How to dress business casual - women feature

Updated April 17, 2017

Companies throughout the UK have started loosening their ties and embracing a business-casual office environment. And while leaving stiff power suits in the back of the wardrobe sounds appealing, business-casual style is a nebulous territory. Navigating the grey area -- from figuring out how much skin is appropriate to deciding whether T-shirts look too casual or jeans look too sloppy -- can cause premature grey hairs.

The plus side is that once you determine the proper boundaries, the daily grind becomes new ground for sartorial creativity. And although the office shouldn’t be a runway show, business-casual wear is an outlet for self-expression, which can often give you an edge.

“Have confidence," said Lubov Azria, chief creative officer at global fashion company. "The first impression should be you.”

Take classic elements and pair them with something fresh and modern.

Lubov Azria

Know your environment

So how exactly do you keep within the boundaries of the rather subjective notion of business casual?

“A standard method to measure it is: What is your female boss wearing?” said Lisa Johnson Mandell, author of the best-selling book “Career Comeback: Repackage Yourself to Get the Job You Want.” “Look at your female superior for your lead. Never overdress beyond her, but don’t dramatically underdress either.”

And if you’re starting out in a new workplace or field, it’s especially important to take cues from the women around you.

“Go in there looking sharp, polished and conservative, and fly under the radar for a while," said Ruth Sonnenshein, a Los Angeles-based stylist and co-founder of the styling company A Clothes Call. "Once you get a better sense from your colleagues, you can then take more risks.”

Balance classic with contemporary

Business-formal styles are nothing if not timeless. Pencil skirts, tailored blazers, kitten heels and oxford button-downs can all look quite sophisticated, but they can also look terribly dull if put together all at once. This is where business casual comes in.

“Take classic elements and pair them with something fresh and modern,” Azria said.

Spring/summer 2012 brings many trends that are both fun and appropriate for the workplace.

One look Azria says she loves this season is a leather skirt, which you can pair with a classic button-down blouse. Stylist Heather Snow also recommends wearing a nice cotton T-shirt with a fitted blazer. “Just because it's a T-shirt doesn't mean it has to be sloppy. [Paired with a blazer], it looks sleek and put-together.”

Snow says she is also a fan of the floral prints on blazers and trousers that she’s seen this season. The fun print on a tailored silhouette adds a touch of playfulness to an otherwise professional piece.

Snow and Sonnenshein both recommend Equipment-style blouses -- the silky, feminine versions of the traditional men's cotton button-down -- which are popular this year. While trendy, they’re completely appropriate for the office, and they are a refreshing replacement for a starchy-collared, cotton button-down. You can tuck one into a pair of high-waisted trousers or a pencil skirt, exuding a contemporary yet timeless look.

Denim do’s and don’ts

For the most part, jeans are acceptable in a business-casual environment and an easy way to feel more comfortable and stylish at work. But certain types of jeans raise eyebrows.

“Keep your jeans dark and free of holes. Distressed jeans, jeans with holes and boyfriend jeans should probably be saved for the weekend,” Sonnenshein said.

Instead, go for a pair of jeans in a dark-ink colour. Snow recommends a higher-waisted skinny or trouser jean, depending on your style. This way you can tuck in a blouse for a polished look. Alternatively, tuck in a tee and pull on an oversized cardigan or blazer over it.

Your office jeans shouldn't be faded or tattered in a way that would look unprofessional. And while some snug trousers can be fine, leggings should be left at home. Avoid wearing trousers that show every pore in your lower half.

If you want to wear jeans that hug your figure, Snow suggests offsetting a tight, skinny jean with a longer blazer or cardigan.

Attractive, not distracting

Sometimes the toughest decision to make in the business-casual fashion world is choosing an outfit that’s attractive but not too sexy. According to Azria, it’s a balancing act.

“Show off your best asset. Pick one part of your body that you are proud of and highlight it,” she said, “but be mindful of showing too much skin!”

Other rules of thumb? “Don’t show too much cleavage, don’t show your midriff and don’t wear an obvious miniskirt,” Sonnenshein advised.

Mandell's reminder: Keep your underwear under wraps. Be wary of this, especially if you want to wear a sleeveless shirt on its own. With sheer blouses being a popular look right now, be mindful of how a blouse looks in the light -- and even if it looks OK at home, wear a camisole underneath, just in case.

Ultimately, if you are worried about whether an outfit is too sexy for work, it probably is. But choosing an outfit that is body-conscious and tailored to fit your shape can help boost confidence and poise at the office.

