How women who dress business casual are perceived in the office

Women often feel stifled or judged at the office, and that includes how they dress. Stress around dress is usually on the confusing category of business casual. While the rules of work attire and dressing up overall have relaxed in the last century (we once dressed formally to shop at the grocery store), women likely face challenges. SimplyHired said less than half of American workplaces have a dress code, so business casual is here to stay. But how are women looked upon for dressing down? Should women hoodie up like Zuckerberg, put on a fitted pantsuit like Clinton, or navigate something in-between?

First, women are doing well at work. They outearn their spouses, they read on how to strategize their career and they lead in the office despite the many challenges they face. Should a fashion choice influence how all those other qualities are perceived by coworkers or interviewers? 

No, but it does.  Here is how women are perceived for their dress:

Dressing is branding

Your style of dress is a tool in your branding kit. “My clients have said, ‘When I’ve had a wardrobe designed, I felt better with all men at the boardroom table’ and that’s what a wardrobe should achieve, a sense of ease,” said Mary Lou Andre, Founder of Dressing Well, “If you don’t manage your brand, your brand manages you.”

Repurpose clothing as a tool to achieve goals. Get rid of the 50 to 80 percent of your wardrobe that causes you to second guess perception of how you’ll look for a new client meeting, or even just putting yourself together, and dress simply and sharp, to achieve a great brand and yourself feel on top of goals.

Women are bucking norms without as much consequence

Some women now go braless at work and choose to wear clothing that doesn’t cover tattoos. The rules of dress and work have changed, without hits to pay or hours for the most part. 

However, that can backfire and make women appear less professional, especially in professional environments. “Know your audience,” Samantha Brown, a New York City celebrity stylist who serves close to fifty clients a month, told The Ladders. 

If you’re in a higher-up position you can set the tone. Consider who you’re interacting with and your goals for the day. If you need to be relatable you can wear something a little more casual,” maybe with a nice pair of shoes or a watch to set off the look. “If you need to command the room, it helps to dress up a little more,” said Brown, who helps design the signature looks for the boardroom to the bar.

Women who dress well are paid well

A 2016 study found a correlation between women dressing well and being paid better at work. A survey by PayScale found the same as well for both men and women, with those who dress in business attire making nearly $20,000 more in salary than those who wear uniforms. It might just be that those higher-paying workplaces, perhaps a law firm or government office, require a skirt or a suit, but it might also influence state of mind. 

“Are you trying to get promoted? It’s important to look like you’re there to work. There are things that are always off-limits, even for business casual, like flip-flops, athleisure, and athletic wear. It’s important to stay within the parameters of a professional appearance,” Brown said. 

People who dress well are stronger thinkers

Another study found people who put on business attire, like a suit or skirt and blouse, processed information differently as they felt the power to link abstract concepts more easily. It said, “The findings demonstrate that the nature of every day and ecologically valid experience, the clothing worn, influences cognition broadly, impacting the processing style that changes how objects, people, and events are construed.” So dressing smart makes you feel smart.

Business casual usually looks fine for women in more relaxed offices

Business casual has very broad strokes. It depends on office expectations and if you’re new around the place. If you are interviewing for a position, including dressing up as part of your checklist to prepare. You can always scale it down if you notice tee shirts populating cubicles.

“As a new hire pay close attention to your colleagues and how you’re being perceived. I say this over and over because it’s important for perception: You have to dress like you are ready to be there to do your job. I always encourage my clients to elevate a little more and have a finger on the pulse of what’s professional while keeping it trendy,” Brown reiterated.

The expectations on women and how they dress are unfortunately different. “Even showing a shorter hemline or neckline can be perceived as flirtatious or sexy, or simply unprofessional. Women have to be more careful. Look like you’re there to do your job so no one questions your authority to do it,” Brown said.

Following the leader is always a good look

“Look to your leaders,” said Brown. “What’s the tone your higher-ups are setting? You should always take your cues. If your CEO is in a hoodie, scale down within reason, maybe ditch the sport coat. But don’t let it backfire by thinking you can get away with any look. When in doubt, keep it a little more conservative.”

“You can never get in trouble dressing well. You can find yourself in trouble or being questioned by authorities at work when dressing down,” said Brown.

Stylist Edith Head once said, “You can have anything you want in life if you dress for it” so go get your promotion and your flats.