Business dress for the casual girl?
October 1, 2009 10:17 AM   Subscribe

After a few years of hoodies and flip-flops, I'm re-entering a business-casual work environment - slightly clueless and very reluctant about dressing up. Help me adhere to the dress code and look good while maximizing comfort and minimizing effort.

Corporate dress codes aren't completely foreign to me: my first few jobs were in business-casual offices. However, I guess they were foreign enough to me that I was approached by two different bosses at two different jobs about needing to dress better. (On both occasions, I asked for ideas/examples of how to improve, and both times I heard "You know that suit you wore to your interview? You looked really great then.") I amassed a collection of twinsets and crinkly dry-clean-only skirts, but I felt dowdy and uncomfortable in them. And I got really, really tired of having to think about putting together work outfits. All in all, not a pleasant experience for me, and it's left me with a vague dread of dress codes in general.

The last time anyone cared what I wore to work was early 2006. Since then, my work environments have become increasingly relaxed: from unenforced business-casual, to casual, to working at home. I love having the freedom to wear what I want to work, and I love working for people who are more interested in my ideas than my wardrobe.

It probably goes without saying that my wardrobe has gotten more and more casual over the past couple of years, too. I've given away a lot of my old work clothes, and I haven't needed to replace them with similar pieces. My typical daily outfit is a t-shirt/tank top, a knit skirt or yoga pants, a track-ish jacket or hoodie, and flip-flops or sporty flats.

In a few weeks, however, I'll be back in an office with a business-casual dress code. I can't very well roll up to work in a tracksuit, as much as I wish I could. I have a few nice skirts and sweaters from my old office days, but for the most part I'm starting from scratch.

Trouble is, I don't particularly like styles that are suit-y or dressy. I've gone window-shopping with the intent of getting ideas for what I could wear to work, and every time I find myself getting shrugging at the career clothing and drifting into the juniors' or sportswear departments. I'm also not into wearing clothes or shoes that I can't walk a mile in. And I prefer my clothes to be as low-maintenance as possible – in the past, anything that's required ironing or dry-cleaning has stayed wadded in a stale wrinkly ball in the back of my closet.

Ideally, I'd like to throw on an outfit in under a minute, walk to work, and look awesome. Too unrealistic? I'd settle for not feeling like I'm wearing a uniform and not wanting to change into pajamas the second I get home.

And if that weren't picky enough, I'd like to get my work wardrobe together without spending very much money or adding too much stuff. I know I'll need to buy a few things (I have only one pair of dressy pants, for example) but I'd really rather not get a whole ton of new clothes.

I've never found a resource that has been particularly helpful. Most advice seems to fall either into "you'll know what's appropriate when you see it" or "you should wear whatever upper management is wearing."

So I'm looking for advice on what to wear, what to look for in work clothes, how to plan outfits, etc. I'm not completely new to dressing up for work, but I feel like I could stand to learn a lot, so even the most basic Garanimals-level tips are fine by me.
posted by Metroid Baby to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (30 answers total) 64 users marked this as a favorite
I'm the same way. I have found solutions in plain, just past the knee-length skirts, sweaters or colored shirts/blouses, and flats. You can get that stuff easily second-hand for very cheap, and I was able to go business casual and still bike commute through the winter. If you're walking, it's worth investing in a decent pair or two of flats. I usually opt for a black pair and a brown pair, just so I can mix it up. And... it doesn't hurt to have a suit on hand for the occasional very Special Occasion. Oh, and you'll need a few solid pairs of leggings for when it gets cold.

If you don't like skirts, slacks are also an option. But in my experience, they are usually more work, often less comfortable, and generally harder to find second-hand.

Good luck!
posted by lunit at 10:24 AM on October 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

Watch like 5 or so episodes of What Not to Wear on TLC -- they give very concrete hints on what clothes should look and fit like.
posted by brainmouse at 10:28 AM on October 1, 2009

I am totally with you. Here's what I do: plain pants and tops. Mix a neutral on top/bottom with either another neutral or a color. So me today: black top, olive green pants, black shoes (Born sandals). Yesterday: black pants and a maroon top. Black shoes. Mix and match, and you're golden.

In the summers I actually go for dresses. Way easy, cooler than pants, and since I'm able to skip stockings, it takes me that one minute you're striving for.

