Transitioning From Business Casual to a Conservative Office

How to Transition From A Business Casual To a Conservative Office | CorporetteHow do you transition your wardrobe from business casual to business conservative? Reader J has a great question:

I recently received an offer to work in a firm that has a business dress code. I’ve been working for the last few years in a business casual environment, and I’m not sure how to adjust my wardrobe accordingly. Any suggestions for a few key pieces to give my wardrobe the extra oomph?

We’ve talked before about how to transition your wardrobe from a conservative office to a very business casual office, but we haven’t talked about the reverse. I’m curious to hear what readers say here… these are the individual pieces that feel the most “formal” to me (and accordingly, felt the least appropriate when I went from BigLaw to a casual nonprofit a few years ago).

– Classic pumps. Particularly: an almond or pointy toe, thin heels, at least 2-3″ high. (I’ve pictured the Stuart Weitzman Whoopsie shoe above (on sale at Zappos — was $350 now $199 in black and beige), but take a look at our most recent black pumps roundup to get ideas in other price points. The Guide to Comfortable Heels may also be of help here.

– Pearls. If you don’t already wear a strand of simple pearls, you may be doubtful — but I promise, they’ll be a worthwhile piece to add to your wardrobe, even in a faux set (like this Kate Spade strand at Nordstrom for $128).  A dress in a fun print or color can be “muted” with a pair of pearls and a blazer, and pearls go well with almost every blouse. They have the added advantage of being so near your face that when you’re talking to someone else the immediate impression you give is one of a conservative professional.

– Ask yourself if you can add a blazer and/or a camisole.  For every outfit that you’re wearing, ask yourself: could I use a camisole here? How about a blazer? When in doubt, raise your neckline, and add structure to your outfit with a blazer.  (For example, this Adale blazer by Ted Baker ($295 at Nordstrom) looks like a great black blazer to wear over everything.  (Also: here’s our most recent camisole roundup.)

– Think in terms of structured pieces. Pencil skirts, fitted sheath dresses, crisp button-front blouses… they can all go a long way towards dressing up your former wardrobe.  Similarly, see if you can add structure to looser pieces (e.g., instead of wearing a waterfall cardigan by itself, can you belt it?).

– Finally, we’ve had a lot of discussions about what pieces may be questionable at more conservative offices — as always these aren’t definitely off limits, but the best advice is to learn your office before you wear them.  Here’s the what not to wear to work list for winter, as well as what not to wear to work for summer list.

Readers, what do you think of as the “most” conservative pieces to add to a working wardrobe?  Have any of you transitioned from a business casual office to a conservative office — what were your biggest challenges (wardrobe or otherwise)?


  1. To quickly get my wardrobe up to speed for a more traditional office, I’d focus on structured dresses and sheaths. You can usually find good ones for less than $100. Add a few blazers and you’ll be OK for the first few weeks until you have a better idea of what you need.

    For pumps, oh goodness! I have the most comfortable pumps ever (literally, I wore them to a major league baseball game and to a networking function that night). They are a splurge:

    • Olivia Pope :

      For the opposite of a splurge pump, I have two pairs of those Comfort Plus pumps from Payless. $20 a pop, pretty comfortable, conservative, and they don’t stand out. I have them in black and cognac. The cognac is my nude-for-me pumps.

      • ExcelNinja :

        I also have and love the payless pumps but they do need to be replaced every 6 months or so.

      • AttiredAttorney :

        Just bought the Payless comfort plus pumps this weekend and am wearing them for the first time today. They are amazing! I thought the fake leather versions looked, well, fake, but the patent versions look just as nice as more expensive pumps.

    • +1 on sheath dresses and blazers. I have to disagree with Kat’s advice on the pearls. I never wear my pearls; they just seem stodgy to me.

      • I’m a fan of pearls. (How long are your pearls? Mine are fairly short. They hang about 2 inches below my throat. They can be seen under collared shirts.)

        I wore a button-down blue shirt from BR the other day with my pearls, and even though I dress up every day for work, my DH that night told me I looked really nice that day.

