Professionalism in a Laid Back Office

professionalism in a laid back office

2017 Update: We still stand by this advice on professionalism in a laid back office, but you may want to check out The Ultimate Guide to Business Casual for Women.

Reader M wonders about professionalism in a laid back office:

I was wondering if you could do a piece regarding how to stay professionally dressed in an office that is very laid-back. I just graduated from college and have found my dream job doing public relations and social media for a small but fast growing company. The owner/president wears PFG shirts and shorts to work everyday. The sales and customer service girls I work with wear Lilly shorts or jeans with cute tops and sandals or sometimes wedges. My previous internships were much more corporate so I have a collection of black dress pants, button down tops and blazers. I’m not sure how to transition to a less corporate environment without falling into a jeans and t-shirt habit! Help?!

I think it’s important to note that professionalism is not just about how you look, but how you act. I’ve known some incredibly professionally-dressed people who were complete disasters to work with, and I’ve known some non-professionally dressed people who were first-rate at what they did. That said, it’s an interesting question, and I’m curious to hear what the readers say.  (Pictured above: Office footwear, originally uploaded to Flickr by emmavn.)

* Have fun with accessories. This is my #1 tip, and when I moved from a conservative workplace to a much smaller, laidback office, this was one of the first changes I made. I kept my clothing the same, but out went all of my small pendants and boring rings in classic gems; and in came bolder, more interesting jewelry. Some of my favorite pieces came from MOMA’s museum store, but there are a ton of things to be found on Etsy.  For example, this Riccia Necklace (pictured at right) is not something I’d wear to a conservative office, but I think it makes a great statement piece with a boring black or gray sheath dress.  It’s $140 at

* Wear structured pieces with jeans. For example, all of your old blazers and crisp blouses will look great with jeans and even (I can’t believe I’m recommending this here!) leggings. For my $.02, I’d keep your jeans a dark rinse without holes or other major distressing, and I’d make sure your leggings were opaque opaque opaque. A bit of a heel will help you feel more polished, as well, whether it be high-heeled boots with your leggings or pumps with your jeans.

* Look for more casual, fun versions of things you would have worn before — which may also be more comfortable. For example, instead of buying a wool blazer, buy a less structured sweater blazer. Instead of classic pumps in a neutral, buy a pair of kelly green.

Oh, and I’d advise against the bunny slippers.  You may also want to check out this other post about how to fit into an office environment when you’re new, which may or may not be helpful to you, as well as another post comparing attire for conservative offices versus casual offices.

Readers, what are your tips for maintaining professionalism in a laid back office?


  1. Anonymous :

    I work in a law office where the standard dress is jeans, tees, and flip-flops. We almost never see clients and we do have to move old boxes so heels can be a disadvantage. It is very easy to fall into frump and it is really awful to run into an old law school buddy at lunch. While I want to look better, it almost seems silly to spend too much money on clothes when most days I hardly see anyone. I try to wear cute tees and wedges but would love to hear recommendations for specific brands for women between 40 and 55 who work in an almost too casual environment.

    • flip-flops can be dangerous :

      For comfortable, casual shoes: Naturalizer, Clarks, Born, Sofft, Aerosoles…

      Please don’t move boxes in flip-flops! If you’re over 40, your recovery time for that slipped disk or broken leg will not be quick.

    • Anonymous :

      I’d like to hear too. I dress like I’m unemployed and heading for the coffee shop most of the time!

    • This is my environment now. I’m posting a series of outfit shops, one every week, in case you have any interest in how a 55-year old executive makes this work:). As a data point, I wore a diamond Hello Kitty necklace today, with a tan cotton sweater, jeans, and brown brogues. A woman in her 20s told me she liked my outfit.

  2. What’s a PFG shirt?

  3. karenpadi :

    Yeah! A business casual post!

    For Reader M, I’d recommend investing in dark jeans and t-shirts. Wear jeans + blazer+t-shirt OR jeans+button down (untucked).

    To “look” like an attorney, I invest in shoes and jewelry. Shoes are a universal indicator of status.

    I will take some flak for this, but I prefer fine jewelry over costume jewelry. Costume jewelry on a young person screams “I don’t make enough money to buy decent jewelry” which leads to a conclusion that she is low on the totem pole.

