Privilege Blog

4 Rules For The Worst Dress Code Known To Womankind

Business casual is, quite simply, the devil. We all hate it. Especially when our choices may affect business outcomes, at meetings with powerful insiders, or outings with large customers.

It’s a tricky devil too. Business casual doesn’t mean more casual than your workweek clothes, but what it does mean isn’t clearly specified anywhere. Not for women, at least, especially not in male-prevalent industries. I won’t say male-dominated. Let’s just imagine a neutral playing field, otherwise known as Fake It Till We Make It.

So don’t call your female colleague and ask what she’s wearing. Go where the boys are, over to the right, and up a tad. Here’s what I mean.

The 4 Rules For Business Casual – In Male-Prevalent Industries

  1. Ask yourself, what will the boys be wearing?
  2. Anchor your outfit in one aspect of their get up, vary the rest.
  3. Go one notch more polished.
  4. Adjust for the overall girly quotient of your outfit, i.e. balance polo shirts against skirts, khakis against ruffles, and polka dots against earth tones.

Some examples. First let’s look at an “offsite,” held in your corporate offices for budget reasons, held on a Saturday just because. You’re in an industry like finance or law where you wear suits for the work week.

They wear khakis, you do the same, but cropped. They wear the ubiquitous blue blazer, you a sky blue cardigan. This way you look intentional. Too close to the boys’ gear and you look more like you’re in a costume. Too far and you take yourself out of the ring. Put on earrings you wouldn’t usually wear to work, to indicate you noticed it’s Saturday. Extra hint: khaki looks great with black.

Alternatively, let’s say your company sponsors a customer lunch reception at a national sporting event. The guys arrive in polos, khaki shorts, and sockless loafers. You wear a fitted polo in a boy color (forest green, blood red, navy), but pair it with a flippant skirt and sandals. Interesting use of color variations adds style without the risk of distracting from your first priority, business.

And finally, sometimes you’re casual with your team, and it’s almost true casual. You meet at your colleague’s house for a barbecue. The hierarchy crumbles, for a day. Guys throw caution to the wind and show up in their 15-year old metal shirt. Or the Harvard tee. Or, if techies, the Linux logo they got at that really cool conference.

Here, although you’re almost among friends, keep that small, silent scaffolding of business consciousness. Unless you’ve known these guys for 15 years, and met their wives, held their babies, cried in their offices, don’t join them in jeans and your own metal tee.

Wear shorts if it’s summer, long enough for decorum, some lace here and there. Of course, if anyone’s coming in their Crimson, pull out the Tiger equivalent, slightly shrunken to differentiate.

School pride trumps gender. And Linux love trumps everything –  technical types get a special dispensation from all of this.

Business casual is so tough because business is not, in fact, casual. If you want to rise through the ranks in most corporations, you will find that the higher up you get, the more you will need your battle-fighting capacity. Silly to waste it supporting an inappropriate wardrobe.

For other takes on business casual, Sue’s wonderful set of looks here, and Kat’s ideas about transitioning to a more casual office, here. Links may generate commissions.

51 Responses

  1. I own two Lacoste polo shirts (light blue, apple green) but always feel like I am going to a costume party if I put them on. I do not know why I own two of them!

  2. Loving these looks you’ve put together. I work in a “business casual” environment at the library, though it’s almost “academic casual”. There are maybe five women here who look nice everyday….the men must find it easier, but some of these ladies don’t like appropriate to grocery shop let alone be in a professional envirmonment. Maybe I sould circulate this post?

  3. Posts like this make me glad I work for a very small technology company where if we don’t show up in our pajamas we’re good. (Unless, of course, you’re my husband onsite with a client who happens to sell $5,0000 suits. Then you’re stuck in a tie. Which he hates.)

  4. Love this. Helpful in the corporate world, but also helpful for a suburbanite, such as myself, who must go into the city once in awhile. I’m forever at a loss as to how to dress to not draw attention to my suburban-ness, yet still feel like I haven’t gone all uptight and corporate. Thanks for the ideas.

  5. You hit the “off-site” on the head. But on the golf tourney, I think you need to call them sandals, not thongs – at first I was astonished that you were talking about ruffled underwear. (Although the sandals you pictured are not, in fact, thongs, I think that’s what you were referring to.) And alas, on the truly casual, I think you are mistaken: in my experience, Harvard is the one college whose t-shirts you cannot wear unless you are at an alumni event, or you didn’t go to school there.

    1. I never did feel right wearing my Harvard sweatshirt out of the house…and I only lived in the next town up Mass Ave from Cambridge. What is it about that? Maybe there’s some kind of microchip. :P

  6. Brilliant! I think starting with “what are the guys wearing” is a great way to narrow down what will be appropriate for the setting.

    And thanks for the nod. :-)

  7. I second the “suburban goes to the city” issue…with the extra punch of “I work at home and now must venture out into the real world” component.

    Nicely done!

