Back to Basics: How to Dress Business Casual

Follow your workplace's dress code without compromising your own personal style.
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Ann Taylor fall 2016 lookbook imagery. Photo: Ann Taylor

Ann Taylor fall 2016 lookbook imagery. Photo: Ann Taylor

"Basic" may have adapted a negative connotation in recent years, but there's no shame in seeking advice on theoretically simple sartorial conundrums. In our latest column, "Back to Basics," we're here to guide you through life's most common (and important) fashion and beauty concerns.

Of all the standard dress codes, "business casual" is probably the most obscure because it holds no clear and simple definition. "Part of the challenge is that 'business casual' is going to be a little bit different from place to place," says Edward Yost, an HR business partner at the Society for Human Resource Management. "What is acceptable in certain workplaces is not acceptable in others; that can be business culture-based, expectations from clients and customers or even geography-driven." So when it comes to figuring out what your office's requirements are, it's best to straightforwardly ask your boss, manager or human resources to be sure. Yost's former employer put it fairly simple: "Anything you would wear to the beach, don't wear here."

Yost also reports a seven percent increase between 2005 and 2015 in the number of employers offering casual dress once a week. From 2012 to 2016, Yost saw a four percent increase in those who offer it every day. Dana Heron, 30, who works in the marketing department at a global food company, follows her office's business casual dress code: dress pants, skirts or dresses for ladies, and collared shirts with dress pants or khakis for guys. "That description has been the case for my entire corporate experience over the past eight years," she says. On Fridays, she and her colleagues are allowed to wear jeans, though this exception has recently been extended to any day of the week.

Offering a more relaxed form of attire for the office has become an increasing trend. A recent (and newsworthy) example is JPMorgan Chase: In June 2016, the major banking and finance company notified its 240,000-strong staff that the dress code policy was switching from business formal to business casual, which includes business-appropriate capris, dresses, skirts, blouses, tops and sweaters, as well as dress shoes and sandals. Jewelry and fragrances should be minimal. (Athleisure, despite its growing popularity, is still frowned upon.) "It's partly driven by the way we work," Yost explains. "The type of business we are doing now is via Skype and teleconferences versus having customers and clients constantly in the workplace."

Austyn Zung, creative director at Ann Taylor, is aware of these changes among her own customer base, but remembers the brand's advertisements from the early 2000s, featuring Christy Turlington dressed in a suit. "Ann Taylor has a heritage of that, but I think the important thing to note is that we're really changing with the modern woman," says Zung, bringing up examples like co-working spaces, remote jobs and start-up culture. "It's really about modern pieces that you put together so you can express yourself." As for her favorites for the office, Zung prefers wide-leg trousers, feminine blouses and a great statement jacket.

Following your workplace's dress code without compromising your personal style is a mantra that Jesse Garza, founder of personal styling agency Visual Therapy, practices with his clients across New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago. "Be appropriate but also be yourself," he says. "Incorporate things that are truly you. It makes a difference." Power dressing doesn't have to involve a power suit. If you're into florals and romantic details, balance that with pieces that have clean and modern lines.

When it comes to budget, Garza suggests purchasing apparel at contemporary or high street prices so you can splurge on luxury handbags and shoes. His favorite brands and retailers for business casual attire include Club Monaco, Zara, Theory, Vince and Bergdorf Goodman's fifth floor, "5F." When shopping, Garza suggests paying attention to fabric. Will it wrinkle easily as soon as you sit at your desk? Functionality is important, too, like if a garment has pockets or if a tote is roomy enough to store all of your belongings for the day. To easily transform your look for a dinner meeting or happy hour, keep a pair of heels and a clutch at your desk. Plus, a wraparound cardigan will prove useful once the office A/C kicks in.

We also asked shopping search engine ShopStyle about some of the most popularly searched business casual pieces. Long-sleeve blouses and day dresses — from fit-and-flare and shirt-style to shifts and sheaths — are top choices. For shoes, Garza is a fan of the block heel because it's comfortable and adds height, while ShopStyle noted the versatile Stuart Weitzman's Nudist heel as a popular sandal type. Flats are a solid option, ranking third among ShopStyle's list, and many are adorned with office-appropriate details, too, like laces, subtle studs, cap toes and ankle-wrap straps. Interestingly, blazers appeared last on the list. Times are a-changin'.

Click through the gallery below to see (and shop) some of our favorite examples of stylish work-friendly clothing — just in time for a fall wardrobe refresh.

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