What does business casual mean for women?

What to Wear

A bright blouse will pop against neutral-toned slacks or a skirt, but its modest cut will keep the look professional.
A bright blouse will pop against neutral-toned slacks or a skirt, but its modest cut will keep the look professional.
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You're starting a home search and want to get preapproved for a mortgage, so you head to the bank. There are two lenders available to sit down with you and discuss your finances. One is wearing short shorts, a halter top, and espadrilles. The other is wearing a navy blue knee-length skirt, a silk blouse and leather heels.

Unless you're a 14-year-old boy, you're probably going to head for the one in the blue skirt.

Like it or not, in the business world, image matters, and clothing is a big component of that. It's one of the first things clients, co-workers and interviewers notice. It says something.

What it says is up to the dresser, and not everybody wants to say the same thing. There are, though, a few traits almost all employees want to project: hard-working, professional, plays well with others, or some variation on those themes. Achieving that in business-casual attire is pretty straightforward:

  • Keep it covered. No matter what your style, business casual pretty much never means "business sexy." Long skirts, long pants and higher necklines are safe bets. Knee-length skirts are fine, too, as are dressy capris.
  • Keep it neutral. That doesn't have to mean head-to-toe tan. Black, gray, brown, navy blue, ivory, khaki and taupe are all good color choices, and there's no harm in throwing in a standout accessory to spice up the look -- a pink scarf, yellow headband or red leather belt can make a great statement paired with blue pants and a simple white button-down.
  • Keep it classic. Ultra-trendy garb is more of a weekend thing. In business-casual land, timeless is best. Which is not to say you shouldn't be stylish. A pair of wide-leg dress pants can be as chic as a pair of skinny jeans.

There are, of course, gray areas and exceptions to the rules, and most of them have to do with the industry you're dressing for. If you're heading to an ad agency or a fashion magazine, ultra-hip and trendy is perfectly acceptable, even desirable. And then there's the big denim question, which is always a bit wishy-washy. IBM doesn't care what its people wear -- jeans, sandals, shorts, it's all fine [source: Armour]. General Motors nixes jeans in its business-casual code, while the NBA is fine with "dressy jeans" only [source: Armour].

Of course, one woman's Pam is another woman's Angela: "Classic," "neutral" and "covered" can be relative terms. Sometimes dressing appropriately can be easier if you know precisely what's inappropriate.