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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Break Room

Yes, No, Maybe So: Business Casual (Finally) Decoded

Business casual has always been a little vague. It varies so much office to office, and if you’ve ever been new to a workplace that enforces said dress code, you know the feeling of panic that sets in as you try to figure out exactly what you should be wearing. Are jeans work-appropriate, or no? Should you stick with a basic pump, or are funkier shoes acceptable?

After a season or two, you’ll get a sense of what’s okay and what’s a no-go, but until you get to that point, I’m here to help. Read on to learn about what’s definitely acceptable and what’s never okay—along with some ideas for what to try as you start to get a pulse for what “casual” really means.


Always a Do: Assuming that denim is permitted (hint: don’t just check the employee handbook—look around), jeans that are well-tailored (wide leg or boot cut), in a dark wash, or dressed up (with, say, a pair of heels or a silk blouse).

Maybe Consider: If you’re in an office where things are a little more lax, white jeans (in season all year, I promise!) or denim with a subtle pattern.

Don’t Even Think About It: Anything that’s torn (even on purpose), stretched out and baggy as a result of overuse, or so low slung that you fear sitting down at that meeting.

Get the Looks


Always a Do: Neutrals—think black, white, navy, tan, grey, brown—which are never out of style and always boss-approved.

Maybe Consider: Bolder colors (think cherry red or royal blue), jewel tones (like emerald or plum), or pastels. You can even try color blocking your outfit: Stick to one color palate (e.g., jewel tones), then pick separates—say a skirt, blouse, and blazer—that are different colors in that category.

Don’t Even Think About It: More than three colors at a time—sticking to just a few will keep your look polished and pulled-together. And, of course, head-to-toe brights or prints are always a don’t.

Get the Looks


Always a Do: A classic leather pointy-toed pair of heels (with no platform) in navy, black, or nude.

Maybe Consider: A heeled bootie, a shoe with a chunkier heel, or a pair of leopard print heels in a classic silhouette, if you feel comfortable getting a little more funky.

Don't Even Think About It: Anything that looks like you came straight from the beach or a night on the town. No sparkles, no flip-flops, and, frankly nothing over three inches high.

Get the Looks


Always a Do: Simple, everyday jewelry—think delicate necklaces, classic studs, and gold or silver watches.

Maybe Consider: Statement jewelry. If you notice other people in your office experimenting with bolder accessories, don’t be afraid to try something other than the basics.

Don’t Even Think About It: Too many pieces at once. Pairing a huge statement necklace, no matter how beautiful, with large, flashy earrings is always in bad taste at the office.

Get the Looks

Photo of business casual look courtesy of Maegan Tintari.