Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Business Casual for Women

Thinking back to the Sunday event I attended a few weeks ago, I swing back around to something that confuses me consistently: what is business casual for women? how do I decide what appropriate business casual is, for me and for any event?

Our event was a networking/business opportunity, and yet I felt very few of the women (including me) addressed it as such. Instead, it felt like a Sunday afternoon party, where some business talk emerged--but it didn't feel as if we were women in the same profession gathered for a business-related event that included makeovers and advice about presenting a professional self.

Business casual: clothing worn to a less conservative workplace, or on casual days in a conservative workplace, or to a conference or out-of-environment meeting, retreat or other event that evokes a more relaxed atmosphere than the daily workplace. (This is my definition, by the way.)

Men vs. Woman Business Casual, as I see it.

In general, I've noticed men have a simple business casual uniform: khakis/Dockers (in khaki colors), knit polos or button-up oxfords or plaid cotton shirts, leather lace-ups or loafers + belt and a ubiquitous sports jacket (sometimes also khaki/stone/biscuit/beige).

This "uniform," which replicates the uniforms at Besy Buy and other big box stores, will work for men on Casual Friday, at conventions, at retreats or other HR events and in any workplace that doesn't require a short/suit/tie combo. A watch, a shave and a neat haircut: good to go.

Men just out of college might start with a t-shirt and jeans, but quickly switch to the easy care, easily maintained uniform. With fabrics that resist wrinkles, in a variety of price levels and with slightly different details (pockets, pleats, shades), any man can be appropriate anywhere.


The rules are different and more complicated for women than for men. So are the possibilities.

First: the atmosphere/expectations of your workplace. Which breaks down to:
  • Where on the spectrum of conservative/liberal does your workplace fall?
  • How does your boss dress?
  • How does your boss's boss dress?
  • How does the highest-ranking woman in your office dress?
  • How do people at your level dress?
Wisdom: dress for the job you want, not the job you have.

Second: the hierarchy structures of your office. For example:
  • Are you the only, one of the few, or one of the many women in your office?
  • Are you the youngest, middle-aged, in the middle of the age group, older than your office peers?
  • Are you an executive, executive staff, middle management, middle staff, etc.?
Third: you.
  • Are you on the conservative or liberal side of the dressing scale?
  • Do you need to wear pants rather than skirts for practical reasons?
  • Is there a uniform, literally? Or a uniform, metaphorically?
  • Are you moving up or passing time, for example as you launch a career as a writer outside the office block?
  • Do you want to be taken seriously, listened to, promoted: in general noticed
Let's circle back around to my meeting that didn't feel professional.

The meeting didn't feel professional. Why? I suspect because most women were there in jeans and t-shirts or casual smock tops. Almost no one appeared to be there in a completely planned head-to-toe outfit. And, okay, I know that feels beyond a Sunday afternoon when we're all there to have fun, but again I say, it was professional.

I suspect many of the women would cite the "artistic" nature of the group (we all work in artistic communication) or the Sunday afternoon timing or even the DFW overall location (a general excuse for super-casual style) as the "reason" for their non-business/non-business casual dress. Sadly, I think these have become what I call "go to" excuses in our overly .

Here are some webposts about business casual:
Wardrobe Oxygen: specifics about business casual
Houston Chronicle: compares the difference between "business" and "business casual"
The Learning Channel: explains business casual
Virginia Tech: simple, straightforward guidelines (!) to business casual whats, whens and hows for soon-to-be-grads.


  1. Ya everything what you said is right.....I agree with your suggestions as well as your speech...Thanks for sharing this blog......


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