How to Dress for Business Casual and Beyond
You know that sinking feeling when you walk into a party and realize you’ve failed to read the dress code fine print?
Historian and fashion writer Anne Hollander argues that we want to look “right” far more than we want to be fashionable. And never is that theory more salient than when we are asked to dress for special occasions related to work. Even if we refine our everyday look down to a science and develop a killer signature style, it’s easy to trip up on the aesthetic rules and elusive expectations of these events.
While I generally believe fashion rules are meant to be broken, we still want to fit in, albeit in a distinguished way. Many variables — from location to time of day — transform the subtle nuances of what is appropriate in these settings, not to mention body shape and personality. But despite ample room for variation, it’s good to have a foundational baseline to work from — particularly in professional settings where there’s so much at stake. Here’s a guide to navigating six dress codes as a professional.
For some, business casual is not a special occasion — it’s just everyday existence. But for others, it’s the prescribed look exclusively for Fridays or off-site team meetings. And despite the physical comfort this more casual clothing is intended to offer, transitioning from formal professional attire to business casual can bring with it uncertainty and opportunities for career-curtailing gaffes. So much so that many professional women opt to never adapt a business casual aesthetic at all, exactly for this reason: too many potential blunders.
There are a lot of variables demanding expert discretion — and it’s not just obvious mistakes, like too much cleavage or a mini skirt. There’s ample grey area with things like jewelry (better suited for a night club?) and fabric choices (too sheer? too clingy?) leaving many women not interested in risking embarrassment and therefore sticking with the safety of business formal.
So, when navigating the murky waters of business casual dress, I advocate for focusing on the business half of “business casual” and integrating only one (possibly two) more casual elements, while keeping the rest of your look within the business formal realm (as interpreted and applied within your office and industry).
For some, this may mean you can put on jeans, but keep the silk blouse and heels. Or perhaps you swap out the blouse for a white t-shirt, but add a blazer and some nice leather boots. “Casual” often connotes comfort — and even sloppiness. Looking too casual can be distracting to co-workers and send the wrong message (“I’m here to relax, not work”), so before you pull on your stretch pants, focus on the mental comfort that accompanies looking professional and polished.
This might be synonymous with everyday professional attire for you, but it can also apply to more conservative formal contexts, like religious ceremonies, interviews or special occasion work events. Whatever the setting, tailored, dressy suits and nice dresses are elegant options that, while safe, need not be boring. Try to think beyond the traditional dark suit, and if you do wear a suit, consider wearing it as separates with a blouse or different colored pant to soften the look.
Think of business formal as your best version of your professional self — dressier than everyday, but not veering into the sexy/party territory of cocktail or black tie. Give this sometimes somber look a special visual kick with a statement necklace that has a bit more flair, an interesting brooch or some striking hosiery — anything that communicates extra care and attention to detail. You want to be noticed, but clearly indicate that you understand the rules.
As with everyday professional dress, the same key components should still be present: neatly pressed, tailored and well-fitted, high-quality fabrics, flattering drape — but they should each carry even more importance in business formal contexts. When in doubt, opt for unfussy and simple, without too many bells and whistles and more covered up than not.
Less formal than its black tie cousin, cocktail attire can be a bit more creative and flirtatious. Skip the long gowns and opt for midi- to mini- lengths (depending on the context and what feels right for your body) — and err on the conservative side. This means longer hemlines, less skin and generally less sparkle. Professional trumps party in these contexts.
“Cocktail” comes with a lot of variation. Some cocktail events are more formal in nature, while others are dressy casual, permitting you to have a bit of fun with your choices. If it’s the latter, get maximum flexibility and functionality by imaginatively dressing up some of your more informal pieces. However, certain fabrics lend themselves to this better than others. Fabrics to generally avoid in cocktail settings are denim, linen and khaki. Even in professional contexts, try not to look too corporate and elevate your overall look with luxe fabrics, like cashmere and silk, which look sleek without needing to be overly revealing.
Sometimes there’s no time for a full costume change, so when you need to move from office to cocktail on-the-go, simply swapping jewelry will make the most dramatic shift. You can also bring a change of shoes and downsize your bag. For most, a heel is still the default, though depending on your preferences and the rest of your ensemble, a dressy flat could work.
