A business casual dress code is typically the standard in most workplaces. Before, offices were strongholds of suiting and formalwear. Today, thanks to shifting cultures emanating from Silicon Valley in the early 1980s, business casual reigns as the office attire de mode.1
But in today’s busy work environment, shifting fashion trends, weather, and unclear expectations can make figuring out exactly what to wear a little challenging.
In this case, choosing the staples of your “uniform” may be the simplest part of the process. But while it’s easy enough to add a blazer and some slacks to your wardrobe, styling these pieces together in an outfit is another story.
With all this in mind, we’ve assembled a handy guide to answer the burning question: what is business casual for women?
Below, we’ve put together a list of must-have wardrobe essentials and outfit styling tips for keeping your business attire fresh. We’ve also included a few important “Do’s and Don’ts” of dressing business casual to look out for, so you can feel as confident as you look in that pantsuit.
Dressing Business Casual for Women
So what does business casual look like for women?
Although it’s becoming increasingly difficult to define its specific composition—especially for women—there may be some variety depending on your industry, the level you’re at in your career, and whether you meet with clients.2
Think of business casual attire as the intersection of your nicer workwear and your comfortable—yet still presentable—clothing items that you would wear outside the office. This means you can “get away with” certain t-shirts, sneakers, and jeans from time to time as long as they’re toned down and can be matched appropriately with suiting, sweaters, and slacks.
For those newer to the casual business game, it’s wise to stick to the dressier side of office wear until you get a feel for what’s acceptable. Examples of these staples include:
- Cute cardigans
- Dress slacks
- Close-toed shoes
It’s important to note that certain clothing pieces just aren’t going to cut it in the category of “women’s business casual.” Some examples of these include:
- Shoulderless or cropped shirts and dresses
- Mini skirts
- Spaghetti strap tank tops (if not covered up by a sweater)
- Sheer or see-through clothing
When in doubt, leave it out. At the end of the day, your clothes shouldn’t provide any distractions at work, which definitely includes stressing about them.
Business Casual Wardrobe Essentials
To help guide your selections, we’ve compiled a list of our favorite business casual go-tos, which can be thrown on Monday through Friday for easy, versatile, and fashionable professional looks. These pieces can be mixed and matched for a variety of styles and, with the right layers, will work for you year-round.
#1 The Blazer
You knew we’d start here, didn’t you?
Sharp and structured, womens blazers evoke the prim and proper vibe of business suits without getting so formal. They’re a convenient layer in the colder months, doubling as a jacket when it begins to turn chilly and can help you achieve an array of casual-to-dressy looks (depending on what kind of shirt you wear beneath). Some options include:
- Silk tank tops
Now we know what you’re thinking: Aren’t blazers pretty, well, boring? Only if you don’t know how to style blazers properly.
A boxy black blazer may not make you feel like a girl boss, but what if you went for a textured fabric, eye-catching color, or relaxed fit? Spruce things up with style in tweed or plaid, or look for trendy touches like a notched collar, ruched sleeves, or fabulous, unusual buttons.
#2 The Maxi Skirt
Is there any item in the woman’s wardrobe more deceptively comfortable than the maxi skirt? Form-fitting yet flowy and long enough to provide both warmth and coverage, this piece is an essential that can be styled in any direction.
Maxi skirts are incredibly forgiving when it comes to finding the right trendy tops to throw on top.
They look cute and casual with a tee but can also play nicely with a tucked-in silk button-down. Add long necklaces and bangles for a Bohemian vibe, or dress things up with a constructed, cropped jacket for a fancier, fitted look.
Depending on the details, maxis can bring plenty of style oomph on their own. Some ideas for adding variety include:
- A tiered design for a ruffly look
- Charming floral prints
- Wool or merino fabric for cold winter days
Additionally, maxis can look equally cute with riding boots or clean white sneakers. If you’re all about casual shoes, you definitely need a maxi skirt in your closet.
#3 Cropped Pants
If you’re looking for business casual wear that works for you, look no further than a pair of cropped trousers or dress slacks. Form-fitting and classy, these can be matched with almost any office-friendly piece in your lineup, and they’re perfect for busy days.