    Start with a pair of pearl or diamond studs, buy a nice ring (my favorite is a semi-bezel 3 carat aquamarine ring with diamonds in white gold–$300 on clearance at a wholesaler), find a small diamond or pearl pendant. Nice watches also reflect professionalism. I don’t think anyone has to spend thousands of dollars on jewelry, it’s more important to wear classic and understated pieces.

    Jackie O. wore fake pearls but they were a classic 3-strand piece so everyone thought they were real. My first ‘diamond’ studs were $20 at Express in law school. When one of my classmates told me that one must have fallen out, she was shocked to learn I wasn’t upset because they weren’t real.

    • I’d add that you can also invest in good quality costume jewelry, which can actually be as expensive as some real jewelry, but won’t look “cheap.”

    • I agree. If it’s a seasonable or ‘disposable’ piece you don’t intend to wear forever (or frequently), cheaper materials and trendy designs are definitely fun. But if it’s something you want to return to season after season, it’s worth it to invest in the “real” stuff. The biggest difference is metals: gold or silver plated base metals will tarnish, scratch, and erode very quickly. (Especially if you have metal allergies or sensitive skin, stay away from the cheap stuff.)

      • Anonymous :

        KE- are you the corporate/ etsy seller who offered other corporettes a discount to other corporettes? I’ve been eyeing some of your things and thought I remembered someone offering this once.

    • karenpadi – I agree with every one of your points.

  4. Slightly Related Threadjack :

    I live in a very casual legal market, out in the Tenth Circuit. I’m clerking for a federal judge, and we wear business casual, with a blazer thrown on top if we’re sitting in on court. Female attorneys regularly appear before the judge in things like maxi skirts, green tweed shrunken blazers, and striped, knee-length open front cardigans (although not all at the same time, thank goodness).

    At the recent swearing-in ceremony, I wore a skirt suit and felt very overdressed. Most applicants (of either gender) were in non-matching pants and a blazer.

    There’s an upcoming networking event for new attorneys to meet established attorneys and judges in the area. I had settled on wearing a black sheath dress with a wine-colored cardigan, but now I’m starting to second guess myself. Would a blazer or even a matching suit be better, even if most people are dressed more casually? I do want to make sure I’m dressed professionally, but still want to be approachable.

    • karenpadi :

      Given what you say people normally wear, I would wear the black sheath and cardigan.

    • I clerked in state court (different circuit), and was surprised at how casual the female attorneys often were, too. Though whenever I was at a swearing in, it was all business formal. If I were you, on the grounds that it’s usually better to over-dress, I’d wear the dress with a basic blazer instead of a cardi. You should still fit in there, but you’ll look just a little bit more polished than with the cardi.

    • Slightly Related Threadjack :

      The swearing-in ceremony was specified to have a business formal dress code. The after-work networking event doesn’t have a stated dress code at all, and I don’t know any other women who are attending.

      • Business formal is definitely a suit, regardless of what ‘normal’ attire is. I’d go with OVER-dressed than under.

    • I practice in the 10th Circuit and it is casual. I think the sweater and sheath dress sounds good.

    • I clerked on the 10th Circuit about 10 years ago and my judge required business formal every day, and women had to wear skirts with pantyhose. I’m jealous!

    • Slightly Related Threadjack :

      Thanks for the input, all. I think I’m going to end up going with the outfit I had planned, but tuck a blazer that matches the dress into my tote just in case I see at least a few women in suits once I get there. I went to law school in a more formal area, and am just hoping this culture shock wears off eventually (but that reading Corporette will keep me grounded enough I never become one of those attorneys who shows up to court wearing sandals and an ill-fitting hot pink felt blazer).

  5. This is my office!

    To make matters more confusing, I am the first and only first female attorney. The other women in the firm tend to rely on jeans, baggy t-shirts, and flip flops. Since I started, I got dirty looks for wearing heels and dresses (my guess is concern that I will make heels “the norm). I get snippy sarcastic questions and comments from female staff all the time (You do realize this is a casual environment?). So far I have dealt with it by pretending not to “get” their sarcasm. (Oh, thank you for commenting on my heels! They are very comfortable, too!)

