Unless you work from a home office, one of your first orders of business each morning is figuring out what to wear to work. Depending on what you do for a living, this choice may be a no-brainer or more challenging especially for women.
If you need to wear formal business attire, the rules are more cut and dried, regardless of your gender: a business suit generally does the trick.
Likewise, if you don’t meet with clients and are lucky enough to have a job that allows you complete freedom with your wardrobe, women and men alike may be able to wear jeans, T-shirts and sneakers every day without stressing out about whether they look professional enough and will be taken seriously at the office.
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But many industries require a form of dress that’s more elusive and can be particularly puzzling for women to decipher: business casual. Not everyone agrees on what constitutes women’s business casual, so defining acceptable standards can lead to consternation.
Different industries, organizations and even locations have disparate expectations. What’s more, while men have a go-to business casual outfit a collared or polo shirt and khakis (or even jeans if you work in tech) it isn’t so straightforward for women.
To cut through the confusion, national etiquette expert Diane Gottsman, author of “Modern Etiquette for a Better Life”and founder of The Protocol School of Texas, lends her expertise to this matter.
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Below are some tips to help women decipher the tricky distinctions between women’s business casual attire and other professional styles of dressing for work.
Business Casual Defined
As the modern workplace evolves and the tech industry wields increasing influence, many women wonder whether “business casual” is just another way of saying “informal” or “dressed down.”
According to Gottsman, though, business casual attire is still considered “office professional” with the emphasis on “professional.” In other words, you should think of outfits you would wear when you meet your best client for lunch.
“Business casual is not about your ‘comfort,'” explains Gottsman. “It is a toned-down version of a more formal suit or dress.
For women, it would be wearing slacks, blazer and a dress shoe versus a more formal suit (skirt and jacket) comparable to men’s sport coat and button-down shirt without a tie.”
She adds that business casual does not include tennis shoes unless the job requires a comfortable sneaker, nor does it include jeans unless they are permitted and encouraged by the office policy.
“Denim is not considered business casual,” she says.
Women’s Business Casual Do’s and Don’ts
In general, business casual for women includes a skirt or slacks, a blouse, a blazer and an appropriate heel or flat for the office.
Business casual do’s for women include:
- Skirts or slacks. Staple pieces include a few pairs of dress slacks and an assortment of knee-length pencil skirts.
- Shirts. Every woman should have a nice assortment of cotton blouses and patterned shirts with a variety of sleeve lengths, depending on the climate and company policy. A cotton, silk or silk blend worn with a pair of slacks or skirt looks stylish and still feels comfortable. A variety of lightweight sweaters in different colors complement the outfit and keep you warm in an air-conditioned office.
- Shoes. A small heel is best to help tie together your business casual look, or a pair of flats to take you from subway to the office and back home again.
- Jeans.If jeans are an option for your office, select a pair that have a dark wash, flattering cut and will look good with a blazer should you need to run out to a last-minute meeting. Avoid jeans with holes or frays.
- Modest makeup.
Business casual don’ts for women include:
- Yoga or athletic pants.
- Leggings, jeggings or skinny jeans.
- Sandals with straps worn between the toe.
- Tennis shoes or flip-flops.
- Going without makeup.
- Distracting jewelry.
Women’s Business Casual Mistakes
Many women err on the side of informality with business casual, when flipping the script would serve them better. Gottsman believes that getting too relaxed by wearing an outfit that does not translate to the corporate culture can leave women under-dressed in professional situations.
“Women (as well as men) may misunderstand the term ‘business casual’ to mean something you might wear grocery shopping on Saturday,” Gottsman says.
Another common misperception is that, if an industry is known to have a more casual culture, it’s okay to wear business casual to a job interview in that industry.
Tech companies are notorious for their “uniform” of jeans and T-shirts, and some trading companies allow their executives to dress extremely casually. But in these cases, should women wear business casual to job interviews?
“I would highly discourage it,” Gottsman advises. “When in doubt and until you are clear about the policies, err on the side of caution.”
Understanding Cultural Cues
Are certain industries more amenable to business casual for women than others? Gottsman explains that it isn’t necessarily so black and white; every culture is different.
“Banks, law firms and accounting firms are generally very conservative. But there are always exceptions to every rule and it’s important to do your research,” she says. “While the definition of business casual stays the same regardless of age, junior executives should follow the lead of their senior executives when determining how to dress at the office.”
Gottsman also cautions professionals to understand the difference between styles and trends.
“Classic clothing staple items such as a white cotton shirt, nice-fitting slacks and a timeless blazer will last for years. Fashion trends come and go,” she says. “You also want to wear accessories cautiously and avoid anything that is too tight, too short or too revealing in other words, too distracting.”