Dressing “business casual” for college, internships, and jobs can be a major dilemma. Not only do you want to dress appropriately, but also you want to retain a bit of your own personal flare. There are the safe go-to’s, like a gray skirt suit, a basic dress with a cardigan or blazer, but what if you’re not into the standard (and sometimes bland!) office ensemble?
I spoke with Dawna Reeves, the 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 achieve a business casual look for back-to-school season while maintaining your personal style.
1. Know your setting
Whether you’re dressing for the first day of class or your new job, different settings and industries can have wildly different interpretations of business casual, so do your research before your first day. For example, 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 may have more freedom to express your personal style. If you’re in the tech industry, you may even be able to wear jeans or more casual clothes, according to Reeves. So how’s a college student to know what’s appropriate? Reeves tells Her Campus, “It’s always okay to ask, ‘What’s the typical dress code?’” And once you have your answer, you can refine based on what you see others wear in the office.
2. business casual basics
If you want to edge up a work outfit, there are 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 tells Her Campus. “Be creative with either the top or the bottom — but not both.” Translation? If you’re wearing something cool or flashy on top, consider pairing it with a more neutral pant — think khaki, black, charcoal, or navy. If you want to rock some plaid pants, consider sticking 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. Pro tip: You’ll know your outfit is distracting when the person you’re talking to keeps staring at your clothes and not your face.
3. dress for your industry
How do you want to be perceived in your new major, workplace, or during an interview? Chances are, you don’t want to be perceived as just another college student or intern — so dress for the job you want. Read on for ways to add some style to business casual by industry, and keep in mind that every office is different, so 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 tells Her Campus. “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. And for a more conservative look, stick to a pencil style as opposed to a fuller skirt.” Robbins recommends pairing a 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 outdated,” Robbins 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 after classes? Reeves tells Her Campus that your look might change slightly based on the setting you’re in. She says, “You can be a bit more casual [than finance, for instance], but still conservative.” Think pencil skirts, cardigans, cropped pants and shift dresses.
For majors and industries related to government, education, and health, 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 button-down from Madewell ($79.50) or this ruffle gingham skirt from Target ($34.99).
Media, advertising and fashion
Creativity goes a long way in these industries! Showing your personal style in these settings — including at the office — is usually encouraged. The key is to look polished and put-together, whether your outfit is totally street style-worthy or simple and minimalistic. Robbins recommends a stylish leather jacket: “It’s the one item that will instantly up the ‘cool’ factor of any outfit,” she tells Her Campus. “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.”
If you’re studying media, advertising, fashion, or something similar, try something like this black vegan leather jacket from Lulus ($68), or a jumpsuit, which is one of Reeves’ top recommendations. “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.” I recommend a sophisticated jumpsuit like this one from ASOS ($40.20).
If you’re at a Silicon Valley start-up, working remotely, or in a tech setting where comfort is key, you may be able to dress very casually; but that doesn’t mean unprofessional. Reeves says jeans are common — but if you’re in a professional setting, ask a supervisor first or wait until you see what people wear. If jeans are appropriate, Reeves recommends pairing it with something to help the look feel put-together. “Keep [jeans] dark wash and pair them with a nicer top and shoes,” she tells Her Campus. Try these dark wash, high-rise skinny jeans ($128) from Madewell and pair with a peplum top, like this one from Express ($34.99).
4. Finishing the look
As for hair and makeup, you’ll want to look professional and not distracting — bold lipstick can be a great way to dress up your business casual look! Neon nails might stick at a finance job, but you can always opt for light, minimal polishes first and see what feels best. In a creative industry, though, feel free to go wild, nail art included! Piercings and tattoos also depend on the industry, but like many fashion and beauty trends these days, 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
With these tips, your business casual look is pretty much complete! Maybe you have a navy pencil skirt, black patent leather loafers, a white eyelet top, or some combination of pieces that inspire you and help you feel great. But before you head out the door, look yourself up and down one more time. Are you comfortable? Are you covered? Most importantly, are you going to feel confident heading to class, your internship, or job in what you’re wearing?
When considering your business casual look, Reeves warns that women are unfortunately the target of a lot of criticism when it comes to showing skin — sexist, yes, but unfortunately, for many industries, it can definitely matter. If you’re unsure about what’s appropriate, play it safe to begin with and feel things out. Most importantly, though, you should be comfortable — if you can’t sit down in a skirt without it riding up or if you can barely cross the campus courtyard in your heels, then you may want to reconsider.
While business casual can be a tricky look to master, find some inspiration online and remember to have fun with it! You can always play it safe at first and then gradually adapt your school or office uniform to what other interns and employees are wearing. With these tips, you’ll get it right in no time. Good luck!