        I also love toursade (many-stranded) necklaces. I think they look very grown-up and sophisticated, and they can serve as a “statement necklace” when you need some color.

        I think this blog often grapples with the question of “stodgy” versus looking young. Coming from school or a business casual environment, dressing up for work is a fine line between dressing to be taken seriously and dressing in a way where you still feel you’re able to express yourself. If you’re younger or look young, it’s important to be taken seriously at work, even if you feel you can only express yourself on weekends.

  2. When in doubt, add a blazer. That seems to do it.

  3. Commuter Shoes!!! :

    I need some suggestions. I’m hunting for commuter shoes – my feet are pretty wide and looks like i’m putting a lot of pressure on my cute little leather ballet flats – the back of the shoe probably touches the ground as I walk because it’s worn out. Bottom line is I have no choice but to toss it out and go shoe shopping this weekend. Given that I work in the city in a very prestegious investment bank, have a long commute and need to walk a lot, is there any good sturdy shoe out there which is visually appealing? I plan on changing it once I get to my office but I don’t want clients/employees dressed in really nice suits see me as I enter and walk to the elevators.

    Please help! I want it to look a little trendy and don’t want to compromise on comfort. I tried on some Clarks, Dr. Scholls, Sketchers yesterday and they were sooooooo comfy but looked lot less elegant (to put it mildly) that what I’m generally used to.

    P.S. not to be judgey and no offence to people who wear these brands – I love you all equally, it’s just that I found them too bulky for my taste

    • Maybe the Clarks’ Privo line would be right for you. It’s the trendy younger sister of Clarks. Alternately, Ecco, but you may find it too bulky. I hope the ladies of thissite will prove me wrong, but I’ve never had a shoe with good arch support that wasn’t bulky.

      • yeah unfortunately, ballet flats are just never going to have enough support for me. I do like some of the Clarks Privos, but you have to dig through, some of their designs are better than others. I also like short booties, because they stay on my feet better, have more support in the sole, and are warmer.

        • Anonymous :

          I found that Clarks brand shoes tend to wear out so much faster than others. Maybe something in the glue they use for soles, but every.single.shoe made by Clarks that I own has deteriorated so quickly – within 2 or 3 months of wearing once or twice weekly to the office (not walking a city block, either!), the heel caps either come unglued or are worn down to such extremes that I have to either replace or repair the shoe. Given the amount the shoes cost, I expect far better materials. I have sworn off the brand for now because of longevity issues, regardless of how comfy and cute they seem at the outset.

          Contrast to a pair of Born Sofft shoes I own – 5 years strong and the heel caps have barely worn a bit! I just polish up the leather periodically and they are great!

    • The Naturalizer ‘maude’ style looks like a cute comfortable flat that wouldn’t be too casual, but you could still walk in. No idea about long term comfort other than generally their shoes are very walkable

      • (Former) Clueless Summer :

        Definitely a good choice. Comfortable, still not too bulky but much better than flimsy flats. Also Ecco’s flats are decent although I find it depends on your foot shape whether they are actually comfortable but they do feel supportive.

    • I wear a pair of Life Stride wedge heeled ballet “flats” for my walking commute, and I love them. I like the look of cute little flats, but my problem with them is that the hem of my pants drags on the ground if they’re totally flat, plus they’re not super comfortable to walk in. These shoes have a small wedge heel that’s just high enough to keep my pants from dragging through the dirt and grime, but not high enough to be hard to walk in. Plus they’re very cushiony inside, so quite comfortable.

      Mine are from last season, but very similar to this model:

    • R in Boston :

      I’ve been commuting in Rockport “Ashika” loafers (which replaced another similar pair that I don’t remember the name of). I also have wide feet, so I was pleased they came in wide sizes.

    • Aerosoles

    • I would recommend Lifestride too. I’ve also heard good things about Born and sometimes has good deals.

      I recently bought a pair of Cliffs by White Mountain –

      They are super comfy and look professional.

      • I bought a pair of White Mountain shoes and after wearing them for awhile, the White Mountain logo wore away to reveal a Merona label underneath. Not what I expected.

