How to nail the business casual women dress code (with examples)

The idea of business casual for women (and men) started out in Silicon Valley in the 1980s. That stands to reason, considering that Silicon Valley is the poster child for innovation, rule-breaking, and generally shaking things up. I mean, why would cultural norms regarding stiff dress codes be any different, right?

Productivity seemed to stall at the intersection of fashion and formality, so the powers that be attempted to do away with both. Frankly, if you’re sitting in a room writing code all day, no one will care if you’re doing it in a three-piece suit or not.

No doubt, the idea of business casual made sense in theory. But it was also a moving target, and by the 1990s, it reached new heights of convolution and misinterpretation.

The truth is, no one ever really understood business casual beyond the fact that it meant you didn’t need to wear a suit. Don’t even get me started on what work attire has morphed into in recent months – pajamas anyone?

But while the idea of business casual was created and implemented by a largely male population, where did women fit in? Could hosiery be nixed, and were bare legs even acceptable? What about sleeveless tops?

Fast forward 30 years or so, and the idea of business casual still seems to bamboozle employees and HR managers alike; management is often caught somewhere in the middle. 

That said, it’s abundantly clear that deciphering what business casual really means for women can be a bit prickly, so we’re here to demystify it for you. 

What business casual for women is

Business casual may differ significantly from company to company. However, the general expectation is that business casual for women is a combination (or a delicate balance) of professional wear and casual attire; think professional yet relaxed. While the business casual style does away with notoriously stiff elements like tailored suits, that doesn’t mean it’s a blank check to do whatever you want and be flippant about how you present yourself.  

As a trusted employee, your organization expects you to exercise sound judgment. For example, When Goldman Sachs announced its relaxed dress code in 2019, the memo from CEO David Soloman reminded employees that they know what is and is not appropriate. Moreover, he cautioned Goldman Sachs employees to dress “in a manner that is consistent” with the client’s expectations.  

What business casual for women is not

Before we get into the details of what business casual for women is, let’s take a quick look at what it is not. Simply stated, business casual is not anything you would wear to a backyard barbeque, your kid’s soccer game, or heaven forbid, the club or beach, this includes (but is not limited to): 

  • Mini skirts 
  • Cleavage 
  • Skintight – anything
  • See-through – anything 
  • Strapless tops 
  • Spandex 
  • Flip-flops

A note about jeans 

The acceptability of jeans is really more about company culture, some organizations are fine with it, while others are not. The truth is they can look quite polished, particularly if you opt for darker washes in classic cuts. As a general rule of thumb, however, ripped jeans and low-rises have no place in an office environment. 

Business casual pants 

When we think of business casual, our first instinct is to nix skirts and dresses that are less than comfortable, opting for pants (and jeans) instead. When you’re shopping for business casual pants, remember to avoid styles and cuts that look sloppy. While you’re aiming for a business casual style, you still want to look professional. To that end, pay attention to the fit and fabric, and stick to neutral colors. Try different cuts (wide-leg, boot-leg, or ankle-length) and make seasonal changes with an assortment of fabrics and muted patterns to keep things interesting, 

Insider tip: Dark or neutral color pants all tend to look pretty similar. No one will be the wiser if you wear them more than once a week. The real magic, however, lies in your tops and accessories. 

Business casual tops

When it comes to business casual for women, blouses and tops are the best way to shake things up and keep things interesting. To be honest, the world is your oyster. Feel free to play with patterns, colors, and styles. Just remember to keep necklines modest. Steer clear of sheer fabrics and spaghetti straps, and you’re golden. 

Business casual dresses and skirts

While skirts and dresses are frequently viewed as semi-formal, they can work for business casual as well. No doubt, you’ll find them particularly useful in the summer months, when bare legs are a welcome reprieve from the heat and humidity. And yes, in case you were wondering, it’s 2020, bare legs are appropriate for the office, casual Friday or not. 

Dresses and skirts, of course, come with the usual caveats that shouldn’t surprise anyone. Wear them, wear them every day if you want but for Pete’s sake, manage the hemline. Hemlines should never creep more than a few inches above the knee, and slits should be modest as well. The best time to check your hemline’s propriety is when you’re trying on a dress or a skirt. Think about how comfortable (or uncomfortable) you would be sitting down, walking up a flight of stairs, or getting into/out of a car.

A few style tips

  • In addition to managing your hemlines, be sure to manage your necklines as well. Keep the cleavage to a minimum.
  • Casual refers to a style, not the presentation, be sure that clothes are clean and wrinkle-free
  • Pair bold print pieces with minimal items (For example, pair a bold print top with black slacks)
  • Don’t be afraid to infuse some color into your wardrobe

When you’re curating your business casual wardrobe, be sure to remain mindful of your workplace culture. While business casual for women is a bit more relaxed, your employer undoubtedly expects you to look kempt, polished, and representative of the organization — at all times.