What “Business Casual” Means for Students Who Are Networking

Shirred Side Cowlneck Sweater

2017 Update: We still stand by our advice on what to wear to a business casual networking event, but you may also want to check out The Ultimate Guide to Business Casual for Women.

A lot of companies and networking groups have parties for students over the holidays — I can remember attending more than a few in my younger years.  The perennial question, as Reader N wonders:  what do you wear when it says “business casual attire”? Perhaps more importantly, what things shouldn’t you wear for winter networking events?

I’m a college student who is interested in finance, and go to a lot of information sessions for banks. The dress code is usually business casual or business attire. Other than just wearing a suit, what can be appropriate in these situations? A dress like this Metallic T-Shaped Tunic Sweater from Express (picture) or this Merona Sleeveless Empire Dress (picture) with tights and a jacket? Black slacks and a nice sweater?

This is a great question, and I want to start by saying, again, that when you’re networking — at least for a conservative job — the goal is is for your clothes to be muted enough that people remember your brains (or your words or your resume), NOT your outfit.  A few basic rules, just responding to your question:

a) If something is called “tunic” it’s probably not meant to be a dress…

b) Watch out for bare arms and other things on the “What not to wear to work” list — as you correctly note, if you wear a sleeveless dress you should wear a jacket or cardigan with it.  Unfortunately, some young women may not realize which things are possible no-nos (at least if they get their information from television shows and anchorwomen).  Since the other list was really summery-focused, a few other things I would add to the list of “know your office” before you wear them in the winter in a business environment:

  • Extremely colorful tights, or tights with large patterns
  • Fishnet stockings or other overly “sexy” stockings (such as these, with the line down the back)
  • An overly short skirt (even if you’re wearing completely opaque tights)
  • Winter boots meant for commuting or being outside (e.g., Uggs, Sorels, etc)
  • Tall boots (in many, if not most places, these would be fine with a skirt — I think less places with leggings or skinny jeans — but why chance it?)
  • Leggings as pants (here’s a helpful chart from Buzzfeed)
  • Sheer blouses or sweaters
  • Anything with sparkle or sequins
  • Anything overly trendy — think peep-toe booties
  • Nothing with an “open back
  • Finally, maybe I’m crazy, but I’ll add “overly fuzzy or tactile” sweaters that you might wear on a date.  (I’m sure I’m thinking of some crazy 80s movie here where the teenage boys all notice the mom’s deep-V red angora sweater… but I can’t quite place it right now.)

So what does that leave you with?  Think “covered up,” “classic,” and “professional.”  I’d go with a pair of trousers (such as a nice pair of wool trousers, but if you’re building your wardrobe I’d probably get a pair of washable, seasonless trousers and wear tights or silk long johns beneath them), a pair of heeled black boots or closed-toe pumps, and something like a turtleneck or a crewneck.  Nothing has to be “loose,” per se, but nothing should fit like a glove, either.  I, of course, love a good blazer (don’t I always), but if you’re not comfortable with it yet (particularly wearing a coat over it), don’t worry about it.  (Pictured above: not quite a turtleneck, but it’ll do: a shirred side cowlneck sweater, available at The Limited — was $49.90 but take 50% off today with code GIFT50.)

Readers — if you’re a student and networking, what do you plan to wear?  For those of you whose employers are hosting this kind of party for students, what would you expect to see women wearing?  Have you seen any real fashion gaffes at parties like this — and would you add anything to my list for “know your office” winter items?

Deciphering the mystery of "business casual" -- particularly for winter networking events!


  1. Nonny - to Canadian readers :

    All good advice, but I have a threadjack right off the top.

    I am curious – all this talk of Christmas/end of year bonuses, but it is very US-focussed. I know the bonus ethos can be somewhat different in Canada. Out of interest, what have the Canadian [readers of this site] experienced in terms of bonuses? I know it can vary depending on size of firm, location, etc., but I am interested in general trends.

    My experience in smaller West Coast firms over the past couple of years is that bonuses are more or less “Christmas gifts” and not massive, “woohoo, three months’ salary!” blow-out events. However, in my earlier life in Biglaw, bonuses really were bonuses – though never quite as large as the NY folks seem to experience. What has your experience been?

