The Key to Business Casual

Over the past decade, I’ve worked with hundreds of female executives from all industries, and despite their vast visual and professional diversity, they seek help with one common fashion conundrum: “How in the world do I interpret ‘business casual’?” From female law partners to women in tech, we don’t categorically embrace the casualization of the workplace with the same enthusiasm as men. Or rather, we like it in theory (“More comfortable footwear!”), but when it comes to actually getting dressed in the morning, it’s far from breezy.

The high-powered female executives I work with consistently tell me that Casual Friday, for instance, is completely off their radar. Why? They find the options available to them for those more casual days to be disempowering and more stressful. There are seemingly endless pitfalls and fashion faux pas awaiting even the savviest of professional women in the casual dress landmine, and every office has a horror story of mythical proportions of a misguided interpretation of how to effectively dress casually in the workplace. (Midriff tops and miniskirts, anyone?)

What gives? Why is the business casual code so hard for so many women to successfully crack? Well, to start, we simply have more fashion “stuff” to balance and negotiate. Contemporary gender norms assign sartorial embellishments to women, though this was not always the case — as makeup, skirts and heels were not historically the exclusive territory of the female. It wasn’t until the Great Male Renunciation in the late 18th century that men adopted a more sober appearance, while adornment and beauty were relegated to women. What this means for modern professional women is that, while men are moving swiftly between suits and khakis, women have the nuances of everything from hemlines to heel heights to consider.

One study identified a model of an ideal image for professional women — a mix of conservatism, fashion, masculinity, femininity/sexuality, creativity and conformity. If many of those seem contradictory, it’s because they are. Thus, this image demands a great balancing act of these opposing tensions by women on a daily basis. Layer that muddled, high-maintenance ideal with a pseudo-casual facade, and it’s a wonder there aren’t more career-hurting fashion blunders.

Confusion and challenges abound, so it’s important to create an actionable game plan for successfully navigating the business casual landscape. Whether your office takes a daily relaxed stance on dress or if it’s dependent upon the day of the week or particular client interactions, focus on the business half of “business casual” and follow the Rule of One. That is, limit yourself to integrating one (maybe two) casual pieces at a time, while keeping everything else in its business-formal state (whatever that means in your office and industry). Put on more colorful shoes, but don’t ditch the blazer and blouse. Or swap out the blazer for a sweater, but keep the tailored slacks and heels. It creates less confusion and minimizes the opportunity for making disempowering mistakes.

In fact, I encourage you to throw out the word “casual” altogether — it only conjures images of sloppiness, which is not aligned with a successful professional image. Plus, clients respond negatively if they feel employees are too casual to be entrusted with their business. So instead of channeling “casual,” think of your Rule of One as an isolated opportunity to infuse a bit of playfulness or whimsy into your professional appearance, while still appearing polished and together. 

Not the playful type? Rethink “casual” as artistic, clever or any other adjective you prefer to use to brand yourself. Use the “casual” umbrella as space for infusing your personality into the company-prescribed visual culture. (Think statement piece.) It’s your chance to operate between the cracks and carve an identity for yourself, while still demonstrating your professionalism. Business casual is not one size fits all — and it certainly isn’t a lax free-for-all either. Challenge yourself to kick “casual” to the curb and instead focus on your Rule of One. What’s your one?

Anna Akbari, Ph.D. is the "thinking person's stylist" and the founder of Sociology of Style, which takes an intelligent look at image-related issues and offers holistic wardrobe and image consulting services.  Find out more and follow her on Twitter.

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