Though how you look isn’t the most important part of your job performance, first impressions can make a difference in interviews, client meetings, and other professional settings. But in an age where anything goes, it’s tough to understand what a business casual style means. And perhaps more importantly, what’s appropriate. Many executives want to rise within their industry and be known for the unique perspectives they bring to the table. Our wardrobe is a way to do that, according to fashion expert Sadie Cherney who says the professional style is a visual embodiment of professional demeanor. And the way we style ourselves communicates how we want to be seen.
Here, expert tips for exploring your business casual style:
Vary your look by the situation
As you raise up the ranks, your day-to-day responsibilities vary. One day, you’re at a client meeting. The next, you’re brainstorming with corporate goals for the next quarter. Then, perhaps you’re doing an interview, or leading an offsite. Cherney says our business casual style should shift, depending on the situation. As she puts it, if you’re overdressed at a jobsite, it can be a barrier between you and your team you’re working with. Or, if you’re too relaxed, it can make others question if you take your role seriously. “In scenarios where you may need to adjust, accessories are the best way to be versatile: black pants and a fitted collared top can be dressed down with a cardigan and flats, then easily dressed up by switching to a blazer and pumps,” she recommends for women. “Likewise, bright, statement jewelry or scarves are the perfect way to show your more creative and bold side, when appropriate.”
Keep dress codes top of mind
When you’re applying for a new gig, take a second to glance around the office and see what everyone is wearing. Generally speaking, dress codes are looser in most companies, but some still impose restrictions. Before you decided to accept a job offer, it’s worth considering how comfortable you will be following the rules. Depending on what’s required of you, there are ways to get creative and also still walk the line, according to Layne Cross, a stylist for Stitch Fix. “If your office is more conservative, consider upgrading your look with a blazer as your go-to layering piece to add the extra polish your workplace requires. If your office is open to edgier, more trend-forward styles, swap the blazer for a moto jacket or duster cardigan,” she recommends.
Remember getting dressed is just part of it
You roll out of bed, pull out a look you know goes, and jet-set out the door. What did you miss? Nearly everything, according to Cherney, who says what we wear is a fraction of our overall appearance. Even if we are in a polished outfit, messy hair on our head or face, unbrushed teeth, and bloodshot eyes will speak louder. It’s important to develop personal hygiene habits in addition to your style, so you’re always putting the best face forward — literally.
You don’t have to sacrifice your personal style
You love your job, your team and your progress. You see a long future at your current employer, and mostly, you’re happy to head into the office every morning. But the business casual lay of the land makes it tough to still have a personal style. Or does it? Cross says dressing for the workplace doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice who you are, or your colors, patterns, and signatures. The trick is to infuse these touches in a subtle way — whether through a statement-making pair of earrings, a funny tie or a cool pair of kicks. “It helps ensure a look is office-appropriate while also adding a pop of personality to an otherwise neutral canvas,” she adds.
Mix high-end with second-hand
You don’t have to shell out half a paycheck to furnish your business style collection. Rather, Cherney suggests truly seeking out what you like, regardless of the price tag or the age. “Mixing high-end and low-end items is a great way to build an outfit that looks more expensive than it is,” she explains. “Trend pieces will be what makes you stand out and look fashion-forward, but they also won’t be around forever. To avoid the poor craftsmanship of fast fashion, look for items in resale stores and thrift shops.”
Consider your audience and industry
Perhaps you would describe your work as more on the conservative side. But the client you’re meeting with next week? They’re definitely trendier and more at ease about dress code. If this is the case, you can shift your look to dress for your audience. People will feel more comfortable around those of similar mind and approach, making business discussions and connection-making more seamless, Cherney notes.
Be realistic with your lifestyle habits.
While your partner may argue you they know you from your head to your toe, there’s no one on the planet who understands what makes you tick better than you. And this includes what chores you’re likely to do — and what ones you’ll aspire to do, but won’t actually pull off. As Cherney explains, if you’re not a fan of ironing, you probably shouldn’t buy anything that wrinkles easily. If you hate dealing with dry cleaning, it’s better to find fabrics you can wash at home. The hope is that by filling your closet with clothes you like, will wear, and fit with your habits, you take the stress out of planning your look.