Contemporary, authoritative, appropriate – How to do “Business Casual”

posted in: Style advice | 24

I’m a fifty-something woman working in high tech in Seattle, where the dress code is casual and the culture youthful (and where there are, as in is most tech companies, fewer than 20% women in product development). As a result, the wardrobe piece is tricky! I need to look younger than I am, be casual to fit in, but also project authority – all as a minority in a leadership position. …I’d love to … make the crisp, tidy outer layers that take a casual pair of jeans and a t shirt and make it snap to attention.

This is Ellen. Let’s see if you, and I, can help.

Whereas I am developing a casual wardrobe for weekends in the country, she is looking for workwear that is casual. This look is known sometimes as Business Casual or Smart Casual. I have some suggestions on how this might work for Ellen, based on my own working wardrobe, fashion trends and style advice. I have a post on looking younger, by the way.

Let me use some images from a feature I enjoyed in Stylist magazine last week. The styling is by Lucy Reber and all the clothes featured are reasonably priced high street items. (I have photographed the printed images).

This classic look of a white shirt and wide legged, pin striped trousers is a real winner, updated with a floppy tie belt (and long tail to the shirt, but that’s probably a bit extreme).. This would be quite an easy outfit to make and looks youthful but also powerful. I often use a white shirt to give the authority message. It used to be a jacket, but as men have dropped ties and don’t feel the need to keep their jackets on any more I think the white shirt does what a jacket used to do. I love the looseness of this look – the pinstripe fabric of banking and the city looks so fresh as baggy pants or a midi skirt. You cannot see the model’s curves; with her TWA she looks androgynous. And the flat shoes without socks or tights is a great look too. 10/10 as far as I am concerned.

Dress H&H, Culottes Monki
Dress: H&H, Culottes: Monki

The next look also takes an authority item – a two-piece trouser suit and subverts it slightly. The suit is in light grey – so not as powerful as black, charcoal or dark navy. It would work equally well in a mid blue, or camel if you have warm colouring. Not girly, but not boss wear either. It is worn with a polo neck, but any simple top would do in a shirt colour – white, pink, light blue for example. And then the suit is set off with trainers. So we have a very smart, grown up look – basically a well fitting trouser suit, with a shirt substitute but with relaxed, fashionable Adidas trainers. Win.

buisness casual
Suit: Reiss, Top: French Connection

The next outfit brings us back to the important white shirt, here under a plain jump suit. A plain, well fitted pinafore dress would work well too. Choose a deep colour like brown, navy, black or dark grey. Emphasise the waist to give elegance and a touch of femininity, and a serious brown leather handbag works well too. Again the footwear is not feminine but it is stylish. I would definitely want to do business with this woman.

Smart Casual
Jumpsuit: club Monaco, Shirt: Gap

The final picture is another great look. We have a plain shirt dress (I think in a light chambray) – the same colour and look as a man’s shirt, combined with a blazer. But show your legs with clear tights and a masculine mule type shoe. This look would be equally good with tailored shorts which can match either your shirt or jacket.

Smart casual workwear
Blazer; Whistles, Shirt dress: Topshop

In summary

  • Masculine elements for authority
  • Feminine elements for style and approachability
  • Overall try for a fairly androgynous look
  • Keep the lines clean and structural – the “crisp tidy” look that Ellen is seeking
  • Avoid cardigan type styles and jersey
  • Fashionable, yet classic looks
  • Look for classy details – elegant cuffs on your shirts, modern wide leg trousers in quality fabrics
  • Always have one element that is just a little bit edgy and on trend –  in these outfits it is mainly the shoes, but an interesting watch or handbag would work
  • Classic workwear colour palette – navy, grey, black, blue, dark brown and white
  • Perfect grooming is essential – a good haircut, neat nails, restrained jewellry
Fabrickated jumpsuit
Kate does Business Casual OOTD
photo: Esme

(Jump suit and shoes; Topshop, Jacket: Uniqlo, Scarf; Fatface, Belt: Jigsaw)



24 Responses

  1. ellen

    Kate, this is FABULOUS–thank you so much! I’m excited to prototype some new ideas. Have a dress pattern that I think would work as a foundation piece. Might have to buy a suit, and definitely need to upgrade my shoes! And happily enough, I just made two very crisp white linen shirts to get the ball rolling.

    • fabrickated

      Oh Ellen – thank you! I have been worried this post would not hit the spot as I don’t really know what you like, or your shape or colours. So it’s sort of – how I might dress if I had your job. I am also aware of what works in London might not play well in Seattle.

    • SJ Kurtz

      Seattle here: I know, it’s not right, but stop in Mario’s downtown and look at the women’s suits. And a swing by Barney’s would not hurt. Try stuff on to see what flatters and what you think is handsome. Consider getting one made (plenty of Hong Kong tailors come through town and can make you something you’ll wear forever).

      I work from home, I also attend grown up business meetings and have a fine line to tread between looking sharp and looking like a very tired overweight woman in uncomfortable shoes. I start at the shoes and work up. No heels for me.

      • Ellen

        SJ, I will definitely do that–Kate’s post has opened up a world of new possibilities for me. The idea wouldn’t have occurred to me a year ago but now seems quite fun!

