Some of you might know that back in August, after spending way too much of my life working for an industrial supply catalog, I quit to start my own photography business. It was the kind of place that, up until 2015, was super-strict on the dress code. While we didn’t have to wear suits to work, women weren’t allowed to show their shoulders (go ahead, roll your eyes with me!), and men had to wear a collared shirt even in the middle of summer.
Jumping into that immediately after college was a little bit of a challenge. I usually dressed decently in school (read: no sweatpants), but I sure as hell didn’t own dress pants or an office-appropriate dress. I remember rushing to H&M in a panic trying to figure out what I needed on the day before I started work. What did I need? A blazer? Some kind of hat? Shoes??
Flash forward a few years. The company decided to update its workplace standards and let us choose our own wardrobes. Finally, we were allowed to bare our shoulders and ditch our dress pants for yoga pants! I mean, yoga pants are totally business casual attire, right? No?
To say there was an adjustment period is an understatement. This time around, I had to learn the rules of business casual. Instead of interpreting it as “literally anything I feel like wearing,” I realized I needed to be a little choosier when it came to presenting myself at work.
That’s how I came to narrow down the five business casual staples that I relied on time and again. These guys got me out the door and looking presentable for my 7:30 a.m. meetings. I might not have had time to do my hair or even wash off last night’s makeup, but I knew my outfit was solid. Here’s what I reached for:
A Great-Fitting Blazer
It took me forever to convert from cardigans to blazers, but when I did, I felt like I seriously leveled up. Sure, cardigans have their place, but blazers make you look serious. Plus, they go with just about anything, from jeans and a top to a nice dress. They can also be a ton of fun—besides the standard neutral ones, I also have a really cute black velvet one that pairs well with a surprising number of items in my closet!
It’s crucial to choose one that fits well, though. Take some time and try them on. You want to make sure the sleeves come down to the wrists (not the knuckles!) and that the darts hit at your natural waist, not below.
The first thing I did when I found out the dress code got refreshed was donate all my black dress pants to Goodwill. I hated wearing them. It’s not like they were uncomfortable or anything, but the idea that I had to wear them always bothered me.
Instead, I started wearing my dark jeans to work. When it comes to business casual, darker washes look polished. Lighter ones, on the other hand, look casual and are better for weekends (or telecommuting days!). I’d suggest a pair that’s skinny, straight, or even boot cut, but leave the boyfriend jeans at home because they can look a little too casual.
Oh, and hopefully this goes without saying, but leave the distressed jeans at home!
An A-Line Dress
I love it when I can find a piece that does double duty, and that’s where these dresses come in. Because they’re so simple, you can do whatever you want with them. A blazer and heels for the office, a moto jacket and loafers for the weekend. I remember coming home from work and just swapping out a couple things for a date…and I’d always be ready before my boyfriend had finished styling his hair.
These dresses are also really flattering on pretty much everyone because they accentuate the waist and flare out to hide whatever ails you. If you’re on the shorter side like me, I suggest that the hem comes down to a little above the knee. Just enough leg to look good in flats or heels without going overboard!
White Blouses Galore
If I could boil down a business casual formula, it would be blazer + dark jeans + white blouse. Every time, you’re going to look polished. White blouses, like a-line dresses, are so easy to dress up or down. A few accessories can make all the difference. I loved wearing scarves at work, especially when they cranked up the A/C, but I’d take it off and put on a cute necklace when I met up with friends at night.
Pretty much anything goes with these tops, so have fun with them! One rule of thumb for selecting staples is to get them with some kind of interesting detail, like lace or a bow. That always does the trick for making your outfit stand out a little more.
I would never have gotten through my day without flats. Not only did I have a standing desk, but I also took frequent walks around the office, warehouse, and cemetery (you read that right) to escape for a little bit. I’m too lazy to swap my shoes all the time, so I just wore ballet flats to work instead.
It’s always a good idea to get a pair in black and one in nude, but I liked to have fun with mine. Red and pink are some of my go-to accessory colors, and they can really liven up the aforementioned blazer/blouse/jeans ensemble.
Even though I don’t work in an office anymore, I still wear a lot of these pieces anyway—they’re great investments! Let me know in the comments what your favorite office staples are.