“I’m sure you’re quite shuddering at the thought of business casual… I, however, am about to graduate and start up year-long fellowship with a non-profit that’s basically a 9-to-5 office job. What would you advise for someone with a limited budget who needs to look professional but still wants to change around her style and look somewhat interesting? As of now, I tend to go with brightly colored basics, graphic t-shirts, and very few accessories… I’d love to hear anything you have to say, thanks so much.”
You’re so right! Business casual… bleccch!
Grotesque facial expressions aside, I am not the best person to ask about this sort of thing. I am often vastly inappropriate. I have always been on the fringes of my work’s dress code, partly due to boredom & partly due to a general feeling of awkwardness about rules & regulations. When I worked at Lush Cosmetics, for example, the rule was “black & white only” which soon bored me, & I started working in touches of hot pink, turquoise & blue before coming to work looking like a rainbow (& in blatant violation of the dress code).
I have been extremely lucky however, in that I have had a lot of so-called “corporate” jobs where the dress code just wasn’t that strict. (I did fair chunks of time at ISPs & telecommunications companies, where they tend to be a bit more relaxed about these kinds of things. I think it’s the large geek contingent that does it, quite frankly.) Here are some outfits I wore to my job at Telecom: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 & 8. For the most part, the people around me liked seeing what I came to work in, it was often a topic of discussion & provided some much-needed distraction from returning boring phonecalls or whatever else was on the agenda. However, on the flip-side, I’m pretty sure that my wearing combat boots to work was part of the reason one of my other temping contracts “ended early”… so proceed with caution!
Perhaps the best way to approach work in a “business casual” environment is to imagine yourself as a different character. Some kind of femme fatale, perhaps, who wears spike heels & a pencil skirt & a tailored white shirt. It might not be your style, but it will look good — which is pretty much the mantra I assigned to office jobs while I was in them. I often found that I had to pretend to be someone else just to get through the day: someone who cared about invoices & spreadsheets, rather than ME, the weird girl who needs music to work effectively (a disco at your desk is great at about 3pm) & likes her hair as big as possible.
If you don’t want to fake it — & I don’t blame you — dress like yourself, but imagine your mother is there while you’re choosing your outfit. Run her voice through your head. “Those shoes are completely impractical!” “I think that skirt is a bit short.” “Oh, you just CANNOT wear that.” (If your mother is awesome, like mine, pretend one of the women on Coronation Street is your ma instead.)
As long as you’re not in a super-strict office environment, where everyone wears suits (zzzzzzz), you can probably get away with a reasonably plain top, a cardigan & a pair of nice pants or a skirt.
Women can chuck a conservative-looking sweater over the top of a dress to make it a little less extravagant. You’ll never go wrong with a long black skirt & boots, or well-cut trousers. If you’re allowed to wear jeans, go for it — wear nice ones (no rips or frayed cuffs!) with a tailored sweater or shirt. Not so bad. Really, it will be hard for them to complain if what you’re wearing fits properly & is clean. If you want to spice it up, wear weird jewellery or buy an insane bag.
Men have less options. Wear a nice shirt (top button undone & untucked if you want to be more casual), good pants & clean shoes. If you can get away with a t-shirt, great! Wear a well-fitted new one, like something from Threadless.
If you’re really feeling the need to rebel, maybe write “I HATE MY JOB” on your stomach, backward, in marker pen, so you can pull up your shirt in the office bathroom & sneer in the mirror while you read it!
My final suggestion is to make friends with your manager, so that they’ll defend you if anyone balks at your colourful eye-shadow!