    When I moved, I kept most of my sheath dresses, dress pants, etc. Now I play with bolder jewelry and lots of color in my shoes and accessories. I am fine with other dressing down… I just can’t bring myself to do it every day.

    • Also, I wear my hair long and wavy now! Hooray for casual!

    • Maybe tell then that what you love about your office is that everyone can wear what they want to?

      • Exactly! That’s how I treat my casual office – everyone can wear what they want to – some guys wear shorts and flip flops, I wear pencil skirts and heels. Deal with it.

    • karenpadi :

      I used to get the same from the female staff. It’s best to just ignore the snippy comments. You are an attorney, not a staffer. You should be more formally dressed.

      The staff will eventually get used to how you dress and the snippy comments will cease.

      • I totally agree with you. If you’re an attorney and they are staff, you are supposed to be more nicely dressed than they are. ESPECIALLY if you ever deal with clients.

    • I had a similar experience during my summer job. The office had a “jeans Friday policy” but as I summered in a different city from my law school, I only had two suitcases worth of clothes and the only jeans were skinny jeans. I opted to wear cotton skirts on Friday (think Lands End Canvas) and the secretary called me a Stepford Wife. Women can be mean.

      • Something similar happened to me in my summer job after my 1L year and it hurt my feelings! Now, not so much. I’m enjoying finding clever ways to respond to the cattiness, and really I think these women spend more energy being upset about my dress than I do walking around in heels!

      • I’m always astonished by these places where the staff seem to have a license to be rude – are they extremely competent and long-tenured so that they have leeway? Is the higher-up culture also toxic, ie do the attorneys insult the staff and do the senior staff insult the juniors? I work in an insult-free workplace, thank goodness; we may get a little snappish from time to time when under stress but intentional insults would never be tolerated.

        (A thought – I call myself a secretary because “administrative assistant” sounds like the title equivalent of grade inflation, but some women really prefer being described as admins.)

  6. My office often has clients in and out, so I don’t want to look too dressed-down. My general rule is to pair my jeans with whatever I might have worn with a pair of slacks, so, a blouse and jeans, or twin set and jeans, etc. If I do wear a t-shirt, it has to be more than just a cotton t-shirt. I’ll go with something with a graphic print or some other interesting detail, and then I pair it with a cardigan or a blazer.

    While I have a number of work-appropriate jeans, I like either a trouser cut or straight leg. And always a dark wash.

    AND, when I wear jeans, I never, ever wear flip-flops or sandals. I’ll wear cute flats or even a pair of heels.

    • Research, Not Law :

      Agree with this. Nice jeans or cords can make the transition really easy. I also agree with the “not a plain T” approach. I wear sweaters with square necks and puffed sleeves, knit wrap shirts, embellished tees under nice cardigans, etc and leave the t-shirts for home. Trouser, dark wash jeans with a blouse fits well in a casual environment without looking sloppy.

      I’d also add that interesting layering works, too. I never feel comfortable with it personally, but a coworker is great at layering a jacket over a dress and leggings with flats, or a belt over a cardigan and trousers and heels. She looks pulled together, but the edginess takes the stiff edge off her more formal attire.

  7. karenpadi :

    I respectfully disagree with the recommendation to wear leggings with a blazer. The issue with leggings is that they are too tight around the booty and look too much like pajamas/yoga pants.

    In biz casual offices, I’ve only seen leggings look good with a long tunic/dress (hitting close to the knees) and knee-high boots. Maybe it’s a “know your office” thing?

    • Always a NYer :

      Do we need to reiterate that “leggings are not pants”?

      • Do I need to post that “Am I Wearing Pants?” chart again???

        • Always a NYer :

          I think you do ;)

        • flip-flops can be dangerous :

          that chart is fabulous; so is this manifesto:

        • OK, one last time:

          “Do they have pockets? No? OK, are they slacks? No? Sounds suspect – these are likely leggings, not pants.” Leggings are NOT pants!!

          • Oh, I love this and have stolen to post to my Facebook page. Even though – here it comes – I am actually wearing jeggings today. But in my defense, it is a casual office, on even more casual Friday, and I am wearing them with a butt-covering sweater and chic boots. And my company sells both the jeggings and the sweater. Love working for a company that sells jeans!

