The Casual Work Dress Code, Explained

Being that I was raised by a career woman and a big-shot businessman, I was primed for a young age to “dress for success”.  Where many kids’ school wardrobes consisted of yoga pants, sweatshirts, and those moccasin-style slip-ons that are basically glorified slippers, mine was full of dark-wash jeans, cable-knit sweaters, and even a few pairs of pinstripe dress pants.  This insistence that I dress like a little businesswoman, however, didn’t stop me from being thrown for a loop when I started a new job earlier this year that had a “casual” dress code. What did that mean? What was I allowed to wear? Was I going to need a whole new wardrobe?  Well, after six months on the job I’d like to think I’m an expert in dressing appropriately for my job. If you, too, are puzzled by this dress code, here are my pointers:

Jeans are fine, as long as they’re not distressed or embroidered

Torrid Bombshell Skinny Jean in Dark Wash, $79.50, (available in sizes 10-6X)

Jeans are usually considered to be casual wear, but if my parents allowed me to wear them growing up, that means that they have the potential to be classy and work-appropriate.  Of course, you’ve probably been told a million times at this point to avoid showing too much skin at work, and in that spirit I’d advise against wearing distressed jeans, no matter how casual your work dress code claims to be.  I’d also recommend avoiding jeans with embroidery or painted designs on them, as those can look gaudy if you’re not careful. You’re best off simply buying a few pairs of classic blue jeans to keep in your work wardrobe rotation. 

Leggings really don’t count as pants in the workplace


    Matty M Ladies’ Leggings in Black, $5.99-$49.99, (available in 7 colors, sizes XXS-XXL, and with or without pockets)

I am among the many young women that have flaunted the “leggings aren’t pants” rule our mothers have tried to press upon us.  While wearing leggings to class is perfectly acceptable, it likely won’t fly in the workplace. They’re actually the only article of clothing that I was explicitly told not to wear at my job orientation, not because they’re tight but because they tend to be see-through (it should be noted that I work with young kids, so exposing any sort of undergarment is obviously considered indecent).  If you absolutely have to wear leggings, pair them with a long cardigan or tunic, or at least invest in a well-made pair that won’t show your underwear off to the world.

And shoulders are considered distracting


Divided Cotton T-shirt, $5.99, (available in sizes XXS-L and in 6 colors)

While I don’t think shoulders are in any way sexual, showing them off is unprofessional even in the casual work environment.  This isn’t that much of an issue for me because I live in a climate where I have no choice but to wear long sleeves nine months of the year anyway, but during the summer months, I stick to short-sleeve or half-sleeve tops.  Even if you don’t work with kids and have a consequent obligation to ensure that they don’t see your bra, you should probably stock your wardrobe with some short-sleeve shirts or blouses for the summer months, or if you live in a warmer climate. 

Lay off on the slogans  

Torrid super-soft favorite tunic tee in eggplant, $34.90, (available in sizes 10-6X)

Look, I love quirky slogans and quotes as much as the next person.  My laptop is covered in stickers that say things like “girl power” and “fearless”.  However, I don’t wear those expressions on t-shirts, at least not to work. Why? Because frankly, shirts with words on them, whether it be a slogan or a brand logo, are too unprofessional even for a casual work environment.  So save that “feminist” shirt for a class or a night in with friends and stick with a solid or patterned top for your shift. 

Patterns are fine, though  

St. John’s Bay Long Sleeve Open-Front Cardigan in Indigo, $44, (available in misses and petite sizes XS-XXL and in 4 colors)

Just because you can’t wear a shirt with your favorite quote doesn’t mean that you can’t express yourself through clothing at work. Feel free to wear various prints and patterns.  That striped cardigan? Wear it! That floral tee? That works too! Professional does not have to equate to boring. 

Heels not required


A New Day Alyssa Faux Leather Bow Flats in Tan, $19.99, (available in sizes 5-12 and two colors)

Probably the best aspect of casual dress codes is that you never feel obligated to wear heels.  At my job, I can wear ballerina flats, boots, and even fashion sneakers such as converse and nobody will bat an eye.  While some shoes, such as sandals and open-backed slides, are considered controversial in the workplace and may not be permitted depending on what line of work you’re in, you should be fine in your low-heeled, closed-back, closed-toe shoes. 

The dressing should be simple, but oftentimes it’s not.  There are a lot of factors, such as weather, our line of work, and the type of event, that dictates what is and isn’t appropriate to wear.  These dress codes can be hard to grasp, but with a little self-education and trial and error, anybody can master them.