  8. I love number one because that’s my husband’s “uniform” – even when working at home he wears a shirt and tie! I love that look and always envy that he looks good without putting much thought into it.
    I love the paired down female version, it’s the trousers that I need to source, every time I order ones like that they are too khaki green and it’s the beige/stone shade that I’m really after.

  9. i’m going to refer back to your analogy next time i have this dress code requirement. i tend to do a silk shell and a grey-ish blazer with neutral pants is my standby for the dreaded business casual!

  10. This makes perfect sense. I love the idea of starting with what the guys are wearing then dressing a little more polished. I used to hate the hi-tech swim parties. Ugh. There’s no way to preserve businesslike decorum in a swim suit.

  11. Although I’ve yet to return to the workforce, I am bookmarking this post. Thank you.

  12. Thank goodness I inherited a business to run…love men in ties and suits,business life seems very complicated in the US! Ida

  13. As someone who works in a male prevalent industry, I think the greatest change over the last 25 years has been the shift from a female copy of what the boys are wearing to an outfit grounded in theirs, but with definite differences. I remember in the mid 80’s, I would practically wear an identical copy of the guys’ outfits, but in my size. That looks “off” today.

  14. Great pairings! I work at an office where business casual is the norm and it can be tough, especially during the heat of the summer. I tend to go more conservative, because I’ve seen some outfits that are completely inappropriate. Guys have it so easy – a polo, khakis and loafers and they’re good to go. Sheesh!

  15. I think in Australia we call that “smart casual” and it would encompass all of your choices except the last which we would just call “casual”.

    “Smart casual” is an absolute nightmare of a dress code! Love the tips about thinking about what the men (who seem to have it easier in this case) would wear.

  16. YES! business casual is so difficult and starting from what the boys are wearing is brilliant. Being that I practice law in a small town, my daily uniform is actually a smudge more casual than business formal but more formal than business casual, so this should end up being really helpful on days I just don want to wear a matched suit.

  17. Even though my work circumstances (academic, Humanities, small university, v. small West Coast Island city) make this post virtually irrelevant to me, it’s still entertaining and instructive. I’m loving your Polyvores — and your BizCazh . . .
    but, no tidepools, no Crocs? ;-)

  18. These are great pointers.

    As for me, a great majority of my work environments have been academic (teaching and non-teaching positions); plus, as a busty, petite hourglass I look *terrible* in blazers/suits. So I’ve had decades during which I had to puzzle out what the heck to wear.

    My formula basically just rules out the formal (suits, anything stiff or severe, things that are too sparkly or might recall lingerie) the very informal (shorts, jeans, flip-flops, sneakers, most T-shirts a teenager would wear), and the too-sexy-for-work-but-great-for-going-out (anything tight or revealing, heels over 3″). Then I mix and match what’s left.

  19. Love this! Business casual really is hard, and I always envy those who make it look natural. This is a great guide. I’m going to a government lab tomorrow, and judging by the dinner crowds in town, most of the (male) scientists wear number one to work, so I will approximate the female version out of my capsule wardrobe.

  20. Agree with all though I would not, obviously wear the polka dot skirt! I always try to look just a bit better than may be required even if it is with accessories.


    Art by Karena

  21. I anchor everything to business formal, and as dress codes become relaxed, I vary ONE item.


    business formal = suit + heels + pearls (example)
    business casual = pencil skirt/trousers + smart blouse/buttonfront, heels, pearls (this is my work look)
    smart casual = trousers, blouse/shirt, flats/loafers, pearls (or replace blouse with nice tee)
    casual = trousers/girly skirt + tee + sandals/flats + pearls

    Notice I don’t let go the pearls:)

  22. Love these looks. I hate letting the guys determine what we wear. Most of them don’t have a clue, so we invent a whole wardrobe based on what the clueless would do? Sadly, I understand the reasoning and comply.

    But more importantly, why not the polka dots? And why not over 30? I want that skirt.

    1. Donna, I was in a meeting today where two women wore the same blouse and were laughing when they noticed it. A man at the meeting said that when women accidentally wear the same outfit, they think, “Oh no!” but when men do this, they think “Oh, good, I got it right!”

  23. With the most current stats indicating that only 14% of Fortune 500 company C-level jobs are held by women, I’d say all businesses are male-dominated.
    Like AN, I’ll wear pearls with all of it. For any office wear, I avoid cotton interlock “t-ahirt” fabrics.

    Antyime you’re in sandals, a fresh pedicure is essential, as “casual” never extends to grooming.

  24. In the Antipodes, people find the dress code “Smart Casual” endlessly challenging. I always think it’s better to be slightly overdressed than under dressed.

    Meanwhile can you please action a post about the Wasp’s views on curtains and window treatments in general? I’m losing sleep thinking about what length to hem my new curtains. I think you’d like them. I glued on some orange pom pom trim. Just because I could.

    Thank you.

  25. Wonderful! Start-with-what-the-guys-are-wearing-and-take-it-up-a-notch is great advice in lots of other situations, too. Doesn’t matter who the guys are, it still works!