    • leggings + office = not cool :

      Why does my assistant wear leggings and a patterned button down shirt to work? It’s driving me crazy but I can’t bring myself to say something!!

      • flip-flops can be dangerous :

        Say. Something.

        Say it with kindness.

        Say it in an email or by phone if you need to.

        She’s your assistant; she represents you in certain capacities. If you think it’s wrong, you need to speak up.

        • Or send her the “Am I Wearing Pants?” chart. See above.

          • leggings + office = not cool :

            I’m worried she’d totally feel awful if I sent her the chart, despite how awesomely funny it is! It’s soooo awkward… the firm is pretty casual to begin with, but still business casual. We’re both staff, and much of the staff is on the younger side, and I’m only a few years older than her. I think this contributes to the problem since it’s definitely not just her that I’d love to say how wrong it is…We don’t have a defined dress code and I totally get that she doesn’t have lots of money (and HAVE made recs. to read this site and take a few related webinar-type things) but sigh. And our boss is super low maintenance so I don’t think she minds. I don’t want to be “that” person that goes to HR but geeze, leggings?

          • Maybe hang to chart in the woman’s bathroom or a break room – so it can benefit everyone?

          • I don’t disagree with you, but if most of the staff dresses this way and management doesn’t mind, then it’s probably not anything that you can/should address (except by, perhaps, suggesting to management that they implement an official dress code).

      • Are the leggings dramatically out of keeping with what others in similar positions wear? If they’re all wearing short skirts and tights and drapey rayon-modal shirts (or something similarly youth-fashion), then really leggings aren’t all that different and it’s just your aesthetic preference.

        I’d suggest that you practice letting go a little – life is too short to feel upset about others’ clothing. If her clothes look unprofessional in front of clients, something should probably change, but heart-burning about it isn’t worth it.

        (And a question – I’m not clear from your post whether you object to patterned shirts. If you’re trying to get her to switch to business casual pants and solid-colored shirts you may have a long road ahead.)

        Also, how much do you value your assistant’s comfort? Because telling her to dress differently will make her uncomfortable and may change your relationship, plus it will create a substantial, sudden expense for her – when she’s probably already hugely strapped for cash. (She may already be thinking “I can’t afford real business attire but at least I can wear a button-down”.)

        If it were me, I would ask one of the other staffers to tip her off. And I’d expect a switch from leggings to inexpensive and possibly-not-too-formal pants rather than to costlier and more professional stuff. Will you be all right if she’s wearing boot-cut chinos or a pair of trouser cords with her shirts?

        • leggings + office = not cool :

          Well, I’m not so bothered by it that I have to practice “letting go” as you say. I promise I’m not that annoying. It’s more walking the fine line of being a good manager/mentor to someone without coming across as too demanding, especially in a semi-relaxed work environment.

          To address your comments: as for the patterned shirts – I’m actually trying not to say what the pattern is because I don’t know if she’s reading – let’s just say that it’s an “in” trend this year to wear this kind of shirt, and that it isn’t something you’d typically see in a firm setting.

          Comfort- I absolutely value her comfort, because I value mine. But she has indicated that she wants to go to law school and I feel as though I’m doing her a disservice by not speaking up, and that this firm has spoiled her into thinking that it’s OK. (After a few BigLaw positions, I’m definitely spoiled by the lax regulations here but I have to remember that I’m still in a professional services environment and you never know who’s going to walk into your office).

          Pants, generally – I don’t think I’ve seen her wear actual pants (aside from jeans)! Lots of skirts and dresses in the summer, but either work pants aren’t her thing or she can’t find any that are reasonably priced/look good – I know she’s trying to watch what she eats and exercise and such, so I don’t want her to get frustrated that someone is saying this stuff to her on top of whatever emotions she is having about it.

          The other staffers vary, and it’s the culture that it’s all OK – but I know that next year when I invite her to join an outside organization, I will ask that she dress nicely. She actually has this gorgeous solid-colored dress that it totally work appropriate and fits her beautifully.

          She’s fabulous and such a great person and I know that’s what matters in the end, I just want to make sure I’m doing my part to make sure she continues to be successful.

