How to Nail Business Casual Beyond the Skirt Suit

Dressing for the office: It can be a major dilemma for collegiettes starting internships or jobs. Not only do you want to dress appropriately, but also you want to retain a bit of personal style. There are the safe go-tos—the gray skirt suit, a basic dress with a cardigan or blazer—but what if you’re not into the super feminine (and sometimes bland!) office ensemble? We talked to Dawna Reeves, senior associate director of the Johns Hopkins University Career Center, and Chelsea Robbins, a style consultant at Kilgore Trout, a boutique in Cleveland, Ohio, about how to get business casual right while maintaining your personal style!

1. Know your industry

Different industries can have wildly different interpretations of business casual, so do your research before your first day on the job. Finance and consulting are considered very conservative—your wardrobe might have to be in neutral colors. But if you’re in a creative industry like advertising, public relations or media, you have much more freedom to express your personal style. If you’re in the tech industry, you may even be able to wear jeans, Reeves says. So how’s a girl to know what’s appropriate? “It’s always okay to ask, ‘What’s the typical dress code?’” Reeves says. Once you have your answer, you can refine based on what you see others wear in the office.

2. Perception matters

How do you want to be perceived in a new workplace or during an interview? You don’t want to be just another college intern—dress for the job you want! According to Reeves, this means playing it safe, at least for a while. “You want to look in a way where [the company] would want to put you in front of their clients,” she says. Dressing conservatively is not a bad thing—and it definitely doesn’t mean a boring pantsuit. Even if you’re in head-to-toe gray, you can play around with different silhouettes and cuts, like a cropped pant or an asymmetrical hem. “It’s about credibility,” Reeves says. “College age students should dress a little more conservative in the beginning of a job or internship,” she says. Why? Once you get the lay of the land—feel out the office culture and see what others in the office are wearing—feel free to break out the statement necklace and red pumps.

3. Business casual basics

First things first: if you want to edge up a work outfit, there are still some rules to keep in mind. Unless you’re a high level editor at a fashion magazine, remember: You’re still at work, and basics can go a long way. That being said, most offices allow for a bit of leeway when it comes to personal style. “It’s about balance,” Reeves says. “Be creative with either the top or the bottom—but not both.” Translation? If you’re wearing something cool or flashy on top, you should pair it with a more neutral pant—think khaki, black, charcoal or navy. If you want to rock some plaid pants, stick with a plain, crisp shirt. Or if you want to go with loud accessories, keep your clothes neutral. But be warned: “You don’t want your outfit to be distracting,” Reeves says. You’ll know your outfit is distracting when the person you’re talking to keeps staring at your clothes and not your face. Read on for ways to add some style to business casual by industry—but because every office is different, there’s no hard-and-fast rule.

Finance and consulting

If you’re interning or working on Wall Street, chances are your office’s dress code is pretty strict. According to Reeves, this means neutral colors like black, khaki, navy and gray—with a look topped off by a blazer. Even if your color palette is limited, Robbins says you can likely play around a bit with different silhouettes. “The midi skirt is perfect for any office,” she says. “For a more conservative look, stick to a pencil style as opposed to a fuller skirt. The midi skirt can work for all body types; it’s all about having it tailored to hit you in just the right spot mid-calf.” Robbins recommends pairing this slightly-below-the-knee skirt with a tucked in blouse and pointed toe pumps. Try this black midi-skirt from Macy’s ($69).

“If your job requires a jacket, keep it short and cropped with this look—otherwise you risk looking seriously outdated,” she warns. Not into skirts? “Cropped pants are also a good choice,” she says.  “Just keep them narrow at the hem. A wider hem might be a little too forward in a conservative office.” Try these classic cropped pants from J.Crew ($79.50).