  26. Welcome Back!

    I love business casual. I wear some version of the golf tourney look every day. I’m never, never, never, never, never, never wearing a suit + stockings again.

  27. I think this is a good approach.

    You may or may not be your most attractive in these outfits but you’ll certainly look like you belong and in these uncertain times fading into the pack (the ones who’re getting those regular paychecks) is a good thing!

  28. Hated BizCazh when I was in that world. At the university, it appears that many faculty members have gone straight past biz cazh and into schlumpy. (Tho’ I suspect they have tenure.) I’m almost always better turned-out than my colleagues, even on a bad day.

  29. You have to know how much I am loving this post — it is brilliant. The verbiage, the polyvores, all of it. My favorite rules? #s 2 and 3, just spot-on in terms of career movement (upward, ahead, not back). And the “Linux love trumps everything” crackedm e up, it has to be true. (It’s like engineers in tv, very similar I think.)

    Please forgive the giddy tone of my comment, I just love this post Miss Privilege.

  30. Miss Cavendish – Your kids haven’t swiped them yet?

    Princess Freckles – Thank you. Feel free to circulate. Maybe you can do it by sending out the link for my upcoming post, and then they can just HAPPEN to scroll down and see this:).

    Jan – In Shanghai the tradition is that the boss can come to work in his pyjamas.

    Ally Bean – Thank you. I agree, it can be useful in retirement too, when you are out and about.

    Joy – Thank you!

  31. MJ, Carla, Someone – Ha! Is the thong word generational? Thong was always the term for sandals, but you are right, only for those with the toe thong. I was around before thong underwear existed. And for the elite institution tee, I would only bring it out in an environment where I’d been working with the guys for ages, they’d already hazed me about Princeton, and would relish the opportunity to do it again.

    Harvard’s probably worse, you’re right. My sister only now will carry her 25th Reunion umbrella.

    Une femme – Thank you, and but of course.

    Jean S. – Thank you. I’d wear Look #1 for almost any work at home/meet client situation I can think of.

    Tabitha – Try Karen Millen. I own a pair and there’s not a twinge of green to be seen. How adorable your husband works in a tie even at home.

  32. Miss Sophie – That sounds perfect – the shell is feminine but the blazer masculine.

    Ms. Givens – Lucky duck!

    Susan Tiner – Oh I was going to mention that but didn’t even want to think about it!

    An American Girl – You are very welcome.

    Ida – In a way it is more complicated here, since we want to say we don’t have a class system. I love to hear that you inherited a business to run. Fantastic.

  33. DocP – Yes. I wore a bow tie to work, one day, in 1983. Vowed then and there never again.

    Jen – I know. And we put on that same outfit and look ridiculous. Sheesh indeed.

    Stephanie – Thank you very much.

    A Farmer’s Wife – We’d call that last one just casual too:). Except that if you’re at a work function, there’s always the little bit of business thinking you have to keep in place.

    A-C – My distinct pleasure.

  34. Mater – Always keep Crocs in the car, when it’s foggy with a chance of tidepools:).

    Someone – Hello there! You are right. Academic is a different beast. And they don’t even want to admit that dress codes exist.

    SSG – Thank you. And rock the penguin!

    Aleatha – I hope your lab has been a smashing success. Thank you.

    Karena – But we’d dream of the polka dot skirt, right?

  35. AN – Those pearls have become your signature, I imagine, which is another key part of career dressing at the higher levels, in my opinion.

    Donna – I know. It is what it is, and changes, slowly, all the time. In the corporate world, at executive levels, I think large polka dots are too hard to pull off. Especially with a full skirt.

    Duchesse – Sigh. Sturdy Gals are optimists. I wore t-shirts every day – but am shoulder dominant vs. bust dominant, so it worked.

    FF – YES! Love your curtains. Just don’t call them drapes…

    Laura – Thank you. And I suppose it is more widely applicable – good call.

  36. Patsy – Thank you! Good to see you! I hope you are enjoying a life of infinite flowered sandals…

    RoseAG – I figure attractive enough is good enough, and often better than wildly attractive. Work comes first.

    Rubiatonta – Someone ought to write a thesis on The Impact Of Tenure On Academic Style Or Lack Thereof.

    TPP – xoxoxoxoxox. I can imagine, suddenly, a pink and green floral print Linux penguin.

  37. Lisa,
    As adorable as these outfits are, may I still say that I hate business casual?

    Your first sentence resonated most. You had me at hello.

  38. Those top two are exactly right for any young lady lawyers reading this – related to but up a notch from what the boys are doing. That bottom set reads more tech-appropriate to me – attorney types don’t do tank tops, even at leisure (when amongst one another) – but looks good nevertheless.

  39. Nice suggestion to match up women’s attire with men’s for business casual. Loved the line “Business casual is so tough because business is not, in fact, casual”.

    It’s a good read, thanks for this post.

Comments are closed.