    • Equity's Darling :

      Where I am gives “gifts”, but I do know that some of the other firms in our city do give large bonuses (10-30% of annual)…I think bonuses are less common here, that’s for sure.

    • I work in government in Saskatchewan and, as expected, there are no bonuses –in my very small office, no one even gave holiday cards until I arrived.

    • Anonymous :

      In minerals/O&G: The company is in cutback mode right now (and our KPIs are nowhere near target) so no bonuses. Suspect we’ll get a $200 gift card and CRA may want to tax it if we accept it. Certain key players will get bonuses quietly paid out, from 5%to 30% of base salary depending on many things. Bonus is quoted as part of the comp package but it really is just a bonus.
      When I get frustrated I count backwards from my salary and that usually makes it better.

  2. For Federal Employees and Friends :

    In the past I have posted when my husband’s union sends out a letter about a pending vote. When I have, other posters with similar interests were unaware and were happy for the information. I am posting this for informational purposes only and not to start debate.

    Husband’s union has sent a letter to the House urging them to vote no on HR 6684 which is Speaker Boehner’s “Plan B.” As proposed, the plan would require federal employees to contribute an additional 5% to their pensions. Federal employees (at least in husband’s agency) have had no raises for over 2 years and there are no raises proposed in the plan. Since you can’t opt out of your pension, this is a 5% pay cut. Federal employees have already contributed $103 billion in deficit reduction. Husband’s agency has staffing down 20% due to attrition. The public waits 6 1/12 weeks for a reply from this agency and 3 out of 10 calls are not answered due to lack of adequate staffing.

    The vote is today. I don’t know what time. Call if you want to.

    • I didn’t see this until late. But I totally understand your Husband’s concerns.

    • FedTaxAtty :

      Thanks for the heads up. Good thing Boehner pulled the vote.

  3. That’s a pretty awesome list!
    I would also add:
    -Anything that is a loud print or overly lacy. To be safe, stick to solid colors.
    -Anything that shows too much cleavage. I see this way too much with college age women: nice suit, really low v-neck shirt which just ruins the whole professional effect.

    Also, for what it’s worth, when I was in college, I had no clue that these things had dress codes, and I showed up to my first one in jeans…it also happened to be the firm I eventually went to work for.

    • I’d modify the “too much cleavage” to be anything that shows ANY cleavage. Cleavage has no place at any work-related event. I wish some of the women in my office understood this.

      • Blonde Lawyer :

        Yes but some of us with Ds+ show cleavage (just a tad) in almost anything, if we move the right way, particularly if it is loose enough to not be scandalous. If it looks like unintentional temporary cleavage, please forgive those of us that are large of chest.

        • I don’t know about this. As a DDD, there are shirts I would wear to a networking event and be absolutely confident no cleavage would ever show, like a turtle neck or boat neck or similar. Day to day you may get some unintentional cleavage, but I think that is in no way ever acceptable at a networking event.

        • Eh I am a DDD and I have never shown cleavage at work, except maybe a handful of times that I was trying out a shirt and thought I am prob showing to much and they are out of the roation, but all my other shirts dont show any clevage.

        • Blonde Lawyer :

          Okay, you are right. I’ve been checking the mirror all day since commenting and I’m not sure “cleavage” as it is usually defined is what I meant. I guess I just mean my boobs are always noticeable and draw attention because they are disproportionate to the rest of me. They are still covered.

      • Ha! I love that you came out and just said “no cleavage,” which was actually what I really believe, but understand it might be hard if you are very large-busted. But generally, I totally agree on that absolutely no cleavage at work.

        Related to the replies below, I do think that you basically shouldn’t be drawing attention to your bust or butt. I’ve said this before, but my stance is: I work with you, and I would like to only think of you as a professional colleague. I don’t want to be reminded of your secondary sexual characteristics! This goes for men as well as women – no too tight pants, no shirts unbuttoned a bit too far down.