          • If you want to mentor her in the “fashion capacity”, say as much. You can be blunt, but polite. She will likely appreciate it later, especially if she has her eye on law school. Law school interviews require a certain dress code, and if she starts now she can began building go-to classics into her wardrobe that will prove invaluable for her later on.

            You may also want to gift her a gift certificate to Ann Taylor Loft (or similar) and offer to help her choose a few items that are a bit more professional (that are still her style).

  8. I wish I worked in a less casual setting, because I think a little dressing up would inspire people to act more professionally. It certainly works for me: I act more pulled together when I am more pulled together. I think it’s because dressing up (slightly) helps me separate my personal self from my professional self. Obviously, there are those for whom what they wear is completely decoupled from their level of professionalism, but I think they’re in the minority. Any thoughts?

    • It’s a fine line. I think that’s part of the reason why when I “dress down,” the only thing I really change is the pants part of my attire. I think I still feel a certain level of professionalism, because I’m still ‘overdressed’ to bum around. Does that make sense?

    • I totally get this. My office is on the more casual side, but whenever I have an important meeting or big presentation I put on my most “legit” work outfits. It’s like suiting up in armor before a big battle, which is kind of how I feel about work in general…

    • I am not sure that’s the case everywhere. My supervisor is professional, but she wears a variation of the same outfit every day, no matter who the audience. Meeting the governor- same outfit. Casual Friday- same outfit. The only thing that changes is sometimes she will upgrade her shoes from her normal crocs.

      I am dressier than most at work, so I do understand where you’re coming from. I think it probably depends on your personality.

    • Makeup Junkie :

      I agree with you conpletely, but…A couple of years ago I was laid off from a casual-dress firm. I generally wore pants and cardigans, sometimes blazers, but never jeans or sneakers or flip-flops and I got a few comments every now and again,
      I can’t help but wonder if what I wore was somehow a factor in the decision to let me go (although it was a massive lay-off, it was during the bottom of the recession, most hired with me also were cut,etc). It was like I never really fit in to the office culture. I got stellar reviews while I was there, so that kind of makes me wonder.

    • Wow–good question! This whole thread is kind of freaking me out. Liking fashion is one thing, but this whole concern about how other people look and feeling that you must dress a certain way, as if that’s an important part of your job, is not something I can get my head around. Dressing well to present something in court or elsewhere makes sense, but by then mist of the hard work is done. I once had an office right up front next to the secretary’s, so people walked past and saw me all day. I felt like I had to ‘look’ professional & busy, which distracted me from hunkering down & working. Expending so much effort on appearance would have the same effect. If you read up on heels and how they effect your spine, you will see that no matter how comfortable your feet feel in them, they go against the way our bodies are designed & are not healthy.

      Flame away.

  9. That kind of describes my situation. My office is on the more casual side (a few people wear jeans once or twice a week, no suits but still nice-ish clothes the rest of the time…) and while I appreciate the flexibility in the dress code, I’ve always followed the “dress for the job you want, not the job you have” school of thought. My “rules” for myself are as follows:

    1.) No jeans. If I start wearing them, I know it will be a slippery slope…

    2.) Take “business wear” and mix it up in ways that wouldn’t fly in a conservative office. This way, I’m wearing a professional piece but styling it in a way that makes it more casual. For example, I would wear a Calvin Klein sheath dress with grey tights, brown riding boots, and a leopard print scarf.

    3.) Grey pants are fantastic for “in-between” outfits. I can pair almost every top I own with them but somehow they seem less formal than when I pair them with black pants.

    4.) Cheap flats are your friend! I go nuts at places like Forever 21 and H&M buying flats in animal prints, with sparkly bows, etc. I wear them when the rest of my outfit is fairly conservative — it changes the entire look of the clothes.

    I’m so excited to see what other people have to say on this topic!

    • To avoid going down that “slippery slope”, I limit myself to jeans on just Fridays (well, maybe the occasional Thursday).

      If a client that comes in is one of mine, I always swing to the other end of the spectrum (dress, suit, etc.). I do see it as a sign of respect for the client and for your company too, when you’re trying to impress. Likewise, if I ever go to anything that’s off-site, I also go with more business formal.