    • Anonymous :

      Would ankle boots be a possibility? Born has a few styles that are very professional and also very comfortable. I wear mine (I think they’re called Trisha) to commute with tights and a dress, or with pants.

    • Mountain Girl :

      Check out the Aravon and Cobb Hill lines. They are New Balance companies and their dress shoes have all the same comfort as the athletic shoes.

      I have the Dansko Opal Mary Jane flat and fine it incredibly comfortable.

    • These aren’t the cutest things but they’re ok visually and are very comfortable:
      They run wide (I had to order a narrow for my regular width feet). The wedge also helps with the problem of pants hemmed for heels.

  4. Equity's Darling :

    Are those “what not to wear” articles still accurate?

    I think ankle length pants are fine at many offices, as are sheer and lace if done in a way that still leaves you covered up, no? I mean, I have no problem with sheer blouses under sheath dresses, a lined lace top under a suit, or an ankle length trouser with a suit. Maybe I’m just too liberal with my closet?

    • It was specified “ankle-length pants and capris will be questionable at some offices” so yeah that would imply it is fine at many other offices. ;) I think sheer sleeves are fine, as long as the torso section is not sheer.

      • (Former) Clueless Summer :

        I think capris are NOT okay but ankle pants are perfectly fine. I see people wearing skinny ankle pants with heels as part of a conservative suit ALL the time, even to court. Fashions have just changed that those pants are dressy now whereas all suits used to have wider leg pants.

    • I’m with you on this. I would wear a lace or sheer blouse as long as it was lined, or with a camisole underneath. Especially since it still looks smart under a jacket or blazer. My only bugbear about “transparent” tops is that (IMO) it is totally unprofessional when somebody has their bra blatantly showing underneath a lace or sheer top. Save it for the club not the office!

  5. TJ: I need your advice! My husband is a mid-level associate currently across the country for a trial, and he’s sharing a two-bedroom apartment with one of the partners. He has a milestone birthday coming up, and I’d like to send him a token to celebrate even though we’ll be apart. I was thinking of sending some small food basket with snacks that he could share with his team. His team is pretty casual, so I think that it’s the kind of thing that they would all appreciate. But, I just wanted ‘R e t t e approval in case I was committing some terrible professional faux pas. Does anyone have thoughts either way on this? I can also just send him a card or two and skip the food.

    • I started reading and thought you were going to say you wanted to show up at his temp apartment in skimpy lingerie or do something super-personal for his birthday — THAT would be inappropriate and awkward. But food? That he can share with his team? That sounds very nice, and the partner and the team should love it.

    • Windy City :

      I think a food basket is a nice idea! Every busy season (tax) I send my boyfriend snacks at his office. Usually it’s big enough so that he can share with the other members of his team – box of individually wrapped cookies, granola bars, fruit snacks, etc. – and I order from Amazon. He’s told me he loves it because it saves having to hunt down change for the vending machine at 1am and he can share.

    • That sounds like an amazing idea. Depending on what your husband likes, consider getting a basket with healthy snacks (nuts, dried fruit, etc.). Trial usually means either starving throughout the day or noshing on vending machine fare in the courthouse and then plowing through boxes of greasy Chinese take-out at night while prepping for the next day. More nutritious snacks might be appreciated.

    • Killer Kitten Heels :

      I don’t think there’s any office, anywhere, where “food for sharing” could possibly be inappropriate.

      (Except maybe sending a basket from Omaha Steaks to someone who works for PETA?)

      • Anonymous :

        I worked at an office where the boss thought bringing cupcakes to share at work was NOT acceptable. But I agree that it is extremely rare.
        Also, in your case, you are sending them to his “home” so perfectly acceptable. I agtree that the rest of the team will be glad, including the partner.

      • Agree with this! Food for sharing is great for team-building.

        The only caveat is the advice in NGDGTCO – bringing your own home baked goods to the office can contribute to a feeling that you’re the “office mom.” Sometimes it’s important to distance yourself from that. (But it can be ok if people know you as someone who is snobby or mean, to buy a little more social capital.)

