh it off and move on because it’s only clothes.

  8. Anonymous :

    I think it is kind of harsh to say there is a judgemental tone to the email. I’m a tomboy (albeit a very well dressed one who does wear dresses and skirts, but a focus in clean lines). If I went into an office where everyone was hyper femine and and mean girl-esque, I would be terrified and stressed out about how I was going to fit in. Not just in terms of clothes, but also because ‘being myself’ tends to ruffle these women’s feathers.

    I think the question writer wasn’t so much judging others, but judging what she would look like in a pink ruffled tunic.

  9. Anon in MA :

    Having worked in Raleigh for 6 years and relocating to Boston, colors are muted here. I have a closet full (ok, 3) sundresses with matching colorful cardigans, and I wouldn’t wear them to work here. But they were typical business casual.

    Echo colorful shoes and scarfs. Try some statement costume jewelry. I wouldn’t wear head to toe black or drab colors, but don’t change up your entire wardrobe! You should try your local Ross Dress for Less. They often have colorful suits for $40- but again- only if you like it. Don’t switch up your personal style to please others!

  10. I am introverted and shy too. I force myself to say “Good morning, etc”, but I am not one to socialize with the group. Give me the work, show me a corner where I can do it, and I’m happy. I know, I know. It’s not a good strategy for furthering my career.

work fashion blog press mentions