      That being said, we had an impromptu meeting with a client a few weeks ago on a Friday (they happened to be in town and called to stop by), and I wasn’t at all embarrassed by the denim trousers and tweed blazer that I had on.

      I think, ultimately, a lot of these decisions are based on common sense and an understanding of if/how the dress code can be individualized in one’s work setting. Unfortunately, there are enough people out there who don’t know or won’t adhere to the more common-sense based tenets of how to dress for different types of work environments/events, etc.

      • It’s interesting that a few of you view jeans as a “slippery slope.” If you are wearing a nice pair of jeans that fits you well, you won’t look sloppy at all. You can still look very put together wearing a balanced mixture of casual pieces.

        Fitting into your office culture matters. People won’t respect you more for never wearing jeans. They might think you have a chip on your shoulder though.

  10. ohmydarlin :

    I kind of had a question along this line, but with some modifications: I’m a paralegal in a tiny firm, and we’re pretty business casual. The attorneys only wear suits on hearing days. We do not, however, wear blue jeans in the office. At all. Ever. I’m a heels-dress pants-cardigan type of girl.
    I love those jersey blazers, do y’all think I could get away with wearing one for work? Maybe on a Friday? In the summers I wear jersey skirts almost every day, with no problems.
    Recs for a dark one (maybe navy or burgundy or black) in the $30-60 range would be greatly appreciated, too :)

    • MaggieLizer :

      I could live in my Olivia Moon blazer from Nordstrom’s. The camel color was on sale last I checked, but it comes in other colors (black, white, and royal blue) that will probably be on sale soon too. It was $44 on sale, $88 retail. I have it in the camel and blue. It’s a heavier fabric and more structured than a jersey blazer, but still super comfortable.

      I think Kat had a jersey blazer (or maybe it was a sweater jacket?) as one of her Nordie’s recommendations.

    • If jersey dresses are ok then I say jersey blazers are also ok. Just keep in mind that although it’s cut like a blazer, it’s not a “real” blazer and you shouldn’t wear it for occasions that require wearing a blazer.

  11. lostintranslation :

    I’m similar in age and work at an office where people dress similarly to the OP’s. It’s a pretty fine line between looking put together and professional vs. looking like your out of touch (blazer and jewelry would look really out of touch at my office). In this situation, I think that modesty helps convey professionalism without being too stuffy. For example, I like the clothes that Angela Montenegro in Bones wears. It’s all super casual, but pretty interesting. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t want to show that much cleavage/arm/leg at work, so I kind of tone it down in my mind -> riding boots with skinny dark jeans, layered tunics, interesting belts & jewelry, etc.

    Tbh, it’s pretty challenging to find casual clothing that is also modest (think knee length skirts and sundresses), but overall, I think the look is more cohesive with the company while remaining professional. Also, putting a little more effort into hair & makeup help me look more polished while staying casual too. Sometimes I wish we just wore suits everyday. It would be a bigger expense upfront, but soooo much less of a PITA…

    • lostintranslation :

      Oh, coming from someone REALLY self-conscious: if you’re dressed appropriately, don’t feel bad if people act/say weird stuff about your clothing. I transferred to a really small town for work, and in the cafeteria, female employees talk about my shoes in front of me. Male employees greet me, and then immediately look down at my shoes. I’m wear totally normal ballerinas/boots/pumps, so what gives? Maybe I should get some lucite stripper heels to give everyone something to look at…

    • I totally agree with your last comment. When I worked in BIG law in the 1990’s I wore a skirt suit. Every. Single. Day. It was SO easy — I just picked out which blouse and which shoes. Done.

      Now I work in a casual office — it’s SO much more complicated! In some ways it’s more fun — sweaters and fun jewelry, etc. But on the mornings when I’m just trying to get out the door, my not-quite-awake brain doesn’t really want to process which goes with what and what is TOO casual or TOO formal. Too many decisions! :-)

  12. I work for a very casual non-profit organization. The very higher ups (the executive director, vice president, etc) dress like you would expect someone at a law firm to dress. The vast majority of others dress extremely casually–jeans, flip flops, flannel shirts, etc. Lawyers make up about1/10 of the population in the office and tend to dress a bit more pulled together, but generally still pretty true to their personalities (read: quirky).

