Women Dress Code Decoded, Business Casual Dos and Don’ts

When the invite for that office activity requires “Business Casual” dress code, it doesn’t mean “dress as comfy as you want.” And as much as you would love to wear your beloved 2003 oversized jeans, when it comes to business, it is important to keep things professional. Starting with your outfit.

Do not mistake, however, business casual for boring casual. This is a dress code that intends to relax the formality of a business suit and allows you to dress more comfortable, but still professional. So yes, you can wear some color, take some fashion risks, and add your own personality to your business casual outfit.

Business Casual dress code, clothes and accesories in red and white

When it comes to dress code “business casual” consider a look with vintage flare – Photo: Polyvore @veromezzini

Dos and don’ts of an often-ambiguous dress code

Do know the basics. These pieces are the bread and butter for a business casual attire, and you should always have them handy in your closet:

  • A pair of dress pants with a matching jacket. Not necessarily the same color and fabric
  • A skirt with a twin set sweater
  • A classic dress to pair with a knitted jacket
  • Chino pants with a blouse and scarf

Do add some flavor.  Mix and match with your classic, solid color staples with some floral prints pieces, stripes or polka dot blouses, scarfs and shirts.

Read about beyond the traditional executive presence definition here.

Don’t show too much skin. If you think of your company’s Sunday brunch as an opportunity to boost your self-steam by feeling a little bit sexy, well… that is neither the time nor the place. We are not talking about looking boyish, but feminine, classy and appropriate all the time.

Avoid a neckline that falls 3–3 ½ inches below your clavicle line. For skirts, they shouldn’t be shorter than 3–4 inches above your knee.

Avoid wearing tight clothes, and save those romantic transparencies for that blind date your best friend is arranging for you. Always wear medium to long shirt sleeves and leave your favorite tank top at home unless a jacket conveniently covers it.

Business Casual attire with blue pant and white jacket

Cover your tank top with a blazer or jacket. Photo: Polyvore @veromezzini

Do use denim very carefully. Before jumping into a fabulous pair of jeans, consider the people you are meeting and where the event is taking place. My advice, don’t take the risk when the dress code is business casual. Just save them for casual Fridays.

Here's a great video with more dos and don'ts for business casual dress code.

Business Casual Accessories, the “Danger Zone”

Business casual is the perfect dress code to add some color and “fab factor” to your outfit.  Accessories are the right tools to do it. When it comes to work attire, however, the line between looking cool and modern, and dressing inappropriately, is too thin. So let’s be careful.

Shoes and bags. You are not going to a barbecue, a movie, or a restaurant with friends. Then, resist the temptation to wear those trendy, enormous platform shoes you are dying for, and choose a pair of shoes, sandals or boots that are nice, fashionable but suitable for business.

Women legs wearing white skirt and red shoes- business casual dress code

Add some color to your Business Casual outfit – A great dress code to show your personality. Photo: iStock

Say yes to high heels, but wear those with a medium height, 4 inches or less. You can always marry bright color shoes with a neutral outfit and matching jewelry.

When its come to bags, prefer medium size handbags or purses. However, an oversized tote as a focal point could be great if you keep the rest of the outfit as simple as possible.

Lola Ramona Purse vintage in black and white works well with a business casual dress code

Lola Ramona Purse, perfect for a business casual dress code

Jewelry. Avoid chunky necklaces, big earrings, and high fashion accessories in general, unless they are used as a subtle accent. For example, a touch of rose gold, a nice vintage piece of jewelry or a designer watch. Quality materials and impeccable design are the number one rule when it comes to business casual attires.

And last but not least, do pay attention to hair, makeup, mani-pedi and perfume. When in doubt, rely on the “less is more” mantra. I promise you will ace your business casual attire.

Using Color to Dress for Success for Women

Can you influence your company’s professional dress code?

Most articles about dress for success for women are either interview tips for women on appropriate professional dress code or advice on how to project executive presence (Want to find out how? Take this Executive Presence Quiz). Yet in an increasingly multicultural workforce, what does it mean to dress for success? Whose professional dress code are we all following?

If the “inclusion” side of the “diversity and inclusion” effort is to succeed, workplaces will need to become more accepting of other cultures’ version of dress for success. In other words, multicultural employees must start influencing what dress for success for women looks like in a 21st century work environment and not only be influenced by it.

Dress for success for women —One professional dress code doesn’t fit all

It’s a fact that the first thing anyone notices about you is not only the color of your skin but also the color of your clothes. Colors have a physical and psychological impact both on the wearer and on others. So it’s important to understand the subconscious messages you might be –unwillingly- sending out.

Dress for success -Know your colors

The following section was adapted from Colour Affects, a London-based company specialized in color psychology and its effect on people. The chart below focuses on color’s impact on people regardless of their culture, and not color symbolism (“the conscious associations that we are conditioned to make”[1]).

Nothing like knowing the psychological effect of color in people to dress for success. FInd out how to do it here.