When searching for cropped dress pants, look for the details that provide extra comfort and a sleeker aesthetic:
- Elastic waistband
- Skinny leg
- A unique touch, like a tuxedo stripe
With some careful snooping, you’ll find neutral or plaid pants that look great with blazers, sweaters, heels, and booties. Anytime you find yourself tempted to roll out the door in your yoga pants, your cropped dress pants will save the day.
#4 The Basic, Neutral Dress
Similar to the little black dress that every woman needs, a basic, neutral-colored option is a girl’s best friend in the office. A flattering silhouette and long sleeves can create an effortless look that travels perfectly from meetings to happy hour and back.
Look for something in black, gray, or navy—shades that can always feel formal if needed and complement almost any other color.
When it comes to styling your trendy dresses, consider our tips:
- Add a belt for a more tailored look
- Don a silk scarf for a pop of personality
- Throw a blazer or sweater on top
Our favorite thing about the basic dress? It’s versatile. You can change up the look by adding layers or dress things up or down with high heels or platform oxfords. And when things really get cold during the winter season, check out our tips on what to wear over a dress when it’s cold, in our latest blog post.
Business Casual Do’s and Don’ts
Now that we’ve covered some of the pieces you can’t go wrong with, let’s step into the murky gray zone of common business casual pitfalls. It can be tricky to figure out your office’s exact policy, especially when it comes to unusual circumstances like “Casual Friday” or those weird in-between times during the transition back to the office.
With that in mind, here are some of our top do’s and don’ts when it comes to business casual attire. Stick by these, and you’ll capably steer clear of office drama.
Quick Disclaimer: The tips below are written within the context that an office is indeed enforcing a business casual dress code. As the workforce continues to evolve, your office might encourage sandals, sweatpants, athleisure, or anything that makes you shine bright. If that’s the case, these don’ts just won’t apply!
DO: Wear Bright Colors
If there’s anything the average office needs, it’s a pop of color. Never feel like your wardrobe is limited to black, tan, and navy blue. Instead, shop with yourself in mind: Does that yellow teddy sweater make you feel better? Buy it.
Does a Sherwood green pantsuit feel so you? Wear it. While the office is generally a place for more conservative dressing, the workplace is changing, and that shouldn’t stop you from showing off the colors and textures that express your individuality.
DON’T: Assume That Designer Clothes are Automatically Approved
In the office, your labels won’t save you. Don’t flaunt the rules of business casual by wearing a sheer top to a meeting or strolling into your manager’s office in flip-flops.
The expectations are that you follow the dress code, even if that top did come from Fendi. Instead, try a more work-appropriate sweater and save the fashion pieces for the weekend.
DO: Check your Office Policy on Jeans
In some spaces, jeans are the norm. In others, denim may be grounds for a warning from your boss. Check with HR or a trusted coworker for details on your office culture, and always remember that jeans can come across as more or less business professional depending on how distressed, colored, and tailored they are. Lucky for you, there are plenty of jeans alternatives.
DON’T: Wear Athleisure
We get it. Compression leggings and stretchy sweatshirts help us feel comfortable and save time on the way to your evening workout. But in the majority of offices, this style of clothing just isn’t acceptable. Bring a gym bag with sneakers and exercise clothes to change into on the way out the door, and thank us later.
Build Your Business Casual Wardrobe with Karen Kane
Struggling with what to wear for business casual female-feeling outfits? Don’t be.
There are plenty of options for every personal style, and with a little time and effort, you’ll soon collect the ensemble you need to look and feel your best in the office, Monday through Friday.
At Karen Kane, we’re all about empowering women to feel beautiful and comfortable, always.
Our products are crafted with respect for people, and that means helping you feel confident and respected in the workplace. When it comes to looking your best—whether you’re at your desk or in front of the board—we’re here to help.
And being that you’re already here, maybe it’s time to start perusing our collection.
- The Atlantic. Why American Workers Now Dress So Casually. https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2017/05/history-of-business-casual/526014/
- US News. Business Casual for Women. https://money.usnews.com/money/blogs/outside-voices-careers/articles/business-casual-for-women