Garanimals. I get bored with it sometimes, but eh.
posted by Stewriffic at 10:29 AM on October 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

My usual outfit in my business casual office consists of a solid-colored fitted t-shirt (I like Old Navy or the Merona Ultimate shirts from Target), pants (most of mine are from New York & Company, I wash them at home and have never had to iron them), a cardigan, and comfortable flats (or sandals in the summer). Sometimes in the winter I'll wear a sweater instead, and occasionally I'll wear a skirt in the summer. I do mix it up a bit from time to time, but this is my outfit at least 65% of the time.

My shoes, pants and cardigans are all neutral colors (black, gray, tan, brown), and my tops are all bright colors, so it's really easy to mix and match. Today, for example, I'm wearing tan pants, brown shoes, and a brown sweater over a cranberry red shirt. (On preview: what Stewriffic does.)
posted by LolaGeek at 10:32 AM on October 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

My solution was knit long skirts, paired with knit shirts. Specifically, "Necessary Knit" from Lands' End. It's 100% cotton (I hate synthetic fibers), but goes from washer to dryer to your body with no ironing needed. I bought the skirt in every color, then matched the shirts. For example, you can get the skirt in "Spicy Brown". I then searched their website for shirts in "Spicy Brown" because they use the same name for their colors, so they match exactly. Because they are skirts, they look nice enough. Because they are knit, they feel like wearing pajamas to work.

Another specific brand is Chico's, specifically their Travelers line. It's basically a knit fabric, that can be washed and dried (no dry cleaning), and does not require ironing. They are extremely comfortable and everything basically matches easily. Again, the secret is that the skirts look "fancier" than pants, but with the material they are just as (or more) comfortable. The sizes are different than normal, but once you get your size identified everything else is pretty easy.
posted by Houstonian at 10:36 AM on October 1, 2009

Metroid baby: How important is looking stylish vs. feeling comfortable?
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 10:38 AM on October 1, 2009

(They're not mutually exclusive, but most things that feel like pajamas in my opinion also look like you've given up.)
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 10:39 AM on October 1, 2009 [2 favorites]

You don't need to get anything dry-clean only or that requires ironing for business casual. I always skip that stuff when I'm shopping--if I can't toss it in the washing machine, hang it to dry and wear it the next day, I won't buy it.

That said, here are a few things I learned when I went from a casual to business casual environment:

Quality over quantity: Buy one really good pair of black pants instead of three crappy pairs. I have a pair of Liz Clairborn pants that seemed expensive at the time but have lasted three years with no signs of fading. I've gone through many, many pairs of cheap pants in that same timeframe.

Keep it simple: make a uniform for yourself, at least to start.

Be realistic about shoes: I prefer to wear heels at work, because wandering around on carpet doesn't make my feet hurt. One block on cement and I'm in pain. You can cheap out a bit more on shoes if you wear flats to commute in and keep fun heels at the office to change into.

When you say you don't like suit-y type clothing, are you ruling out jackets entirely? I love wearing jackets to work. They dress up everything, so I can even wear jeans on non-Fridays (sometimes). I have a few cheap-ish jackets from the Gap and Old Navy that I constantly get compliments on. Plus, they keep me warm but don't make me feel dowdy the way sweaters do.

Tuesday I wore Liz Claiborne black pants, a pink shirt thing from NY&Co., and a black cardigan from Ann Taylor Loft (outlet) and black heels. Yesterday I wore brown NY&Co pants, a purple t-shirt from Target, a green jacket from the Gap, and cheap purple flats from some no-name store. Today I'm wearing black NY&Co pants, a black t-shirt from H&M, a cheap velour purple and black jacket from some no-name store, and black boots. None of these outfits cost more than $50 and are mostly mix-and-matchable.

Stores I shop in most frequently: H&M, NY&Co, JC Penney. I have found some stuff at Goodwill, TJ Maxx and Marshalls as well. Stores I'd shop in if they were around here: Kohls, the Limited. I always check the sales at Ann Taylor and Ann Taylor Loft, although I don't often find stuff there. I almost only buy from the sales racks at any store listed above. Also look online for printable coupons before you go in--JC Penney usually has something online.