Nothing like knowing the psychological effect of color in people to dress for success

You’ll notice that there are positive and negative aspects to each color. Being aware of both will help you make the right choice for the right situation.

RED –Positive: courage, strength, energy. 
Negative: Defiance, aggression, strain.

BLUE – Positive: Intelligence, communication, trust, efficiency, serenity. Negative: Coldness, aloofness, lack of emotion.

Positive: Optimism, confidence, friendliness, creativeness. 
Negative: Irrationality, fear, emotional fragility, depression.

Positive: Harmony, balance, refreshment, reassurance, peace. 
Negative: Boredom, stagnation, blandness.

VIOLET – Positive: Vision, luxury, authenticity, truth, quality. Negative: Introversion, decadence, inferiority.

ORANGE – Positive: Warmth, security, passion, abundance, fun. 
Negative: Deprivation,frustration, frivolity, immaturity.

PINK – Positive: Physical tranquility, nurture, warmth, femininity, love. Negative: Inhibition,emotional claustrophobia, physical weakness.

GREY – Positive: Psychological neutrality. 
Negative: Lack of confidence, dampness, depression,lack of energy.

Positive: Sophistication, glamour, security, emotional safety, efficiency, substance. Negative: Oppression, coldness, menace, heaviness.

If you love to wear bright colors, it can be intimidating to walk into a room filled with men and women dressed in black. It can feel oppressive. Likewise, showing up with a bright orange dress in such an environment might shock people not used to such displays of boldness. They might make assumptions about you (that you are immature, for instance) that could affect your career opportunities.

Dress for Success for Women – When to introduce your ideas

When your own take on dress for success differs substantially from what you see around you, figuring out what to wear can be daunting. The newer you are in a job, the more careful you must be. As people get to know your ideas, values, and work ethic, they will naturally become more accepting of your dressing idiosyncrasies. That’s the perfect time to introduce your version of dress for success for women!

Each woman at Scotiabank in El Salvador has figured out how to make her own professional dress code work within the corporate culture

Each woman at Scotiabank in El Salvador has figured out how to make her own professional dress code work within the corporate culture

Should you adjust to a professional dress code that differs from your culture?

The answer depends on your career goals, your organization, and the industry where you work. In more conservative industries such as banking, finance, or accounting, it’s harder to break away from the professional dress code. If you work in a more progressive industry such as technology, fashion, or publishing, you will have less trouble carrying out your own version of dress for success for women.

Small tweaks can go a long way

If projecting executive presence is critical for you, you might need to adjust to the dress code favored by your industry. This means that you will have to turn down the volume on anything that clashes too much with the reigning fashion.

For example, I’m partial to bright blue, but when I present to a corporate audience I choose a more subtle shade. Or I’ll carry a purse in a brighter shade of blue. My main concern is to avoid taking the attention away from my message. And here is the key. Dress for success for Women is about dressing so that people can focus on who you are beyond the clothes you wear. What makes you relevant for their teams? Why should they think of you when there’s a great opportunity?

Feeling comfortable is key in dressing for success for women

You can’t dress for success if you feel like a prisoner inside your clothes. (Why wear black if it depletes you of energy?) When it comes to dressing for success for women, you have to strike a balance between the colors, look, and fit that express your culture and personality, and the professional dress code at work. (And this is likely to be an unwritten dress code!)

Three tips for using color to dress for success

  1. Check your closet and determine your color palette. Identify the colors that you feel most comfortable with and evaluate how appropriate they are for your work environment. If you decide that they’ll make you stand out in a less than beneficial way, consider wearing an accessory or a lighter hue of your favorite color.
The RSM Signature charm allows you to make a subtle statement about your style

The RSM Signature charm allows you to make a subtle statement about your style and you can buy them at our online Shop.

  1. Wear your accessories with pride! A lot has been written about the impact that accessories have when it comes to dress for success for women in the workplace. And yes, it’s true that less is generally more. But for Latinas and other women of color, it is particularly difficult to leave our accessories behind. I have a huge (and I mean HUGE) collection of custom jewelry from all over the world. It’s my trademark. I use my necklaces as a way for people to start a conversation with me. But I’m aware of how distracting these pieces can be, so in certain situations I chose a smaller piece. Dress for success for women is always about what works for you and your career goals.
  1. Observe high-ranking women at your job, then tweak. Does the professional dress code of female executives closely resemble the dominant male style? Is there room for you to grow in the company with a “tweaked” version of the “company-sanctioned” dress code? Try it! If you want to be part of a new breed of leaders who are changing the workplace you’ll have to start by pushing the boundaries a small push at a time. (If you need extra help to change the culture, you can always lead the way by implementing Red Shoe Tuesday at your company!)

It’s all about keeping your career goals front and center. If you are new at a company, test the waters. If you have been at your job for a while and have a more established personal brand, you can be more daring. But if you want to change things for you and for generations of women to come you need to influence the established professional dress code currently in place. You don’t need to do it all at once. Small steps go a long way in gaining acceptance.

[1] Colour Affects