2017 Update: We still stand by our advice on what to wear to a business casual interview event, but you may also want to check out The Ultimate Guide to Business Casual for Women.
What are the rules for dresses in a business casual environment — and how do those vary if you’re interviewing, networking, or just working? Reader H wonders what to wear to a dinner reception/interview situation that has a business casual dress code.
I have a dinner reception to attend the night before a second/final round interview at a consulting firm, at one of their Midwest firms. Other attendants at the dinner will be employees from the firm including staff to partners, and also other candidates. The stipulated dress code is business casual. I have read your other posts on business lunches, and I understand you recommend trousers/pants. However, I almost always wear skirts or dresses. Could you give me some guidance in terms of what I can wear? Specifically, what kind of dresses or skirts would be appropriate? (e.g. sheath dress? pencil skirts?). Should I stick to solids, or are prints acceptable? What about colors? Should I keep it strictly neutral? As for tops, does it need to have collar? Are sleeves required? What about the sleeve length (is showing elbows ok?). Finally, should I wear a jacket, and if so, what type? Suit jacket? Slightly less formal? Is cardigan acceptable? Thanks for your help.
Wow — Reader H has a ton of questions here, so I’m going to bang out some answers, but (as always) I’m curious to hear what the readers say. A few things to note at the outset: obviously look at this dinner reception as an interview (or part of the interviewing process) since you’ll be evaluated in part based on the impression you make at this reception, and obviously the answer is going to differ a bit from region to region. That said, here are some quick and dirty answers from me… (Pictured: Theory – Betty Tailor Dress — was $295 now marked to $176.98 at Nordstrom (tons of sizes left in both indigo and charcoal).)
1) Pants/Skirt/Dress — I have recommended wearing pants to “business casual” networking situations, but I usually recommend wearing skirt suits for interview situations — here, where they’re saying it’s business casual but it’s definitely part of the interview process, I think a sheath dress sounds perfect.
2) What kind of dress to wear: The dress should be knee length — if there are any slits in the skirt please pull a chair in front of a mirror to check out the situation when seated. You should probably wear pantyhose, or at least tights. The dress should not be tight ANYWHERE — if you can see VPL, if the dress or skirt is “smiling” or pulling at your hips, or if you have a hard time taking a long stride, reconsider the dress for this event. No cleavage, period — either wear a camisole or choose a different dress. Finally, while ponte and knit dresses have come a long way, there’s still a margin for error there — if you choose a dress made of a suiting material (such as a seasonless wool) then the margin for error decreases tremendously.
3) Colors/prints: As long as the dress meets the above requirements, I think any color will work, provided it isn’t neon, but I’ve never seen a suiting material dress in a neon. (And hey, you guys know me, chances are good I’d have recommended it had I seen it, at least for a casual day at work.) A pattern can be fine, but this is a margin for error kind of thing: if you’re unsure go with the solid color — one person’s beloved floral print may seem garish or “ladies who lunch” to someone else.
4) Collars. If you’re wearing a skirt, I probably would lean towards a collared blouse — either something silky or a crisp button-front. But I’m really seeing a dress in this situation for some reason…
5) Are sleeves required? This subject is ripe for debate. On the one hand: anchor women everywhere wear sheath dresses without blazers, and it’s an acceptable “business casual” look these days. On the other hand: some conservative folks (particularly the Powers That Be at some firms) may be turned off if upper arms are exposed. So to be on the safe side, I recommend wearing a blazer or a fitted knit jacket with your dress. If, at the event, you see one of your interviewers (preferably an older one, not a recent hire) going sleeveless, you can consider taking off your jacket. Even then, an interviewee is always held to a different standard than interviewers, so I really recommend leaving your jacket on unless you’re boiling hot. (I don’t know of any rules regarding covering your elbows — I’ve always thought it was just your upper arms — but readers, please feel me in if I’m wrong.) In this case I would probably go with a dress/jacket combo that are both clearly separates — for example, if the dress is a suiting material, think tweed for a blazer. (I’d even say the margin for error is less with a ponte blazer/wool dress than it is with a ponte dress/wool blazer, but that’s me.) It’s ok to wear a black non-suiting blazer with a colorful dress, and avoid wearing non-matching blacks.
6) Can you wear a sweater? You could, sure. I wouldn’t recommend it — I always feel like the sweater + sheath dress is a look best left for “I’m friendly/not too intimidating, honest!” situations (I think this every time I see our First Lady) or practical “I’m cold and working late and want something comfier than a blazer” situations.
All right, readers — those are MY answers — what are yours? What “rules” do you associate with dresses in general for “business casual”/interview events versus “business casual”/networking events?