Tuesday, May 28, 2024

4 Ways to Adapt Conservative Clothes to a Business Casual Office


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woman has adapted her conservative workwear to fit a business casual office; she wears a blazer with jeans and sits in front of a windowseat; she has dangly gold earrings on

I’m still reviewing the results of the survey, but one thread I’ve noticed there and in comments is that a lot of your offices moved from a formal, conservative dress code to a business casual dress code. So let’s talk about it! How can you adapt conservative clothes to a business casual office — and how can you marry your weekend clothes with your business clothes for an easy business casual style?

{related: The Ultimate Guide to Business Casual for Women}

Do I Have to Change My Wardrobe If My Office Went Business Casual?

No! You really don’t. If you want to keep wearing suits and sheath dresses, go for it.

One place to be wary, though, is the “dressing better than your boss” phenomenon, which we’ve talked about here in the past… letter writers have worried that they were showing up their boss, that they looked too young if they didn’t dress well, and that their boss would think them frivolous if they dressed better than their boss.

On the flip side, some bosses may be old school and think that a casual, personalized style is a right that is earned — i.e., the more junior you are, the more conservative your attire should be.

If your wardrobe is classic, buttoned-up conservative, I think the only risk you should be aware of is that, depending on your personality, you may come across as someone who is mousy and lacks personality — or you may come across as someone who is bossy or rigid. Make sure that your clothing projects the qualities that are recognized for success in this field.

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4 Ways to Adapt Conservative Clothes to a Business Casual Office

On the flip side, there are a few ways you can take a more buttoned-up wardrobe to a casual, creative look… and here are some suggestions for you!

Mix Structured and Unstructured Pieces

If you feel like your conservative clothes are too formal for your business casual office, the first place to look is whether something in your outfit is unstructured or relaxed. A tailored sheath dress with a fitted blazer and stilettos is going to come across incredibly formal — but if you wear the same sheath dress with a long cardigan and boots or booties, it’s going to be a much more relaxed look.

Unstructured, more relaxed pieces are definitely on trend right now — think about double-breasted, oversized blazers, sneakers for work, wide trousers, pull-on pants, and more.

Get the Business Casual Shoes and Pants Right

Personally, I think the main area that business casual differs from conservative wear is the shoes and pants. This is very much a “know your office” situation — if others are wearing jeans and athleisure, that’s one thing, whereas khakis or “plain black pants” are another kind of business casual.

How to Dress Formal Business Casual

If things like jeans and sneakers are inappropriate at your office, you probably want to stick to the more formal side of things — and one easy way to adapt your old wardrobe by focusing on the pieces that were the most comfortable.

That sheath dress you had to wear Spanx with and could barely sit in? Put that one aside.

Those plain black pants you used to wear with a blouse and blazer? You can keep those. If you’re adding to your collection, you may want to look at the huge variety of pull-on dress pants that are out now.

In general, think about adding unstructured pieces — instead of a blazer, go for a sweater jacket or even a long cardigan or wrap-type cardigan. Instead of a blouse, switch to a work-appropriate t-shirt.

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Also, consider wearing the basics in your wardrobe in new, more relaxed ways. For example, a button-front shirt may look great worn open and untucked with a camisole beneath it — or you may find that a blazer that has a fun lining looks chic with the sleeves rolled up.

How to Dress Creative Business Casual

If your office is on the more casual and creative side, you have a lot more options. Even if denim is frowned upon at your office (again: know your office!), you may be OK to wear 5-pocket styles of things like corduroys that would have been a bit out of place at a more conservative office. Pair those with a blouse, blazer, and flats or sneakers, and you’ve got a more creative business casual look.

Whereas conservative offices generally encourage small, tasteful jewelry (in the best metals, featuring real gemstones), your new office may give you more leeway.

If you’re in a creative office, an easy place to start looking for “creative” necklaces is museum stores — I’ve bought a number of pieces from MomaStore.org over the years, and the quality has always been pretty good for the price.

Once you have a better idea what you like, Etsy stores and local boutiques can be a great way to get interesting jewelry that expresses who you are.

Look for Weekend Clothes at Your Favorite Work Stores

Look at “weekend wear” for the shops you already frequent — and see how they’re styling them. Are they styling the blazer with casual pants as well as trousers? Does a sneaker make the suit look fresher in a way you can do at your office?

While they might not be appropriate for a conservative office, the more relaxed looks from these stores might offer great “bridge” pieces between your old wardrobe and your new one.

If you were really a devotee of a particular store, see if they can connect you with a personal shopper to help integrate your old pieces and your new ones.

{related: you might also want to peruse some of our posts on different kinds of weekend personalities, to see if something feels right}

If you can wear jeans to your office, don’t assume your weekend jeans will work… Look for a dark blue wash with very little distressing, and see how you feel about incorporating the jeans into your more conservative wardrobe. Try wearing them with a structured, fitted blazer, or with a button-front blouse. (Trouser jeans may be the perfect place for you to start, or even regular trousers that are made from a denim material.)

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Find a Body Twin

Whenever anyone goes through a style reassessment — which everyone should do from time to time! — I think it’s great to find someone in the public eye, who has your body shape, and whose style you admire.

What pieces work for her? (If it’s an actress it can be particularly fun to watch her personal style versus her character’s styles, and see how her clothes differ from role to role — but also how they stay the same.)  Keep track of which outfits you really adore, and use those for inspiration.

As I mentioned above, a personal shopper is another way to go, and most department stores offer a shopper’s services free of charge. (Just make sure you have a good idea of what you already want so you don’t end up purchasing a lot of things that aren’t really part of your new style.)

Readers, what are your best tips to adapt conservative clothes to a business casual office? What pieces have you found to be workhorses no matter your office… and which pieces have you given away or sold?

Some of Our Latest Favorite Business Casual Clothes for Women

Sweater Jackets

Pull-On Pants for the Office

Great T-Shirts to Wear Instead of Blouses

Relaxed Cardigans to Wear to Work

These are some of the reader favorites for relaxed, unstructured cardigans for a business casual look…

Great Blazers to Wear As Separates

Blazers still have their place in a business casual office! Two tips, though…

First, make sure it doesn’t look as though you got dressed in the dark by, say, wearing a black blazer you got from Amazon with black pants you got from Express. It’s surprisingly hard to get blacks to match! Instead, wear clothes in different colors than your blazer, and think of the blazer as a third piece. Ideally, your outfit should be able to stand alone if you take the blazer off!

Second, keep in mind the structured/unstructured recipe — if you’re wearing a blazer you may want to make your outfit more ostensibly casual such as by wearing it with jeans or sneakers.

Stock photo via Pexels / Marina Abrosimova.





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