    • Mouse in DC :

      And not even low-cut – this morning, there was a early-20s girl in our building who was wearing reasonable black trousers, black heels, a cardigan (her shirt was sleeveless), and a skin-tight knit top with intense ruffles at the bust. It made her boobs the focal point of her outfit, even though she was covered up completely. If her top had been looser, she still would have looked nice and we’d have remembered her face, instead of her figure.

      I think that’s the saddest thing – how many of us remembered her name, her skills, or anything other than her size 34C?

      • BigBadB00b$ :

        Ummm just a thought, but she covered her boobs. You’re the one disracted by them. Maybe you are the one who needs to work on this.

        • I disagree. She needs to wear a shirt that isn’t so tight.

        • If a presumably hetero woman like Mouse in DC noticed, then you can bet that all the hetero guys in the office noticed, and noticed again, and pretended not to notice, but noticed and were talking about it afterwards.

          If that was the person’s goal, then fine. If it’s not, then she needs to rethink the fit and styling on her clothes for these types of meetings.

          It’s just that certain details beg to be noticed. I couldn’t tell you what sort of belts my male colleagues wear, because they’re likely classic and functional and unobtrusive. But I once went on a due diligence trip and met a guy wearing a belt with an enormous belt buckle that looked like a little diorama under glass (plastic? plexiglass?) of an elk in the forest. All I could see was: that enormous belt buckle.

      • Nope, happened to me. During the ruffled blouse trend, I tried a nice, high-necked one under a modest cardigan. But, my breasts puffed out the ruffles so that I wound up resembling one of those exotic birds with the big, puffy, feathered breasts.

        And I’m not that top-heavy.

      • des-pairing :

        There’s a possibility that the girl was just unaware that the ruffles would draw your attention to her chest in the wrong way. I think you need to have a high degree of fashion consciousness to be aware of certain clothing details -ruffles, Peter Pan collars, etc. since it is not obvious that they are not professional until you’re given a reason why. Length / cut / sheerness of materials are the easiest things to get right. Things like ruffles are particularly tricky because lots of professional business women wear them and look great.

        • Wait, Peter Pan collars are unprofessional? I wear them all the time under a crew-neck cardigan with some pearls. I didn’t think they were drawing attention to anything in the wrong way.

  4. I used to be in a similar situation. For business casual, I recommend a nice sweater, boots (as Kat recommended) and a proper fitting pencil skirt. I agree on the no loud pieces advice with just one caveat – wear a piece of statement jewelry. Not massive, but make sure it is unique (I wear a necklace with a fairly big wing pendant. It is something that will help you be remembered.

    Also, researching the topic for discussion and having a really intelligent question to ask will also help you be remembered.

  5. Agree with all of this. And for those of us who prefer skirts (my mother keeps saying I’ll want to switch to pants once winter actually hits Chicago, but I’m clinging until then) you can’t go wrong with a pencil skirt that fits and a nice, basic sweater. A black pencil skirt with black tights and a sweater is basically my winter business casual uniform.

    • Agree! My go-to would be a black pencil skirt with a basic sweater (maybe with a little embellishment like an AT fave of mine with gold buttons on the shoulder), probably with flats if you’ll be standing around networking.

      Speaking of student/recent graduate faux pas… I always read about those, but thought “oh, who does that anyway?” People do! And it’s amazing!

      I sit near the entrance of my office, so I see everyone coming in for interviews. We have an entry-level position open and I’m baffled at some of the stuff I’ve seen.
      1.) Ill-fitting, too short sheath dress with no pantyhose/tights. In DECEMBER, in the Northeast.
      2.) Aquamarine suede pumps, no pantyhose/tights, in DECEMBER, in the Northeast.
      The list goes on… and it looks sloppy.

      And what’s with these kids showing up waaaaay too early? Several people have shown up a half hour-45 minutes early, and one girl even came in an hour early. Where’d they get THAT tip?

      You have an interview “appointment” for a reason. So, they get to sit awkwardly and watch me work until their interview.

      • Showing up early is a good idea, but they’re unintentionally making themselves look bad by actually coming in to the reception/lobby 45 mins early. By all means, drive on to the parking lot 45 mins early but wait there until it’s about 20 mins before the appointed time. Then walk in, and go through security, which might take anywhere from 2-3 mins to 10 mins. Either way, they can make a presentable ‘on-time’ entry.