  6. TO Lawyer :

    I think the key is structured and well-tailored pieces. Presumably, even if you’ve been working in a more casual environment, you still probably have the basics i.e. pencil skirts, pants etc. I think adding a blazer to most business casual outfits would help, as well as nice pumps. If you just wanted to buy a few pieces, I would focus on black round-toe pumps, a grey or black blazer that is clearly not part of a suit, a couple nice silk blouses and a sheath dress or too.

    • Why should the jacket/blazer clearly NOT be part of a suit?

      • TO Lawyer :

        Oh so you can wear it with other pieces and it doesn’t look like you tried to wear a suit but failed. Sorry I should have been more clear but I think generally, blazers that come with suits look best with their matching pieces. Blazers that are meant to be separates tend to look better with other separates. IMO anyways

        • How can you tell the difference between blazer suit jackets and just plain blazers? I’ve wondered about this but have not been able to figure it out.

          • TO Lawyer :

            I find that blazers as separates tend to have details that suit jackets don’t. Maybe it’s just me but my blazers tend to have funkier buttons or a different shape that my suit jackets don’t have.

  7. I don’t think you need shoes with heels at least 2-3″ high in order to have a “business” wardrobe. Ballet flats seem business casual, but matte leather flats with a pointed or almond toe and no toe decoration, and often a “heel” of less than an inch, read just as formal as pumps to me.

    I also think we should discourage the idea that an item that can cause foot and back damage is more formal/professional than other options. I occasionally wear heels, but the idea that women must wear them in order to be dressed business formal seems crazy, like Chinese foot-binding only not nearly as severe. I can’t think of another professional item that can actually cause damage to your body.

    • Agree completely. I would’ve liked to see some suggestions for professional flats in this post. I’m in my twenties and have no foot problems, but I do not intend to get them by wearing heels to work on a regular basis. In my brief career, I’ve already gone from wearing heels once a week or so to once a quarter or so and I don’t anticipate wearing them more, even if I move to a more conservative workplace.

      • I posted this before, but this fall I was in DC (more conservative than my town) and I saw way more women wearing professional looking flats (and some ballet flats, but not all) then I ever have before. I was very heartened, and simultaneously annoyed that my feet hurt in my heels, and have resolved to ditch most of my heels and focus on building up my flats wardrobe. I agree that fashion is changing, and as Gen X takes over as the leaders of the work world, I think things like flats and boots will only become more acceptable as professional clothing. So, who wants to join me on Team Flats!?!?

        • AttiredAttorney :

          Could we get some links to professional flats? I have a hard time finding any to begin with, a problem that is then exacerbated by my size 11W feet.

          • Yeah, that’s the problem, they are getting more common, but they are still really hard to find. Most of what’s out there are flimsy little ballet flats, bleh. I found a couple I posted below. And Kat has posted flats from time to time as the main post, so you could look at the archives. For 11W though, I would go to good shoe places like Nordstrom or the ‘comfort shoe’ stores that carry a broader range of sizes than most stores.

            This is the most ‘professional looking’ because it looks closest to a pump:

          • This has a very sturdy heel/sole, but looks like a good basic shoe from the top


          • I am a HUGE fan of Born. I have a couple pairs of flats similar to these that are very sturdy and supportive, but still look simple and professional


          • Another comfort shoe brand, but this looks like a nice, simple shoe

          • This is another one that looks like a pump

          • And I don’t know about you, but to me Burlap ALWAYS says “Pro-Fession-Al”

        • I’m with you. Ballet flats can be professional as long as they don’t look cheap! I’m not saying they have to be Chanel or French Sole (classic, chic ,and smart looking) but as long as they are reasonably plain, made of leather or other good quality material, and not”broken down” or scuffed I think they are formal and professional.

          Disclaimer: I am biased because I can’t wear heels OR pointy toed shoes because of foot problems.

          I also think sleek ankle boots with boot cut trousers or shoe boots with skinnier trousers (or even with a skit or dress with tights that “blend” in with the tone of the shoe) are fine for a formal office. I don’t think calf length or longer looks good for a formal outfit though (I hate seeing knee high boots with pencil skirts it makes legs look bulky!).

