Contrary to popular belief, business casual for women doesn’t mean you can show up for work in sandals and jeans. Even if your jeans aren’t ripped, faded or distressed. Not even if your sandals aren’t flip flops. Due to comfort and ease, we often want to prioritise casual over business when it should be the other way around.
So, what is business casual?
In its purest and strictest sense, a business casual attire is a form of professional dress that is not as formal as full on business but remains professional and authoritative. It’s a delicate balance since many of your wardrobe staples may be able to transition between business formal, business casual and even after work garb with just a few slight adjustments.
Let’s take a look at an example outfit to illustrate the nuances of this look. We’ll start by taking a business formal outfit and making small adjustments to transition it to business casual.
The Outfit: Business Formal for Women
The Outfit: Business Casual for Women
By removing the blazer and pantyhose (which is a must for business formal), we’ve instantly transitioned the look for business casual. Business casual does not necessarily mean you can get away with wearing your weekend clothes to work, and it certainly doesn’t mean that you should be making less of an effort to look polished and professional, but it does say that you don’t have to be as traditional in your business wear.
Here are other important rules remember when trying to master business casual for women:
1) Hem Length
Your dress or skirt should be no shorter than just above your knee. This means no mini-skirts. But how about a maxi dress? This is a hard one to determine because technically it is long enough. However, alone, it can lack the structure and formality needed to adhere to a strict business casual.
Your shoes must be close-toed and professional. Sports shoes? Hard no. Strappy sandals. Definite no. Peep toe shoes? Tough call, but if you want to err on the side of caution, go with no. Pointy toe flats or heels? Sure thing! Ballet flats or loafers? Go for it – as long as they don’t look super casual. (For instance, a pair of ballet flats patterned with blue bunnies and pink hearts would push the line. A pair of tartan ballet flats is cool. It’s all about looking authoritative, and while cute, little hearts and bunnies don’t scream authority.)
Slingback shoes are fine, but be sure to make sure your heels aren’t cracked and calloused. Ankle boots and knee boots are fine, as long as they are close-toed and polished and professional. In other words, save those spike-heeled studded black knee boots for the weekend.
You don’t need to wear pantyhose to pull off business casual, but do put them on if you have a visible bruise from playing soccer last weekend, or have otherwise maimed your stems. It’s hard to focus on you when someone is staring gape-mouthed at your latest injury. Also, if you are not going to shave your legs, wear pants. This is not a sexist rule, but – just like the office is not the place to display a nest of male leg hair – it’s not the place to showcase yours.
We don’t live in the 1930’s, so obviously pants are totally cool in the office for business formal or business casual for women. However, the kinds of pants you can wear aren’t inclusive. Dress pants, chinos, and even some capris and leggings can be cool. (Think a sleek pair of pink cotton capris with a white blouse and heels; or a pair of basic black leggings with a light knitted turtleneck, a fitted blazer and velvet ankle boots.)
We agree: cleavage is a wonderful thing, but it’s not something that needs to be flaunted around the office. Make sure your girls aren’t hanging out. You don’t have to button your blouse up all the way, but people shouldn’t be able to see the tops of your breasts. Again, this isn’t some arbitrary sexist rule, and it’s not about being distracting to the opposite sex – men can get distracted by a woman in a potato sack. It’s about keeping your look professional, which means looking orderly. Remember: it’s the same reason why men should wear high socks and make sure their pants are fitted properly: so we don’t see swaths of leg hair.
All this is going to sound familiar by this point: your accessories can be fun and bold, but they also have to be professional. Your faux-emerald drop earrings are a go; your Minnie Mouse necklace, not so much.
We’re entering some grey area here, since whether you can wear a particular material will depend on the style of the article of clothing, as well as other factors. For example, dress pants made out of a dark jean material will usually fly, jeggings will not. A leather vest or blazer definitely meet the criteria. A red vinyl or fur vest or jacket don’t. It’s all in the subtleties. Remember authority and polish.
8) Personal Hygiene
And speaking of polish, make sure your bare skin self is clean and presentable. You don’t need to get professional manicures or weekly facials, but you shouldn’t be an affront to the senses. Make sure you look – and are – neat and clean.
In the end, many workplaces will have slightly different takes on business casual for women as well as for men. Your best bet is to go to an interview looking business formal. If you get the job and you find out the office is business casual, then stick to these guidelines until you’ve been in the workplace long enough to get a handle on what’s acceptable. You may be able to rock that new sleeveless blouse or peep toe heels, but you won’t know until you have something to go on.