        • Exactly. My rule for city interviews was that I’d get to the building a half hour-45 minutes early, and then go find a coffee shop. Have some coffee or water, calm down, look at my notes. Then, 10-15 mins before the interview, I’d enter the building.

          It’s a city folks, not like there’s nothing else to do and no coffee to be had.

      • Mouse in DC :

        I’d think we work in the same building. ;-)

        Along with the too-tight shirt girl, we had several ladies who didn’t cut the basting stitches on their jackets, one who didn’t on her skirt, a girl with lovely long legs and random bruises on said legs that she displayed w/out hose in 4-inch scuffed nude platform heels, and all the girls with high heels who couldn’t walk in them. Oh, and the girl who wore black tights along with 4-inch suede heels with peep-toes and bows on the heels – although she walked in them fairly comfortably. We’d requested business attire, of course.

        There was nothing egregious with the male clothing, which emphasizes how much easier it is for them to wear business appropriate clothing in general.

        • Can I ask what the DC rule on boots is during the winter? My go to is a grey skirt suit with black boots and tights. I love the outfit because it keeps my calves warm. I don’t wear it to court but I do wear it to networking events. Am I breaking a DC rule?

          • Fed Gov Attorney :

            I never wear boots with suits, maybe because it’s too close to a tv-lawyer look. But also I’m in the government so am only in a suit to meet with politicals and outside counsel. To me, in DC boots are of late more acceptable with everything else – skirts, pants, sheath dresses with a blazer, thanks to [some] leaders dressing on trend. So you’re fine, since it’s just networking.

          • Ever since Condi rocked the boots, I haven’t thought twice about wearing them.

        • Anon just this time :

          I agree with Cat and with the comment about how tough it can be for females v males. I recently attended a networking event. One recent male graduate was nicely dressed in a suit, well-groomed, and armed with business cards. Several of the female graduates were dressed casually, with cleavage hanging out, short skirts, bare legs and ridiculously high heels – in no way did they look ready to transition to professional life.
          If I could give advice to recent grads – come dressed and groomed so I can tell you are ready to work here. Be prepared to work the room, and do so. Follow-up on the conversations you have. I’m ready, willing and able to help the next generation with connections and ideas – but if you can’t dress yourself yet I won’t give you that chance.

        • ” girl with lovely long legs and random bruises on said legs that she displayed w/out hose”

          Seriously, we’re expected to cover up bruises now or be subject to criticism? Really?

          • Perhaps there’s a line? One random bruise…okay, she’s a clutz. But if it looks like there could be a debate as to whether you’re a battered wife or in a roller derby, then probably want to cover those.

        • You’re totally catty, Mouse. And you too, ning. We get it – in DECEMBER.

      • Do we work in the same building??

      • SoCalAtty :

        I always show up 45 minutes early, but sit in my car until it is about 15 minutes prior to my appointment and head up, giving myself plenty of time for security / signing in / finding the office.

        I’m terrified of being late, getting stuck in traffic, whatever…so I’m chronically early but I would never go sit in the lobby!

    • Agreed. A black A-line or pencil skirt with black tights with a sweater sounds just right.

    • Pencil skirts make any top fancier, I think, and really help pull a business-casual look more toward the business end. Do take note though, young ladies, that the slit almost always goes in the back. I can’t tell you how many (particularly college-aged) women who position slits on the side of their leg or in the front. Do take notice, and if skirt-bunching/twisting is a problem, go to the ladies room and adjust before working the room.

  6. The most frequent fashion mistakes I see on college ladies are (1) too short of a skirt – even worn with black tights, your skirt should be knee length or a FEW (2-3) inches above, and (2) to a lesser extent, too tight of pants – dress pants are not meant to fit like skinny jeans.

    To fit in with the associates at my business casual, I’d pick (in each case, worn with black tights and black heels, flats or formal boots):
    – Sheath dress with cardigan – a material like the Target dress would be OK, but the pictured dress looks a little on the short side,
    – Pencil skirt with turtleneck, or
    – Wrap dress, with a plenty-high and plain (not lace trimmed) camisole.