As the holidays approach, this dress code will appear on more invitations. But while a festive house party may mean dragging out the ugly Christmas sweaters, dressing festive for your office holiday party likely means something entirely different (unless you work in a very casual, creative office).
For most professional settings, think of festive attire as a hybrid between cocktail and business formal. Stick with a dark base, like black or charcoal, and don’t be afraid to anchor your look in winter white, infusing it with small pockets of holiday-themed color — which, for many, can feel more wearable than a red silk blouse. This is the time to strategically sparkle, so focus on some lively-yet-sophisticated ways of working it into your look. Consider a gold knit top, a scarf with some metallic threads woven in or some silver oxfords. Dressy separates can also shine, and classic, silky trousers never go out of style.
Since “festive” is not only the prescribed style but also often the event’s theme, following the dress code ensures that you should look like you belong, which makes you more approachable. Even in a professional context, it communicates that you’re able to relax and creatively adapt — the festive aesthetic tone should be playful, while still refined. However, particularly in professional contexts, take care not to look like you’re wearing a costume.
A favorite not only in summer, but also for winter destination weddings, resort formal can be one of the more confusing dress codes. Half special occasion, half casual, it’s difficult to draw a hard line as to what’s appropriate and what isn’t. This is also referred to as “country club attire” and might conjure images of what you’d wear to a resort or on a cruise. It’s also the dress code you might be asked to follow during business golf outings or company trips.
Linen is a perennial resort favorite, as is white. The antidote to your business formal uniform, resort-wear usually shuns black, which can feel too heavy and somber for its beachy backdrop. Gravitate instead toward lighter and brighter colors, thinking more in line with the California or Hamptons aesthetic, rather than urban chic. And if you must go dark, swap in navy for black.
Colorful sundresses or white pants with dressy tops are winners — play with sheer fabrics, patterns, and possibly some embellishment.(However, if you’re amongst colleagues, keep the sundresses in check and consider an embellished top or more conservative colorful dress instead.) While classic is always the most economical investment, you can veer a little more into trendy territory here if you have the trend-itch. While it’s more casual than other special occasions, it’s still best to avoid sneakers and flip-flops. Espadrilles and wedges are much more appropriate, as are strappy sandals.
Men have it easy here: they can just reach for the tuxedo. Every time. For women, however, it’s a little more complicated.Traditionally black tie meant that women should wear full-length gowns, but times have changed, as have hemline expectations. Some shorter options are also appropriate, particularly in shin-hitting midi-lengths. (Take your height into consideration here: floor-length gowns can overwhelm petite frames.) These shorter varieties work especially well in black — a foolproof color for formalwear — or deep jewel tones and metallics. Pieces that sparkle and have other embellishments can look cheap, if not high quality, so if you’re on a budget, keep it classic and simple to maintain sophistication.
Some women prefer to forgo dresses altogether and smartly pull off pants as formalwear — like silky tuxedo pants, which pair well with a satin or raw silk blouse. Think Katharine Hepburn chic. This black-tie interpretation is especially effective in business contexts, where you may feel sheepish (and rightfully so) about showing too much skin or not looking professional. This might include a gala event with colleagues or a business black-tie dinner. In those contexts, up-dos and glittery gowns may leave you feeling and looking out of place.
If it’s chilly out, be sure your source of warmth is in line with your black-tie aesthetic. Investing in a black bolero jacket or a metallic wrap should take you through many formal occasions — and can be repurposed with jeans or a skirt in more casual contexts. Same goes for your bags: ditch the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink varieties and stick with a minimalist clutch. Adornment can be more over the top than usual, so put away the delicate jewelry and bring out the costume-inspired pieces. And with very few exceptions, black tie is the right time to reach for the heels.
Anna Akbari, Ph.D. is a sociologist, entrepreneur, and the "thinking person's stylist." She is the founder of Sociology of Style, which takes an intelligent look at image and culture-related issues and offers holistic image consulting and life coaching services. Find out more and follow her on Twitter.