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So You Have to Dress “Business Casual”: What Is It and How Do You Do It?

We’ve all seen the dress code “business casual” at least once, and if you’re like me, the first time you saw it, you probably freaked out a bit. When I was a sophomore in college, I joined a sorority and for the first time in my college career, I was told I needed to dress “business casual” (whatever that means) for meetings and class. Being the control freak that I am, I did what I always do. I Googled. And unfortunately, every website that Google linked me to had a different interpretation for business casual.

For some, business casual means jeans and nice blouse, while for others, business casual means blazers and dress pants. So, what is it really? And how do you dress for it?

To save you the stress of panic-calling your mother at 10 p.m. the night before you have to dress business casual like I did, here are some handy tips for dressing the part when you’re left absolutely clueless.

1. At least at first, steer clear of denim.

This is completely up for individual interpretation, but if you’re worried as to whether your jeans qualify as business casual, don’t wear them at first. If after your first couple days dressing business casual, you see a few people rocking jeans, go for it. However, to be safe, stay away from denim at least for your first day dressing business casual. As far as denim jackets go, I would suggest the same rule at first—steer clear for the first day or two until you get a feel for what others in your situation are wearing.

2. You don’t have to buy all new clothing to dress business casual.

This was my #1 fear about business casual. After spending money on sorority dues and a white dress for initiation, the last thing I wanted to do was spend another $100 on clothes to dress up. I guarantee you that you have at least one outfit in your wardrobe that qualifies as business casual.

Don’t own black dress pants?

Try a maxi skirt.

Don’t own a blazer?

Opt for a cardigan/blouse combo. A cardigan will even work with a tank top or cami underneath, as long as you’re planning on keeping the cardigan on all day.

3. Simple is sometimes the best way to go.

My go-to business casual outfit is a pair of my black skinny dress pants, a sweater or blouse on top, and a pair of ballet flats.

I’m not a huge fan of heels when I’m on my feet all day, so I opt for pointed-toe ballet flats because they dress up my otherwise simple outfits.

I don’t go overboard on the jewelry either—if I’m wearing a statement necklace (which is totally okay for business casual dressing!), I wear simple stud earrings. If I’m wearing bigger earrings, I balance it with a smaller necklace or no necklace at all.

4. Borrowing clothes from others is always an option.

If your wardrobe really has limited options, don’t feel bad asking a friend around your size to borrow a dress or a pair of ballet flats. When I joined my sorority and was totally lost on what to wear, I had multiple sorority sisters who offered to lend me pencil skirts or blazers so I wouldn’t have to buy anything new. Just ask! It can’t hurt. Most of the time, people are so willing to help you figure out a solution, especially if you’re asking college-aged women, a majority of whom have quite expansive wardrobes. In my experience, my friends and peers at school have always been so willing to lend me a pair of shoes or a sweater when I needed one.

5. If you really want to get some new pieces to make dressing for business casual more convenient, there are plenty of stores that are affordable and have great options for business casual.

From my own experience:

Maurices is great for affordable pants and blazers.

I own three pairs of their I Am Smart pants and wore them every single day for a month-long internship with different tops. I also own one of their blazers in black, maroon, and teal. Why fix what isn’t broken?!

Kohl’s is a great option for blouses.

My favorite brand of theirs is LC Lauren Conrad—one of my blouses, which my roommate calls the “bow shirt” because it has a bow design on it, has become a staple in my and my roommate’s professional wear. She even claims it’s the reason she’s gotten the jobs she has, because she wears it to every interview she has.

DSW is my favorite shoe destination, but both Famous Footwear and Shoe Carnival carry similar (sometimes more affordable) styles.

Most of my ballet flats are Steve Madden or Jessica Simpson, but there are plenty of other brands that are just as cute! Make sure you’re opting for something comfy and functional for all-day wear (and pack some Band-Aids in case of blisters the first time you wear them all day!)

What really helped me when I started wearing business casual clothes was not overthinking it. It doesn’t have to be a fashion show and you don’t have to look like you’re going to a homecoming dance. You just have to look professional and respectable.

Remember, you’re not alone in your confusion about business casual. It’s an indefinitely gray area. When in doubt, hit up Pinterest for inspiration. I promise you that you have more options than you first think—just think simple. Take a deep breath and analyze your wardrobe piece by piece. I can guarantee you that the daunting idea of business casual become less scary over time, but for the time being, try not to worry too much. You got this!

Kjersten is a senior at Gustavus Adolphus College in Saint Peter, Minnesota. She is pursuing a major in English and one day hopes to work in the exciting world of book publishing. When she's not reading books or taking pictures of them for her blog, she loves watching period dramas (Outlander, Victoria, and Downton Abbey, to name a few), playing with her beagle, Rocky, and listening to Ed Sheeran on repeat. Kjersten serves as Senior Editor for the Gustavus Chapter of Her Campus.
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