    If you’re a pants girl, black or tweed with a conservative sweater would be perfect.

    • I’d like you to find a flattering, long enough, skirt on a student budget.
      *Shrug* I have to do what I can, which means a skirt that’s fingertips plus an inch and half (I know it’s too short, but I can’t do anything else), thick black tights, and black cycle shorts over the tights to hold them up.

      What else am I meant to do when there is literally nothing between that length and what I’d call ‘old-lady length’ in the shops? I’d gladly buy a skirt an inch or two longer, if I could find one!

      NB: I’m 5 ft 9, fairly long legs but more of an issue here is my long waist.

  7. I hope no readers of this site have any confusion with regard to leggings as pants. The grace period on that is over. That is all.

  8. Blonde Lawyer :

    Love the pictured sweater. Buying now. Thanks!

  9. anon for this :

    On the “overly fuzzy and tactile” thing – funny story to share. I broke my foot last month and have been wearing a walking boot. The toe of the boot is not covered and thus my poor toes are subjected to the elements (including my sub-zero office). I therefore decided to wear a warm fuzzy sock (so cute! light blue with white polka dots – my office is very casual). Problem solved . However, one of my male coworkers noticed my oh-so-cute socks and commented (several times) on how he wanted to pet my sock. So. Creepy. Back to the ugly wool hiking socks for me.

  10. Wow. This was me:

    I started my #26Acts by putting quarters in all the meters near my office until I ran out.

  11. SoCalAtty :

    Husband rant. Last night at about 8:30 when I am getting ready to get in bed (yeah, I’m a wild one!), my husband turns to me and says, “oh, my sister will be here to spend the night tomorrow night.” So…you were going to tell me when? Apparently he didn’t even find out until yesterday around noon because his MOM told him! She didn’t even bother to ask us! Just showing up!

    She is driving back from school out of state, and I knew that, but I didn’t know when or if she would even come our way. Is it totally neurotic of me to be pissed that no one ever gives us any notice and feels like they can just show up? Or that they can not even ask if we’re around that night?

    Not to mention the last time she stayed with us, she called us from about an hour and a half out to tell us she was basically projectile vomiting and really sick. I said “stop and get a room, I’ll buy!” but she and my husband insisted she puke her way to our place. Of course, she was sick for about 10 hours (in my 1 bathroom house) and we ALL got it and missed work.

    I have half a mind to go get a nice hotel room (there is a fancy spa/boutique place 1 mile from us, and I know the owner. It would be really fun) for the night and just let her show up to a dark house since she hasn’t even bothered to call yet, just relayed messages through my MIL.

    • Fed Gov Attorney :

      Totally not cool that she can’t call herself, and I think you have the right to refuse. Not to mention the lack of notice – you could be out of town or having a party! I would give her leeway on being sick – being sick in a hotel is 100% miserable – I’d always rather be sick in someone’s home. Lying on a bathroom floor is just so disgusting. How young is this sister?

    • Woah boundary issues. I’m cranky today, but I say go stay at the hotel.

    • SoCalAtty :

      She’s 28. With both a Bachelor’s degree and now a nursing certificate. On MIL’s dime – even though 3 years ago my FIL had a bad fall working on his house and is now in a permanently vegetative state and my MIL cares for him full time and money is tight – she still convinced my MIL to pay like $10 or $15k for the tuition (no, couldn’t go in-state, had to go out of state and pay that tuition) and like $1000-$1200 a month for her living expenses for the past year. This is the same sister that only calls when she needs money or to scream at my husband because she somehow got into the online accounts and couldn’t understand “why we spend so much money and why we are so irresponsible and we shouldn’t be allowed to take any vacations or weekends off…” (she got into the business accounts and saw all the big deposits from clients coming in and going right back out to pay for materials, labor etc.) She just LOVES to tell us what pieces of c r a p we are and why can’t we live on $15k a year like her and stop spending money? (We own a house, I have my horse, but we pay all of our own stinking bills so?) This is also the same one who spends each summer in a different country lifeguarding or earning her master dive certificate…

      My husband just texted me that she STILL hasn’t called, and that “she is hiking the grand canyon today so we won’t be able to reach her.”