        • Agreed. I have some patent leather mary jane flats from Payless that I wear all the time. I think they look just as good as heels under a suit.

      • I have some Merrell Mary Janes (google image search: merrell mary jane spire emme) that I wear with a suit. They are comfortable enough to walk for miles in them. Unfortunately Merrell doesn’t make them anymore but you can find them online occasionally.

    • Well said.

    • Baconpancakes :

      I agree, but I find it difficult to get away from the ingrained idea of “formal” women’s shoes being heels. It’s a deep-seated problem tied up in our ideas of feminity, masculinity, and power, but unless a woman wants to wear “men’s style” formal shoes, like wingtips or oxfords with a pair of trousers, formal women’s shoes are going to be kind of flimsy at best (almond or pointed toe ballet flats/>1inch heel) or terrible for her feet (ie all heels). Neither current style is compatible with arch support, although many men’s formal shoes offer decent if not fantastic arch support. I’m honestly not sure what the solution is here. When I want to look sleek and professional, I always reach for the heels.

      • I agree that it is hard to get away from, but as I said above, I think things are changing. And I think just like when it became acceptable for women to wear pants instead of only skirts, we will all find our ideas of convention changing slowly over time.

      • I will give you that it’s much harder to get a flat that doesn’t look flimsy at a cheaper price point, but there are some gorgeous flats that are out there. They look professional to me primarily because they’re well-made AND have some ‘heel’ (1/2 to 1/4 inch) and no stretchy rubbery anything. I think part of the reason heels also look more “professional” is because it’s easier to get away with less tailoring overall, than it is with flats. Everything else must be very crisp if that makes any kind of sense.

      • The arch support is a problem. I often wear the J. Crew Viv flats (not the patent leather kind), which I think look professional, but they do not have much in the way of arch support. This doesn’t bother my feet, but I realize for some people it’s a big issue. I just ordered my first pair of oxfords, because I think it’s silly that so many women’s shoes leave your feet so cold, but I can’t really see myself wearing oxfords with a skirt in business formal situations. Clearly there is some work left to do here.

        • Ha. I have flat feet, so arch support is a big issue. I actually tried wearing oxford shoes to my (business dress code) internship in law school, since they offer more support than ballet flats. I wore them with a pants suit, and I thought that they looked appropriate. Unfortunately, my supervisor told me that they were inappropriate and that I would not be taken seriously in them.

          I haven’t worn them since, but I really do hope that oxfords/other comfortable flats as professional shoes for women is a trend (well, movement, really) that catches on.

    • Anonymous :

      Agree. There is no earthly reason that heels need to be of “at least 2-3 high” to be conservative and/or professional. Something like these are perfect flats for a conservative office, without much of a heel:
      I think they may look cute with a skirt and semi-opaque tights, as well as with slacks.

  8. Very helpful advice from the Corporette community. Thanks for answering my question!

  9. Suits - don't risk it :

    Some law firms require suits. Structured dresses and belted cardigans would not be acceptable. I know a couple that actually required skirt-suits until recently. I would buy a few suit separates and wear them on rotation until I figured out what is ok. Just make them classic and not too memorable (e.g., black jacket with black pants, black skirt), and wear shirts that are clearly different from the previous days to avoid looking like you haven’t changed outfits.
    In fact, I would wear suits to any “casual business attire” or higher job until I learned otherwise. I have worked in some places where “casual business attire” means the suit does not have to match (grey pants, black jacket), but you are still expected to wear suiting separates. In one of these places, I saw a new employee be sent home to change because she wore a dress and cardigan. Not worth the stress when you are trying to make a good impression. You can always take the jacket off if you feel overdressed.

  10. I must say it seems like “formal” for women in the States seems a lot more conservative than it is in the UK. Obviously for men it’s suit and tie with a brogue or similar style shoe on both sides of the pond; but women have a lot more “artistic licence”. Obviously we wear trouser or skirt suits, but you can wear a pretty/feminine/sheer style of blouse as long as you assets are covered. We can also wear sleeveless (but not spaghetti straps). As for dresses, sheath/tailored styles are popular with a tailored jacket; but you also see fit’n’flare or wrap dresses worn with a tailored jacket – as long as the silhouette is sleek and sharp and it looks business like (thanks tailored jacket!) it’s all good. This also applies to skirts, it doesn’t have to be a pencil skirt.