    I came here from a fairly formal law firm so a lot of my most casual clothes there are conservative here. I tend to dress more formally than most, but I can already sense the slip into casual territory.

    I only wear jeans on Fridays (for the most part) and usually with a nice sweater or casual blazer. The rest of the week, it’s usually dress pants/skirt and a mix of tops.

  13. My former biglaw firm flirted with a business casual / dress for your day approach for a while. It was actually funny that the memo describing what was appropriate / inappropriate business casual attire discussed only men’s clothes. No guidance for the women attorneys at all (except to the extent that flip flops, shorts, etc. applied to both). I finally figured out that almost anything became business casual when you applied a well-cut blazer to it.
    Court appearances, depositions, client visits all get formal business treatment, i.e., a skirted suit. The first rule I learned as a practicing attorney was “never p*** off the judge”, and there are still enough dinosaurs, uh, senior judges, out there that I will not risk that with a pant suit. I believe that it is still true that women have to work harder to earn the respect they are due as attorneys, and that includes dressing the part.

    • My BFF told me about a similar experience… she wore a pant suit (a very, very nice one) to appear in front of a judge for a hearing, and was told next time not to set foot in his courtroom in pants. WHOA.

      This was also in the middle of no-where in the Midwest, but still! She was also criticized for her “fancy, big city” clothes and shoes, and was called “a feisty lady-lawyer.” Not at all inappropriate.

  14. MissJackson :

    If I worked in a casual office, I would have an entire closet full of Anthropologie — for the most part, I love there stuff but a lot of it is too artsy/casual for my BigLaw office and I just don’t have the kind of weekend/evening life to call for these kinds of outfits anymore.

    I also agree with the idea of just substituting more casual pants (jeans, cords, etc.) on the bottom and wearing more business-casual on top (button downs, blazers, silk blouses).

    • M (not OP) :

      This brings up an interesting questions… I’m curious what others would wear if they did work in a casual environment.

      • I would wear lots of Anthropologie, too! With jeans. Lots and lots of outfits consisting of jeans. I love to wear jeans and they are forbidden in my current office. *sigh*


    Second row dress on the left – Do we think I can wear this to a business casual office where I’ll be interning next semester? It’s not nearly as short on me as it is on the model. I was thinking of wearing it with opaque black tights and black pumps.

    I just picked it up at Buffalo Exchange which is a life saver for all the law students out there. They buy used trendy, stylish or business clothes and shoes and resell them at law student friendly prices. It’s helping me pull together interning outfits until I actually have money for real clothes. Most big cities have a store these days.

    • The blue and white pattern dress? I think that will be great, so long as it reaches somewhere near your knees (can never tell from pictures)

    • Yikes! When I went to that website, it immediately downloaded a PDF file that crashed my computer. I caught a glimpse of cute dresses, but put that url on my blacklist, never to be viewed again.

  16. 2 words: safari jacket. I end up wearing mine weekly. Dress up a sundress, dress down a sheath or slacks button down look. Today wearing one with a silk blouse, jeans and knees high boots. Got my go to one at j crew a few years ago, but usually not too hard to find.

    It’s strange to transition to casual, but try to have fun with it!!

  17. I had a similar situation and found that subbing ballet flats (or espadrilles in the summer) where I would have worn pumps (especially with dresses) helped me feel more casual instantly. I’d also recommend trying to kind of split up your professional pieces, so you’re not wearing more than one or two at a time; i.e. if you wear a blazer, wear a more casual sweater and jeans, or if it’s a structured shift, opt for flats and fun jewelry instead of pumps and pearls (totally agree with Kat on the jewelry). Once you get used to it, a more casual environment is pretty darn nice!

  18. I am sitting in my office right now in my conservative skirt suit, pantyhose, and pumps. I am so jealous of those who can wear cute dresses, cardigans, slacks, and non-matching suits! Le sigh.

    • Are there really offices out there that forbid women from wearing even not-matching suit separates and claim they are not formal enough??

      A gray blazer and a black skirt would really be inappropriate in your office? I definitely do not understand the point of that.