      Oh man that hotel room is calling.

      • Do it. She didn’t bother to tell you: you don’t need to be home.

      • Sydney Bristow :

        Definitely do it. Definitely.

      • Dooooo it. Get thee to the hotel, for a bubble bath with wine and cookies.

        • Can I just say, I did this a while ago – bubble bath, wine, chocolate and crackers, while watching a movie on my laptop (propped up at the corner of the bathtub). I got a free upgrade from room to suite (hence the lovely bathtub) and would TOTALLY pay full price for a suite again just to do that.

      • SoCalAtty :

        You ladies are such enablers :) I love it!

      • SF Bay Associate :

        Do it, assuming you have no concerns about your house being in one piece when you get back, like she’ll purposefully or accidentally damage or steal something, or properly lock the doors/maintain your home’s security etc. My stupid sibling has left the garage door open overnight more than once.

        • SoCalAtty :

          No concerns about that. Everything important lives in the safe and we live on an “everyone in everyone’s business” street so I can just text my neighbors and tell them to call the police if anyone is lurking and we’re not there / tell them we’ll be gone.

          Although I just proposed the hotel idea to the husband he is basically saying “absolutely not” which p i s s e s me off because his family has NO boundaries and they never will unless we take a stand. This is an issue we are working on in our marriage and have been to therapy on so we’ll see where it goes.

          At this point, a hotel room to myself might be ok! Anyone in LA want to go for drinks tonight in Burbank?

          • Lady Enginerd :

            Darn! Just flew home for the holidays today or I’d totally join you … But then again, maybe I should hold out for the post-visit omg I can’t believe that just happened vent session instead, since this seems like just the tip of the iceberg…

    • Mountain Girl :

      It might just be his family. My DH’s family is sort of like that. None of the siblings make plans with each other. Its like their mom is the dispatcher and routes all of the various siblings to their intended destinations. I’ve learned to live with it as its totally not worth the energy to fight this battle.

      • SoCalAtty :

        It’s just this one. Total lack of respect for anyone, thinks the world revolves around her and her plans and that no one else’s lives matter.

        You’re likely right, that it isn’t worth the energy (because in reality, if we DID have plans the husband’s response would be “tough, we won’t be home”) but I’m at the point where I’m emotionally tapped out at work and now home is getting to be the same way. I’m getting it coming and going and this is just adding to the pile – I’ve got too much responsibility on my plate is what it comes down to, so where this deserves an eye roll and snarky comment, I’m going over the top.

        But thank all that is good I re-hired the housekeepers 3 weeks ago.

        • My Two Cents :

          Instead of being displaced from your home, why not get the sister a hotel room (not a nice one either) and at some point have your DH ask her to call ahead if she ever plans a return visit

        • You know, I’ve been thinking about this, and I could totally see my little sister not bothering to tell me she was visiting, expecting me to be ready for her, and me being pissed as hell if my hubbie tried to get us to go to a hotel. I know there are a lot of issues here, but I’ve always felt that my home is my family’s home too –within reason, when they need it– and in my environment you’d be the one sticking out.

          All of which is a long winded way of saying that you’ve got good reason to be pissed, but give your hubbie a break too- if he’s been raised like this it’ll be hard to change.

          and/or consider welcoming her your good deed for christmas, so you can play annoying-family-bingo with no guilt :)

    • Not cool. I give you permission to be royally pissed.

  12. L.A. Atty :

    Thread jack, but on the winter-wear topic. I’m traveling to London in January for work. I will not have an office (where I could, say, change shoes) — I’ll be going from hotel to cab to a depo. What shoes do you ladies who experience “winter” and “rain” wear with your suits in this situation?

    • If you want to be really hard core about it, I’d wear rain boots and then change into real shoes and stash the boots somewhere once you arrive. in any case, i’d advise bringing some kind of waterproof/grocery bag in your purse to wrap your umbrella in when you’re coming in from the rain so it doesn’t get your purse wet.

