These days, the dress code in most offices is “business casual.” Not having to wear heels, panty hose, or constricting ties can definitely be a workplace perk, but the lack of formality also opens the door to some age-old questions: Just what the heck is business casual, anyway? And how can I dress appropriately for the office without succumbing to the business-casual blahs?
“Gone are the days of business suits, trousers, and pumps around the office,” says Alison Knox, a personal stylist and wardrobe consultant in Portland, OR. “This allows for a lot more personal expression through what we wear, but can also leave it open for a lot of inappropriate streetwear to start showing up around the office.”
Certainly the path for men is a pretty straightforward: collared shirts, chinos, and blazers or cardigans can get them through four seasons of business lunches.
When it comes to deciding whether something is inappropriate, here’s a good rule of thumb: if you have to ask, you probably shouldn’t wear it to work. But seriously, checking in with your HR representative for specific guidelines is a good idea, especially if you’re new to the company.
In general, women have many more choices to make, but Knox has some suggestions about what should definitely be off the (conference) table when it comes to business attire: “A few things that simply don’t belong in the office would be overly ripped jeans, running shoes, too much skin, workout clothes, sky-high heels, and sweatpants.”
Once you’ve sorted out what not to wear, you can create a work wardrobe that looks sharp and stylish and lets you go beyond what amounts to a drab day-to-day uniform.
For everyday office wear, Knox recommends “an elevated casual, meaning incorporating casual elements with more polished ‘professional’ pieces.” The key, she says, is the right mix. “Pair a chunky knit sweater with your pencil skirt and ankle-strap flats; a casual, striped T-shirt with a great blazer, jeans, and ankle boots; or a summer dress layered under a cute jacket with sneakers,” she says.
It sounds easy when she says it—until you open your own closet door and take a look at the pieces inside. But Knox comes to the rescue. She recommends building a foundation of a few pieces from each of five key categories that you can then mix and match.
1. Quality Footwear
“Nothing teetering or difficult to walk in… instead opt for stylish ankle boots, ankle-strap block heels, loafers or oxfords, mules, or clean, white sneakers.”
2. Quality Denim
“Nothing too overly distressed, crazy, or ill-fitting. A perfect staple is simply a great-fitting pair of dark-wash denim.”
3. Elevated Basics
“Nice, feminine blouses, quality T-shirts with unique details or prints, or beautiful tanks for layering.”
4. Layering Pieces
“These would be long cardigans, cute bomber jackets, a nice blazer, long vests, etc.”
“A long, gold necklace, dainty earrings, or a gorgeous cuff bracelet can always be the final element to bring any look to completion. It’s also a great way to instantly elevate the most basic of outfits.”
You might have to save up one or two paychecks to start purchasing foundation items, but once you have essential pieces, you can fill in the blanks more cheaply. “Looking great and feeling put-together does not have to break the bank or require an entirely new wardrobe,” Knox says. “For everyday work attire, it is worth investing in great footwear, quality denim, and nicer layering items. Then [find] colorful, fun tops and accessories at places like Target, Zara, or Madewell.”
Finally, Knox points out a common misconception: that you need to beef up your wardrobe to nail the look. “With your ‘business casual’ wardrobe, less is more. If you start with a critical purge of what you already have, this will help create space and new inspiration [from] what might already be hiding in there.”
Jonanna Widner lives in Portland, OR, where she writes about sports, music, travel, and fitness.