Seconding watching a few episodes of What Not to Wear. I also really like the Lucky Shopping Manual.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 10:39 AM on October 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

I dress like Stewriffic when I need to "dress up" I find that one of the things that can really make it look like you've made an effort as opposed to a grudging acceptance of having to wear pants, is wearing accessories, being clean, and looking confident/happy. So wear things that are okay with you, don't just feel like you're going in costume for someone else. I am the slobbiest slob person, but I can pull this off okay. It helps to have a routine [i.e. not just have five mix/match outfits, but plan to do all laundry in one day, have enough socks, or eight pairs of basically the same socks, etc]. A few tips

- have something to do with your hair that looks nice and is simple. My hair is shoulder length and I twist it on the back of my head and put it in a nice barette. Takes no time, I can do it if it's wet or dry, and having a decent looking barette is the only cost. Works if I'm not even clean. Wearing my hair up means no frequent haircuts.
- wear decent accessories. This doesn't need to be Fashion Bug nonsense, it can be a nice watch, a ring or two and decent earrings. Often a totally boring pants/fitted shirt outfit can look "dressy" if you're wearing a nice scarf or a nice necklace. These can also be funkier and more to your taste.
- wear nice shoes. Not like OMG fancy, but dressy enough and ones you can walk in and be comfortable in. Nothing says "I don't care about this place" than four year old beat up clogs. Often you can even get away with boots or clogs if they're shined/polished and go with what you're wearing.
- grooming - have your nails and skin look good. wear makeup if you do that sort of thing, otherwise just have a clean face and teeth, smile decently, smell okay (either neutral or a pretty subtle fragrance) and look confident.

So, for the garanimals shopping list, I'd try to have 3-5 pairs of slacks, 3-5 fitted shirts or some sort of shirt you can wear under another top in solids and tasteful prints, 1-2 blazers or overjacket things, 3-5 sweaters [v-neck, cardigan, fuzzy] and a few short sleeved dressy tops that you can wear when it's hot out. Buy a few pieces of jewelry that you like if you don't have any [ask for it for gifts from people if this is a bank-breaker] and a few nice things for your hair. Have a nice warm coat [if you live anywhere with winter] and a nice hat and some boots.

At the end of the day, make your peace with it. For whatever reason you're back in business casual world and it may not be your choice but it's what you've got. Try to find thigns to wear that you're not activelly rebelling against and once you're at work try to rock whatever outfit you decide you've chosen for the day. Good luck.
posted by jessamyn at 10:41 AM on October 1, 2009 [5 favorites]

Ann Taylor LOFT has amazing sales (full price is way outside of my budget) and their clothes are really well made (won't fall apart if thrown in the washer).

I usually go with neutral bottoms and then different color shirts and neutral jackets.
posted by Neekee at 10:45 AM on October 1, 2009

I have a business-casual job. I wear a lot of v-neck sweaters with button down shirts. Like someone said above, neutral colors, although black sweater + colorful shirt goes over well. I don't wear skirts; for fall/winter I like fine wale corduroys. They feel just like jeans but look more professional. Check resale shops (not Goodwill) in nice neighborhoods; they're pretty picky about what they take and you can get some great stuff.
posted by desjardins at 10:54 AM on October 1, 2009

I'm in a business casual environment as well, though occasionally I skew more towards the casual than I should.

I follow the Stewriffic method of dressing - black on either top or bottom, solid color on the alternate. (Today is black tunic top, grey patterned mid-calf skirt, black thigh-high socks and black flats.)

You also can't often go wrong with a nice pair of khakis.

I have quite a few Coldwater Creek items. If you can get in during a sale on their website, you can stock up on basics for a low price. (Their Travel Knit items, I believe that's what they're called, are very nice looking and don't need to be ironed.)
posted by Lucinda at 10:59 AM on October 1, 2009

The easiest dressed-up look I've found is the boot + plain shift dress -- it's simple, doesn't take long and still looks nice. If it's cold, you can add thick tights. I wear a variation of this most days now - i have a pair of boots in brown and black and just pair it with whatever shift matches best.
posted by ukdanae at 11:00 AM on October 1, 2009 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: How important is looking stylish vs. feeling comfortable?