      • just Karen :

        I just saw that Hunter now makes rollable/foldable galoshes – totally out of my price range, but might be totally worth it if you can swing it!

    • Anyone else remember those Totes galoshes our moms wore over their high heels (the kind with the sling that went around back of the heel)? Why did those go out of style? This would be the perfect time to whip those out!

    • I bring a spare pair of dress shoes, borrow an umbrella from the hotel and mostly rely on cabs to get around if I’m on the road for work in the winter months. I find the seriously weather-proof footwear is only really necessary if you’re commuting on public transport and walking to/ from stations or bus-stops a lot.

  13. Why not just a suit? I feel like students who are seeking jobs and connections in an industry should look like they are at an interview, not like they are contemporaries of those already working in the industry. I would be impressed by a student who came to a networking event in a suit, unless it was at a baseball game or something. Also, students interpretations of business casual can be really off the mark, so why take the risk?

    • I think it kind of looks like you can’t follow instructions if you can’t dress appropriately. If you’re a law student, there are probably 5 people in career services that can tell you what to wear and/or can contact the recruiter at the firm to see what’s appropriate. That being said, when in doubt, always better to be overdressed than under dressed.

      Lots of commenters have recommended pencil skirts and sweaters/sweater-sets, which is perfect. Don’t forget the hose, especially if it’s winter. And conservative shoes!! I wish shoe companies would stop selling these hideous hidden platform pumps. They are giving a lot of women the impression that because it’s a pump it’s ok for the office. no. Guys, a suit sans tie and one button undone at the top is usually a winner for business casual events.

  14. I like the Express sweater in currant, but would not wear it to work or a professional function. The Target dress is cute, I would wear it to my office, which has an informal dress code, with tights and a cardigan but would not wear it a networking event as a student. (Now being slightly more established, esp if its a group where I know people, I would wear this.) Even for a bus-cas networking event you should dress a little more on the business side of the equation.

  15. TJ – My director is re-organizing which for some reason meant that her assistant had to go. Her assistant did things like clean out the refrigerator so my director sent an email asking people to toss their gross food so she could clean it tomorrow. I thought of volunteering to clean it myself – she has way more important things to do. Would that look like I’m sucking up? I did recently offer to do a small project for her so I don’t want to look like I’m volunteering too much (or do I?). I also thought of just cleaning it tonight a little when everyone goes home – I’m usually around late and I have those Lysol scrubby wipes. What do you think?

    • Neither you nor your director should be taking on the fridge solo. I’d propose that everyone get “fridge duty” once every whatever makes sense given the size of your office (someone cleans it every Friday? So say you have ten people, that means cleaning once every ten weeks?). That person can also be the nag to get people to throw out their old food so it’s not on one (female) person doing it all the time. If you propose this, you could also propose that you take the first go (which wouldn’t be sucking up because everyone else would have to do it eventually).

      • FedTaxAtty :

        I second this suggestion. You don’t want to get stuck on permanent fridge cleaning duty (yuck!). Everyone who uses the fridge should be responsible for keeping it clean.

    • Do you want people to start thinking of you as the maid?

  16. From my recruiting experience (and as a recent college grad), here are some easy fixes I’ve seen:
    1. No c-cktail dresses.
    2. Putting a blazer on top of a dress does not make it professional automatically.
    3. Watch the too-high heels, especially if you struggle to walk in them.
    4. Do something intentional with your hair, so you’re not playing with it all night.

  17. I shudder to think of the inappropriate outfits I wore as a young worker! This was during that “Ally McBeal” time when all skirts were short AND had a slit. I’m petite but I’m sure it was not appropriate. Most of the time I shopped in the junior’s section of macy’s. I would really advise that a new grad not shop at the juniors’ department for anything work worthy. Normally the items are too tight, trendy and poorly made (unlined, etc). This may gross some folks out, but I really think a good thrift store is better than a discounted department store. I’ve purchased Ann Taylor, Talbots and Brooks Brothers suits and separates for under $5 regularly.