Government, education and health

Psyched for your internship on the Hill? Shadowing a doctor? “You can be a bit more casual [than finance, for instance],” Reeves says, “but still conservative.” Think pencil skirts, cardigans, cropped pants and shift dresses. Robbins recommends playing with color and texture. “Eyelet and lace are good choices, especially in light blue and red,” Robbins says. “As far as patterns go, florals will always be popular choices for spring and summer. But I love a bright plaid shirt any time of year. It's easy to wear to work (with a pencil skirt or trousers) and also perfect for weekends, loosely tucked into jeans.” Try something like this plaid button-down from Madewell ($79.50) or this ruffle gingham skirt from Target ($27.99).

Media, advertising and fashion

Creativity goes a long way in these industries! Showing your personal style in these sorts of offices is usually encouraged. The key is simply to look polished and put-together, whether your outfit is totally street style-worthy, or simple and minimalistic. Robbins recommends a cool leather jacket. “It's the one item that will instantly up the cool factor of any outfit,” she says. “And the best part: Leather jackets in all colors are popular right now. I love a monochrome outfit topped off with a black leather jacket. If you're thinking about investing in one, look for one that doesn't have too much hardware—flashy isn't practicality's best friend.”

Try something like this black faux leather jacket from Forever 21 ($38). For girls in a super creative office, Robbins can’t say enough good things about a jumpsuit. “The jumpsuit is the ultimate day to night look,” she says. “Wear heels and top it off with a leather jacket and you can go from clients to cocktails.” We recommend a sophisticated jumpsuit, like this one from ASOS ($67).

Technology

If you’re at a Silicon Valley start-up, you may be able to be very, very casual; but that doesn’t mean unprofessional. Reeves says jeans are common—but ask a supervisor first or wait until you see what people wear. If jeans are appropriate, keep it classy. “Not sneakers and jeans,” Reeves says. “Keep them dark wash and pair them with a nicer top and shoes.” Try these Gap dark wash skinny jeans ($99) and pair with a peplum top, like this one from Express ($39.90).

4. Finishing the look

As for hair and makeup, you’ll want to look professional and not distracting. “No fake eyelashes!” Reeves says. But bold lipstick (in the red/pink family—keep the blues at home) are great. Neon nails probably will stick out like a sore thumb at a finance job, so stick with light, basic polishes—in a creative industry, though, feel free to go wild, nail art included! Piercings and tattoos also depend on the industry, but Reeves notes, “They’re not as much of an issue as they used to be.”

When it comes to hair, you do you. “People get more concerned with hair than they need to be,” Reeves says. “Is it neat and clean? Can I see your face?” If your answers to those questions are yes, you’re probably in the clear.

5. The final test

Photo from Memorandum

Your look is complete: a navy pencil skirt, black patent leather loafers and a white eyelet top. But before you head out the door, look yourself up and down one more time. Do you have too much skin showing? Cleavage or visible bra straps? Are you comfortable?

“The challenge is not to come [to work] with a sexualized image,” Reeves says. “You’re not dressing for going out.” Reeves warns that women are unfortunately the target of a lot of criticism when it comes to showing skin—sexist, yes, but for many industries, it matters. Play it safe and be conservative at first. Most importantly, though, you should be comfortable. And if you can’t sit down in a skirt without it riding up or if you can barely cross the parking lot in your heels, then you may want to reconsider.

While business casual can be tricky to master, if you play it safe at first and then gradually adapt your office uniform to what other employees are wearing, you’re almost guaranteed to get it right!

Katie is the Senior Associate Editor of Her Campus. She graduated from Johns Hopkins University in 2015, where she studied Writing Seminars, psychology, and women's studies. Prior to joining the full-time staff, Katie was a national contributing writer and Health Editor for HC. In addition to her work with Her Campus, Katie interned at Cleveland Magazine, EMILY's List, and the National Partnership for Women & Families. Katie is also an alumna of Kappa Alpha Theta. In her spare time, Katie enjoys writing poetry, hanging out with cats, eating vegan cupcakes, and advocating for women's rights. 

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