    The only “sobering” thing about dressing for conservative offices is that women generally stick to grey, black and navy for suits/jackets and the pop of colour usually comes from the blouse or the jewellery – I assume this applies both sides of the pond.

    • Yeah, I think I learned from watching Bridget Jones and the original series of The Office that work wear is a bit more chill on that side of the pond. ;o)

    • Anonymous :

      I live in Europe (not UK), and, during a trip to London, I remember being amazed at the things women wear on their way to work. So polished ! Sheath dresses ! Pencil skirts ! Neat buns ! Loved it. If that is “chill”, I can’t imagine how that must be in the US.

      In my city, I’ve seen women in suits maybe once or twice, tops (and they didn’t look like higher-ups, the suits looked like cheap polyester, the fit was off and the styling was drab). The “Cardigan and sheath dress” combo is a rarity and would be considered incredibly conservative and old-fashioned. I don’t even know where you could buy a suit around here, except maybe H&M.

  11. NWanalyst :

    Business casual -> businesswear is a hurdle that I recently had to overcome as well. I work in a financial services (insurance) office in the greater Seattle area. The dress code–officially–is “very casual”, but that’s not really how it works. In reality, there’s an unspoken hierarchy: anyone who works hourly (agents/admins) tends to be casual. All the “regular” salaried folks wear (west-coast) business casual. Leadership tends to vary between creative business casual and business formal (sales dresses up more than marketing, etc). When I started last winter, I assumed that my creative-casual/business-casual wardrobe would be more than appropriate.

    What I *didn’t* realize is that my job, as an analyst, has me interfacing almost exclusively with leadership. I’d be in a meeting with a half-dozen people in Sales, in an ankle-length corduroy skirt and sweater, and they’d be in immaculate trousers and button-downs, or a suit. Here are the steps I took to get myself to somewhere between dressy business casual and business formal:

    1) I bought blazers. First one came from TJ Maxx and was basic black and machine-washable. More followed. I learned the hard way that the bright colors I love so much are not fun when I’m stressed and out of time. The blazers I wear often are black, white, and bluish grey. Blazers allowed me to get more wear out of my more dressy casual separates, and helped to tone down brights and tie the outfit together.

    2) Shoes. My casual mary-janes made me look, well, casual. I solved this problem the first weekend with Payless captoe ballet flats and the Predictions heels, both in black. These *saved* me for the first three months.

    3) I went on a hunt for button-down shirts. Less flattering than other tops? Can be. But they helped me get more wear out of casual skirts and, with my blazers, provided the coveted “mirroring” effect at work: from the waist up, I looked like most of the leadership. I found, once again, that the jewel tones I loved were harder to match. I wear my light pink and white button-downs the most.

    4) Accessories. Noticing that the men I worked with tended to have high-quality accessories that they wore almost every day, I found a pair of plain silver earrings I loved, and an onyx pendant necklace shaped like a heart. They go with almost everything I have and I wear them most days, and they’ve become part of my “look”. I still plan to buy a watch. I’ve also had great luck adding scarves to outfits to downplay the chest. Vests are great for helping looser button-downs look more flattering. My latest favorite: wide belts to help button-downs and looser dresses fit better.

    5) I fleshed out basics. My main issue that still made me look too casual was that I wore way too much color. I went on a Labor Day shopping trip and purchased several knee-length pencil skirts (The Skirt has been great to me), a long black jacket, and several conservative dresses. Almost verything I bought was in neutrals (mostly black and grey). This made my jewel-toned shirts infinitely more wearable, and upped the “dressy” quotient a step because I was able to better avoid things like floral patterns and flouncy skirts.

    While there are some things I’d do over (more emphasis on neutral colors at the beginning, in particular), I think my little transformation was fairly efficent. Hope this helps someone!

work fashion blog press mentions