    • My mom and aunt are definitely of the ilk that believe that “ladies” NEVER wear pants to work, they never, ever go bare-legged, and only in the harshest winter weather are opaque tights even acceptable. Otherwise, pantyhose only, and with “sensible” heels, of course.

      I’ve been a professional for almost 15 years, and I STILL get crap from them for wearing slacks/pantsuits, etc. There are some workplaces that are that formal, but mine is most definitely NOT one of them.

      • I should also add that *anything* other that stud earrings are also inappropriate — even the single pearl drop earrings that I’m wearing right now — as are any other “showy” pieces of jewelry or accessories that one might wear. Example: a red patent-leather skinny belt over a gray sheath dress is “too much.”

      • You might defend yourself by pointing out gently how long it’s been since either one of them worked, if they did at all.. How do I know they don’t? Guess :-).. Seriously, a common problem from long-retired parents of housewife moms. And clothes are only a minor theme, wait till you’re unemployed or suing for sexual harrassment..

        • They both worked their entire lives, and both recently retired. Mom was a teacher for decades, and my aunt worked in a management position at a large company.

          I think they’re perfectly entitled to dress the way that they think is appropriate, but I also think that at this point in my life, I’ve certainly figured out how to dress appropriately for the situation and environment (I’ve even gotten positive comments on my annual reviews about my ‘professional attire’).

          But, you know, they wouldn’t be my mom and aunt if they weren’t offering unsolicited advice. ;)

  19. Personally, I don’t want to see workplace attire get any more casual than it already is in North America. Some of us look like we’re ready for a day at the beach or on the couch eating potato chips. Ugh.

    My personal rule of thumb is this: would someone who walked into my place of work off the street recognize that I am a professional on-duty at work? If you can’t answer this question decisively “yes,” then you’re probably too casual.

    Some other guidelines:
    -no plastic/rubber shoes
    -closed toe shoes (safety!)
    -no logos on t-shirts
    -no sweats or yoga wear
    – no to anything that could be mistaken for undergarments
    -no lower than 4 fingers below the collar bone and no higher than 4 fingers above the knee
    – if you can see up it, down it, through it or if it is ripped or dirty, just NO.
    -no tacky holiday themed wear/accessories.

    Some people may say I am too strict, but as the columnist wrote, you can have a lot of fun with accessories, shoes, sweaters/jackets and so on.

    • You make very good points, but I think the gist of all of these responses is that a casual workplace, no matter how casual it is, shouldn’t include ANY of the items on your list.

      To me, “casual” at work never, ever includes anything that could immediately transition to the gym or the beach. And I think that that’s part of the problem… there are so many definitions of “casual” that some people DO need a list like yours since they may not have the experience or good judgement to know it themselves. I may be dressed casually, but I’m still *professional.*

      • People (men and women) at my workplace seem to have a hard time following the rules I’ve set out. Then they wonder why people don’t take them seriously as professionals. It boggles the mind!

  20. While I’ve never had the opportunity to work in a completely casual office, I’m always a big fan of fun accessories (whether casual or more professional….it’s fun to mix and match). A long necklace, chunky cuff or bangles can bring some style back into your laid back style. Great comments!

  21. Amazing timing on this, Kat! I just started a new job at a college after being unemployed for a year after my mid-law layoff (which was a blessing). My work wardrobe is pretty formal because I had really stepped it up for my firm job.

    I was so excited this first week at my new job to count four employees wearing jeans, including my boss! While I won’t be wearing jeans to work anytime soon (I’ve got to ease in), the big thing I noticed in trying “casualize” my work wardrobe is just how much more authentic I feel–like my business formal wardrobe never really fit my true self. Of course, the dress code at the new place is just one of the reasons I feel more authentic in my work, but it’s a big one. Now I’m trying to figure out how to not blow my much-smaller paycheck on funky tops and riding boots, because I’m so excited to wear them.

    Some people feel like they are their “authentic work selves” in suits, and some people (like me) need to feel like they are bringing their casual non-work selves with them to the office. Both are totally valid, and I think it’s great the options are out there–a mismatch of office policy and personality can be pretty miserable after a while.

  22. Great tips! I work in a laid back office… and I have learned there is definitely a fine line between laid back and unprofessional. This article hits the nail on the head!

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