That's a pretty good question. The short answer is my sense of style skews towards more casual/comfortable clothing; I genuinely prefer the way I look in T-shirts and jeans than in blouses and jackets.

So I probably look like I've given up to some people, but on the other hand dressy work outfits generally look to me like the person spends two hours getting ready for work. Difference of perspective, really.
posted by Metroid Baby at 11:04 AM on October 1, 2009

If you have several twinsets or blouses that are work-appropriate, buy a few pairs of classic trousers (like these or these or these) and a couple pairs of dressy but comfortable heels, loafers, or boots. Then mix and match.

I've had good luck picking up trousers in that style at thrift stores or on sale, so I've linked to a couple pricier ones just for the look, but you should be able to find a few pairs without breaking the bank.

You can accessorize if that feels too monotonous, but the above formula takes no time to throw together in the morning.
posted by Meg_Murry at 11:05 AM on October 1, 2009

I wear black or charcoal grey pants most days, with a variety of knit tops, sweaters, and buttoned shirts. Now that normal looking skirts are coming back I am wearing them, too. This means I can get away with black shoes only, instead of having to have brown ones.

For shoes, I tend to get away with slip on loafer-y types like this. (Ok, not those exact ones, usually Naturalizers) They are not terribly stylish but they are usually comfortable and won't get any strange looks. Since you wear flip-flops you might prefer ballet flats, which are everywhere (Target has a bunch of different ones) but I don't find them all that comfortable. Boots are great too.
posted by cabingirl at 11:05 AM on October 1, 2009

OK, I think I see what you're saying. My recommendations for the comfortable business-casual wardrobe tends to be along the lines of corduroy skirt and high boots. The Flickr Wardrobe Remix group is great for looking at actual peoples' style, so check out these folks for examples of what I think of:

These people look pretty comfortable.

Also, Eddie Bauer frequently has suiting separates that are washable, but I've never seen them in person.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 11:23 AM on October 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

It might help you to be inspired. (The idea of "dressing for the office" is not very inspiring.) There is a website I like -- The Sartorialist -- which posts photographs of people in the street who dress beautifully. Most of them seem to have money, but not all of them -- and one can still get ideas on what looks good and even professional while not being utterly conventional.
posted by adamfaux at 11:24 AM on October 1, 2009

Along the lines of inspiration, I am absolutely in love with the Academic Chic blog. The site description is pretty apt: "Three feminist PhD candidates at a Midwest university, on a crusade against the ill-fitting polyester suit of academic yore."

I think the majority of their outfits strike the perfect balance between professional and creative, and they also do some amazing work with color mixing and matching. Plus, they list where all the pieces came from, and most are pretty reasonable.
posted by sarahsynonymous at 11:41 AM on October 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

Remember, the key is balance. Think of a perfect business dress: suit, perfect hair, perfect makeup, nice heels. Choose three.

You can get away with wearing a nice t-shirt, if you're pairing it with heels and make up. If you don't have time to do your hair, put it in a ponytail and throw on your suit jacket. No matter what, find the time to put on mascara and a decent lipstick. These two things can make you look pulled together more than most outfits.

(personally, I hate the makeup routine, it's the biggest time suck of my morning. But it makes the biggest difference.)

Find a great pair of pumps and hide them under your desk. Wear reasonably fashionable flats while walking to work, change shoes first thing.

Knit cardigans are a great faux-suit look. My only complaint is that they lose shape fairly quickly, so I'm always buying new ones. And you can hide all manners of casual tops underneath.

Limit your wardrobe to a few color options so that you don't have to think about what you're putting on. Even when I'm suiting up, I never spend more than a minute or two on clothes.
posted by politikitty at 11:55 AM on October 1, 2009

How secure is the jobsite, i.e. - could you hang around outside the door at 9am or 5pm and watch what the women are wearing as they enter/exit? Not in a creepy way, of course.
posted by CathyG at 12:13 PM on October 1, 2009

Great thread! I've been able to find nearly all the quality names upthread at local thrift stores & church sales.
posted by apartment dweller at 12:13 PM on October 1, 2009

Two words:

1. Banana
2. Republic
posted by randomstriker at 12:22 PM on October 1, 2009

I have read Kendall Farr's books on how to dress. It was amazing to me how little I understood about how to dress for office casual. She knows what she is talking about, it isn't expensive and doesn't take a lot of time. The first thing she says is to get a really good haircut and some good shoes. Having crappy hair will make a great outfit look sloppy, and bad shoes can ruin a look too.

