What Are the Lower Limits of Business Casual?

This may be a weird take, but something that has always appealed to me about classic conservative dressing is how clearly defined it is — how easy it is to dress “appropriately” for your office dress code. Suit. Sheath dress. Trousers + blouse. On the flip side, “business casual” depends entirely on your office culture — and even then it’s still a little iffy. (And attempts to delineate things, like “smart casual” or “small business casual” just make it even harder!) So let’s discuss: What are the lower limits of business casual? What clothing is too casual for a business casual office?

{related: you can find a lot of our previous discussions on this stuff in our guide to business casual for women}

I started thinking about this the other night because this is the time of the year that we normally do a sheath dress roundup. Our little widget with reader favorites and long-standing bestsellers is still up to date:

Some of the most stylish sheath dresses for work as of 2022: one / two / three / four / five (not pictured but also

But… I feel like a lot of these fitted sheath dresses are a little overdressed at a “business casual” office without significant, well, “funkification” — funky shoes, funky jewelry, a fun cardigan, sweater jacket, or even a denim jacket (but KYO — know your office).

So I said, aha, we’ll do a hunt for business casual dresses! And thus realized the problem. Something like this is probably far too casual in most “business casual” offices:

… but something like this is a bit too brunch-after-church/Momming:

(now linked!)

For my $.02 I’d stick closer to this kind of dress for a business casual office (plus a cardigan or jacket to cover your arms in case you’re cold) — I like how there’s no bra showing, it’s comfortable but still has structure, and isn’t too twee or puffy or ruffled. (The problem here is that these dresses pill easily or are more prone to show outlines of undergarments than ponte or wool dresses — so YMMV.) I’d also wear it with heels or other shoes that cover more of your foot.

(Sleeved options here.)

(All images are linked; everything from Talbots because I happened to be browsing there recently.)

So let’s discuss — what outfit formulas work for business casual? What clothing items are too conservative (unless it’s a big day), and what clothing items are too casual for a business casual office?

I’ll share my $.02 below, but I’m curious to hear your thoughts…

Clothing Items Too Casual for Most Business Casual Offices

As readers have always noted, you should look for guidance on what to wear from midlevels, not the C-suite; the theory has been that the C-suite has earned the right to wear whatever the heck they want.

  • ripped denim
  • shorts (maaaaaaybe skorts, but… know your office)
  • athletic wear — if it looks like a tennis dress, you shouldn’t wear it to work. Ditto for more obviously athletic leggings and joggers (versus, say, linen or twill joggers).
  • cruddy sneakers (or sneakers that appear to be cruddy – I’d include some of the $600 sneakers in this category too!)
  • flip-flops or loud sandals — I’d also put super casual items like Birkenstocks here
  • Crocs, slippers, UGG boots, rainboots or snowboots worn all day (instead of just for your commute)
  • mini-skirts or anything baring a significant amount of leg (if you couldn’t wear control-top pantyhose with it, it’s too short) (not that you have to wear pantyhose — readers have made me a devotee of these comfortable slip shorts in summer)
  • anything with an open back or exposed midriff
  • anything requiring a special bra (e.g., spaghetti straps, off the shoulder tops, halter tops)

{related: what not to wear to work in 2022}

Outfit Formulas for Business Casual

I still think dresses are really hard to pick for work; I’d err on the side of the more structured sheath dresses or dresses made from stretchier materials, such as Lands’ End or this kind of dress from Talbots

  • “Column of color” – it’s always a classic way to look polished even if you’re doing it with a jean jacket as your third piece. Example: black tee + black trousers + jean jacket + flats.
  • “Shades of a color” – here your third piece is a cardigan, jacket, or other shirt that is a shade lighter or darker than your base shirt color. Example: light blue t-shirt + dark blue cardigan + trousers.
  • Jeans + structure – If jeans are acceptable at your office (know your office!! I’d heavily lean towards dark rinse denim if it is), a way to make it look more polished is to go with much more structured pieces for the rest of your outfit. Example: jeans + blazer + crisp white blouse + pointy-toed flats or heels.
  • Monotone – You most often see this with black, although many bloggers are now doing beige — but it can be a really powerful look with something like gray or, if you’re daring, red. Example: gray sweater + gray trousers + silver necklace.
  • “Top top bottom” – Here your top two pieces match exactly, and your bottom is a totally different color. Light blue cardigan + matching shell + black pants. (There are more modern versions of this with longer / duster cardigans, cropped shells, etc — know your office before you wear any of those to work!)

Readers, what do you think are the lower limits of business casual (and upper limits, if they exist)? What is too casual for a business casual office?

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* This article was originally published here