Embrace colour

Even if your office interprets business casual as “black tie optional,” colour is an effective way to add character to an outfit, particularly this season, when the racks seem to be bursting with colour.

Azria mentioned two ways to use colour in outfits: “Colour-blocking and wearing eye-catching colours, like reds, oranges and pinks.”

Colour-blocking with bright colours like oranges and pinks is a perfect way to brighten up an otherwise banal pencil skirt and blouse combination – while still staying within the parameters of work-appropriate wear.

But don't stop there. Neon is popping up on every runway, so for an extra bold look, dabble in the highlighter spectrum. Sonnenshein suggests trying a neon silk blouse, but softening the ensemble with a blazer layered over it.

Another traditional piece that looks modern with colour is a pullover sweater. “The crewneck sweater is good for a conservative look, but there are so many fun pastel colours to play with," Snow said. "Buy one in a playful colour like turquoise or mint to give the outfit a pop."

Express yourself through accessories

Accessorising is one of the best ways to express yourself while avoiding any fashion faux pas in the workplace.

“Women should use accessories to personalise their looks,” Azria said. “I tend to express my personal style with bold accessories such as an oversized belt, statement shoes or interesting jewelry.”

This holds true no matter what work environment you may be in. “If you're going to keep your outfit more professional, punch it up with a great scarf or a layering of necklaces or bracelets,” Snow said.

Accessories also are a good avenue for adding colour to an outfit. A bright red pump or a lavender purse adds some eye-catching colour without going too extreme. Layering long, colorful necklaces over a simple blouse adds a pop of creativity to a work ensemble.

But when you’re accessorising, it can be easy to get carried away. Sonnenshein suggests accessorising to your heart's content, but then: “Look in a mirror on your way out, look at all the accessories you have, and remove one thing. It’s a safe way to avoid looking like you’re going to a dress-up party.”

Be comfortable ... Just not too comfortable

Business-casual looks aren’t stiff and conservative, but be careful that you’re not in an iteration of pajamas either. Sonnenshein says to keep yourself in check, particularly when you’ve been going to the same office for a while.

“You can get too comfortable," she said. "You start out with a blouse, tailored jeans and flats. And all of a sudden, it’s two years down the line and you're in a concert T-shirt from the night before."

Another thing to note as the years go by is how your clothes are faring. Mandell says to evaluate your clothes: Do they have faint stains or tattered cuffs? Is your favourite sweater pilling?

“Clothes don't last forever, and sometimes we hang onto them for sentimental value when we really shouldn't keep them, let alone wear them to the office,” she said.

Similarly, if you’re questioning whether an outfit needs to be dry cleaned, it probably does. Even if you’re wearing relaxed clothes, there’s an expectation to look polished and professional. Being comfortable and stylish, while also put-together and professional, can be tough – but striking that balance is a key component to being confident and happy at work.

Business makeup and hair: Fun, not fussy

Beauty in the workplace isn’t as carefully regimented as wardrobe, and while it may be tempting to experiment with new looks, it’s best to simplify your hair and makeup routine for the workplace.

Lisa Johnson Mandell, author of the best-selling book "Career Comeback: Repackage Yourself to Get the Job You Want," encourages women to express themselves through beauty, but be mindful of the upkeep.

“Make sure it doesn't get in the way of you doing your job," she said. "If your hair requires constant maintenance or if your lipstick is such that you have to reapply it every 10 minutes, that's a problem."

Lower-maintenance beauty trends are a fun way to express yourself. Stylist Heather Snow loves super high buns, loose, low chignons bun and soft side braids for hair. While these looks are stylish, they’re not at all fussy and won’t get in the way of your job.

Going for a manicure in a trendy hue like pastel, neon or metallic is another fun way to add a spunky detail to an otherwise corporate look.

And while lipstick can be a pain to reapply, lip stains in a poppy hue -- like melon or berry tones for spring -- can add some colour to your lips without risk of smearing.

The key is to keep the beauty components simple and easy to maintain. Similar to your wardrobe, it’s best to stick with one bolder statement -- be it a thick liner, a bold lip colour or a strong brow -- and simplify the rest. That way you’ll be chic and beautiful, without fear of looking overdone.

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About the Author

Melissa Hunter has been writing since 2007. She first delved into the world of Los Angeles dating and relationships in her web shows "Let's Get Laid!" and "The Morning After." In 2009 she became a full-time editor and writer for MSN's entertainment Web site, Wonder Wall. She earned her Bachelor of Arts degree from Northwestern University, studying theatre and sociology.