    My office is business casual and I think someone showing up in a suit for an interview or party would look weird. I often wear a jacket/blazer because it helps add some seriousness to me.
    My suggestion, especially if you tend to look young is to get a pencil skirt, a well fitted top (maybe not a button down, since they can gape when tucked), a twin set, a fitted blazer, and a good pair of slacks. These are available at thrift stores and most of the good brands are always lined, have quality stitching and nice buttons. I’d spend the money I’d have used at Macy’s, etc and get the items tailored well.

    The next thing to do is look at accessories: shoes, purse, watch and jewelry. I’d get is one good pair of non trendy shoes that aren’t too high or too stilleto. Even if you are petite, I wouldn’t go higher than 3 inches. Have a bag that isn’t too big but not designer. I think you’ve already talked about how nice it is to have a watch even when you only use your cell phone. This sounds a little matronly, but a nice necklace or simple strand of fake pearls can help round out the look.

    • You don’t sound a bit matronly. I keep a selection of necklaces to finish an outfit myself, including (what I suspect are, but knowing my aunt, might not be) fake pearls.

      My go-to skirt when I want to look smart is my tried-and-true black pencil in a sturdy material. Nothing shows underneath it (i.e. tucked shirts) and plenty looks great over the top of it. I got it at H&M, of all places. I do still despair of finding a good blazer, even in Juniors, as I not only look young, I’m shaped young: 4’11”, birdlike bone structure. I have seriously found my best fit in boys’. Ah, well. I’ll splash out once I’m interviewing for the kind of money that’ll make splashing out worthwhile.

  18. This is my version of ‘business casual” in the corporate area of dressing. I love knitted dresses and after I read your post and see the first picture of the post I have the opinion that with a lot of imagination and talent we can wear a lot of staff. I attached a link only to prove my point of view


  19. Hi! I’m the one who sent the question to Kat, and just have some follow up questions!

    So right now my ‘professional’ wardrobe consists of: Dark grey dress pants, black jacket, black pants (but these are from Express and are tighter than most dress pants/my other pant), and 2-3 blouses. Oh and black pumps and short black boots. I prefer the boots. I have a couple interviews and other things coming up, and I wanted to add some things to this. The thing is, I can’t spend that much right now. I was thinking of just buying a knee-length black skirt. But then what shoes do you wear that with?

    Basically, any suggestions on adding to my wardrobe?

    • Remember this mantra: boring is good.

      With a black pencil skirt, your black pumps should be fine as long as they are a moderate, comfortable height (2-3″) and not platform, open toe, slingback, or anything that might be described as sexy or edgy. I think short boots are fine with black opaque tights, but some might disagree. You don’t have to spend a ton of money on shoes you’ll only wear for interviews and networking; you can get a pair of plain black pumps at Target or Payless (no really: http://bit.ly/VGC28B) for $20-30.

      I’d also buy a pair of black pants that are basic straight leg or bootcut, avoiding wide, skinny, ponte knit, or anything that could be mistaken for a legging or yoga pant. I don’t think your Express pants will fly.

      I love a sweater with a pencil skirt. I think it’s easier to dress up and to mix/match without too much thought. Layer with a collared shirt and your blazer if it’s really cold out.

      Like everyone has said, you don’t want to be remembered for your clothes. You want to be referred to as “the sharp girl from X school” not “the girl with the tight sweater.” But you don’t need to go out any buy a new wardrobe to make that happen. Even if you’re seeing the same people over and over at these events, people don’t really remember what you’re wearing, unless you’re doing it wrong.

  20. I’m a grad student on a campus that hosts a lot of networking events, and when I see undergrad women dressed up for these events, they almost uniformly look like some Halloween-costume sexy version of professional. 4-5 inch heels have no place in the work place. Even less so for platforms. Skirts should not be tight enough to show exactly where your underwear is. Heavy eye makeup–no. Fishnets? WTF.

    If you’re used to dressing in exactly the way that you think flatters you best, you probably won’t feel your sexiest or most attractive in professional clothing. That’s the point. If it doesn’t show off your shape in exactly the way of your favorite Friday night outfit, you’re on the right track.