How to Dress Business Casual

Agh. Business casual. These two words describe a paradox of a dress code that the world just can’t seem to agree upon. I know what business professional means to me: pant suits, a button-down blouse, and a blazer. But business casual? Where is the line drawn between business casual and just plain casual? Are jeans allowed? What about colors? Can shoes be open-toed?


Luckily for me, and by luckily I mean unfortunately, I had to cover an event for my college’s newspaper that had a specified business casual dress code. I decided to record my thought process and ultimate decision to provide some guidelines on how to conquer the style without compromising my personality (and wallet). I realized that the best way to look at the dress code was to define myself in the context of the event. Trust me on this.


1. What was my role in this event?

I was attending the event as a journalist. It was my job to observe, not to stand out, so I decided to go for more subdued tones. My outfit ended up consisting of black, navy blue, white, and brown.


2. Who did I have to interact with?

I knew that I needed to interview students, graduates, and, in this case, a lawyer. My outfit therefore had to appeal to a wide range of ages and professions. This supported my decision to stick with cooler, neutral tones. I decided to keep my hair out of my face and to wear peep-toe heels instead of flats, both of which elevated my look without making me seem unapproachable.


These two questions paved the way for me because I understood the expectations that I needed to meet in the event. I ultimately decided upon navy blue slacks, a black cami tucked into my slacks, a black belt, a nice cardigan, and brown peep-toe heels. I felt confident, in control, and respectable.

Photo by Ash Baierlein

Let’s break this down a little.


Shoes are a fantastic way to either push an outfit up to business professional or to maintain a more business casual approach. Closed-toe, darker heels are more suitable for business professional. Moreover, they save you money on a pedicure, which so many websites insist is a must-have for working women. One pair of black, closed-toe heels can go a long way without seeming overused. Besides, I don’t know about you, but I believe that an-all black ensemble never goes out of style.

I found my shoes at a thrift store, where I also found the slacks that I ended up wearing. I liked the shoes because while they were polished, they showed some of my personality. In my business casual outfit, I let my shoes, which were light brown, act at my accent color.


In hindsight, I could have gotten away with wearing a blazer instead of the cardigan, but I don’t regret my choice. The cardigan is very flattering, and I think that the knit looks much more expensive than it actually is. I was also already wearing slacks and heels, so I balanced my top with a cardigan.


Most importantly, though, I felt that I represented myself in a way that reflected both my role and my age. I really struggle with looking my age when I have to dress up for events. As a woman, I find pressure to look young without coming across as childish or immature. However, I am only 19, and I believe that my youth is an advantage. Had I been going for an interview, for example, I would have worked something into my outfit that spoke to my age and potential, like a brightly-colored bracelet or belt. I find that it is in these little details that I can best express myself. Self-confidence will always look better on me than a suit or pair of pants that seem to overwhelm my personality.


Business casual is all about balance, and you can quote me here. You most definitely have more freedom with color and style, but you have to retain some level of professionalism. I’m also going to settle the jeans debate once and for all. Jeans can be part of a business casual outfit for the right event. I know a lot of people at Her Campus who want to work in the entertainment, fashion, journalism or social media industries. A pair of jeans, a nice shirt, a killer blazer, and cute shoes would absolutely be acceptable at a startup, Refinery 29, or Snapchat offices.


Photo from StartupStock


I recommend investing in a couple of staple pieces, such as a well-fitting blazer and nice shoes, while saving money on slacks and undershirts at stores like Target, Old Navy, or JC Penney. A lot of these companies are moving towards providing affordable designs for working women.  


For all the readers of Her Campus, I advise you to always start by asking yourself those two questions that I asked myself: What is my role in this event and who do I have to interact with? I promise that these questions reveal a whole lot more than you might think. If you ever have any hesitations between appearing too professional or too casual, err on the side of caution, and dress up. Worst comes to worst, you show up looking like a boss, and people will compliment your cufflinks and earrings.


In big events, like interviews, internships, or work, you should not have to feel like an ambiguous dress code is going to hold you back. Find clothes that define yourself in your situation and budget wisely. You should be focused on presentations and promotions, not if your blouse should be button-down or patterned. Happy dressing!