I would second the J Jill clothes, but it really depends on your age. I can still shop at Gap and J Crew, but no longer American Eagle or Abercrombie.

And the best way to figure this out, by far, is to look at the other people you work with. Some days at my job I have to go out in public, and I try to dress better on those days. That said, dark jeans can look great with the right accessories and a good white blouse.
posted by chocolatetiara at 12:28 PM on October 1, 2009

Your description sounds exactly like what Eileen Fisher, Misook, JJill Wearever and most eco-wear companies were made for. Easy to care for (Misook is all machine wash, for instance), easily mixed and matched, not trendy but not frumpy. You can also try the Gap uniform (chinos and t-shirts) in slightly nicer fabrics. With a low heel and not-casual jewelry, you look business, not casual.

If you pair it with Clarks or a similar shoe, you look grown-up business-casual, not rolled out of bed to the grocery store.
posted by crush-onastick at 12:56 PM on October 1, 2009

I get the most comments on being "dressed up" in my business casual office when I wear black slacks like these and a black button-down. Go figure! Generally, I wear knee-length skirts or comfy cotton (avoid polyester) slacks with sweaters or button-downs, though sometimes I wear a plain T-shirt. The trick is to tuck in the shirt. Feels dowdy, but does the trick.

I agree with what politikitty says about changing shoes at work, except I say: leave your professional flats in your desk and change into your preferred walking shoes (I like sneakers) after work. If it's a business casual environment, it should be perfectly acceptable to wear flats.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 1:21 PM on October 1, 2009

Response by poster: This is really helpful, thank you all! I'm feeling a bit reassured that comfortable business casual seems pretty doable.
posted by Metroid Baby at 1:29 PM on October 1, 2009

Maybe this is waaayy off base, but you might consider getting a few blouses or sweaters from somewhere like Anthropologie. Most of the suggestions above sound pretty simple/plain- maybe if you have more interesting options dressing won't be so daunting. Even the more wildly patterned tops will look professional with nice pants and shoes. And a shirt like this one is made of jersey but is much more interesting than a twinset. But this may just be my bias for all things Anthropologie talking :)

Also, whenever I buy a piece of clothing I always imagine at least two other items I can wear it with- that way I never feel like I don't know what to wear.
posted by Mouse Army at 6:36 PM on October 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

Two good points made above
1] good grooming is more than clothes
2] "travel" collections are easy to wear and easy to care for.

Good grooming is clothes that fit properly. They are not stained. Hair, skin, and fingernails neat and clean. I agree with the posters who recommend GOOD QUALITY shoes, which are well maintained. Keep it simple, spend more money on the bottoms [skirts or pants] and keep them in a few solid shades. Never buy silly, overly styled, or faddishly embellished clothing. The individual pieces of clothing should not attract attention. The outfit when it's put together should be unremarkable to the point of forgettable. The accessories should be simple and good quality.

Travel collections are usually more comfortable and wear well without dry cleaning or ironing. I personally don't like travel clothes made from acetate and spandex-- too clingy and sheer. Tencel and Rayon don't wear well, at most you'll get a year out of them. I love polyester/rayon/spandex fabrics and the new nylon fabrics. I have a travel outfit from LLBean that I've been wearing for 10 years, a travel dress from Lands End that I've had for 12 years. I have shirts from Travelsmith that I wear over and over and over again.
posted by ohshenandoah at 7:50 PM on October 1, 2009 [2 favorites]

I'm also not into wearing clothes or shoes that I can't walk a mile in.

There is such a thing as a comfortable dress shoe, and I'm not one of those women who swears "oh these three-inch pumps are so comfortable, really."

If flats are appropriate, there you are. If you're short like me, short ankle boots can be really nice. These are similar to my work shoes, which I walk all over in. The thick heel helps.

The rule I've always heard: if you buy heels, make sure the heel comes as close as possible to straight off the back of the shoe. The more it's set in, the less it's supporting you correctly. Think this, not this.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 12:41 PM on October 2, 2009

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