        Have any of you read Station Eleven? One of the main characters, Miranda, an artist who unexpectedly builds a powerful career, remarks at one point that after her first marriage (to a film star) she realized that clothes are like armor. It’s a terrific book, and Miranda’s evolving relationship to dressing has also been rattling around in my head.

        Between that sideways observation from a terrific novel, these great ideas, Kate’s pragmatic and helpful structural observations, and the sense I now have that sewing has liberated me from going shopping, it feels like an area of my life that I’ve neglected for ever is coming in to focus. Thanks, Kate!

        Ps. The jumpsuit look is a winner on you!

        • fabrickated

          It’s now on my reading list. I like the jumpsuit too – I did a whole week of my own advice last week – by the end of it I was mightily sick of blue.

  2. ChaCha

    I’m in Rome at the moment and keep seeing the very things you have mentioned, Kate; sharp looking women who look youthful and on trend. I wish one of them would offer to take me on a shopping trip! As usual, love your work 🙂

  3. Jane

    These are all such good looks – I love the shirt dress with the jacket. I have to say that you look fabulous in that jumpsuit Kate – ready for whatever life might throw at you!

  4. Sue

    This is such an interesting post. I always think that women have to work so much harder on the way they look, but a wardrobe can define someone and give confidence and authority. I also had a thing about my hair when I was climbing the career ladder – I spent a fortune on having it cut!

    • fabrickated

      As I now have shorter hair Sue I realise how often it needs cutting – at least every two months, ideally every six weeks! When it was long I had a trim twice a year. The cost difference is marked!

  5. Joyce Latham

    Terrfic advice as always. You look great Kate! Super location for the photograph you look smart, professional , yet friendly and open minded. Fantastic visual statement. You’ve nailed this look,– I can’t wait to see your soon to be casual collection!

  6. Hélène

    In my opinion, the only thing that is different and maybe lacking in your version is a white or very pale element.

  7. mrsmole

    Great clothes, makes me want to get a real job and get up off my knees….well almost! The fabrics really are the star here…powerful, uncluttered and rich looking but not too rich. The lack of jewelry and simple shoes make all the difference too in a leadership look. Great collection…and you look pretty neat yourself with that neck scarf….as always!!!

    • fabrickated

      Hi Bad Mom/Good Mom – I guess it was a kind of shorthand. I think to be successful at work (and in life) we need the right combination of authority/approachability, hard and soft skills, logic and emotional intelligence, organisation and drive with caring and compassion. The best leaders of either sex have a good combination of skills. They are not really male or female skills they are human skills.

    • Ellen

      It’s interesting, because while I have thought about those topics in a leadership sense, it never really occurred to me to explore the range of ways they might be made manifest in clothing.

      What I love about sewing my own work clothes is that I can subtly shift the message: a formal shirt with a black wool pencil skirt and dressy boots would be (maybe is) formidable, except that the heavy linen fabric has scribbly polka dots that make it a little harder to pin down. Etc etc.

      I’m going to play with the idea of using classic work colors for a new grouping of core elements (probably navy and brown–too much black in my closet already!) as Kate suggests above, and see how far I can take it. Can’t wait to get started!

      • fabrickated

        Yes – I think that it is about having one or two elements that rock the boat a bit, while still sticking to the core messages. Don’t rule out lighter or less masculine colours but if you use mauve or light green keep the styles more traditional and I would go either for a navy jacket, or do a monochrome look.

  8. Jay

    I love your choices, but there’s a couple of things I’m itching to throw into the debate, somewhat akin to BMGM’s point.
    The model is a physical type which isn’t typical of many women in the workplace. Like most who sew, when on the tube I can’t resist the urge to mentally critique the styles being worn, and in the rush hour it becomes obvious that the average female has a hard time getting a suit jacket to fit nicely. Men working in corporate can get by with a couple of suits recycled endlessly. If they want to look authoritative, they can get a second mortgage and go to a really good tailor. The suits will go on and on for years. Womenswear is more influenced by fashion, and what works for someone depends on how they’re built. Small sloping shoulders and big bust is a killer for rtw suiting, and isn’t that a description of a lot of women? I think we need to chip away at the masculine look. How does it affect your abilities if you wear yellow or pink? Not at all.

    • fabrickated

      This is really a good point Jay. I have noticed the Americans seem to cater better for the fuller busted and more curvaceous senior women. But of course you are right – it should be fine to look really feminine at work. I generally wear dresses and quite a lot of colour and I know it makes me stand out. I am confident enough to look feminine (although I wear “masculine” footwear rather than high heels) but sometimes we need help from “authority” items like a navy or black jacket and a white shirt.

  9. fabrickated

    From Jo

    Your post that began with the letter from the “fifty something…..” resonated. My sister and I are always discussing age appropriate clothing. What/who defines what is appropriate and when does “lamb” become “mutton”? We also feel there is a huge gap in ready to wear. Clothes are either for children, young adults then zoom straight into, as we call it, “frump” wear. Are we wrong? I’m a stay at home mum/carer whilst Pat, my sister, is in education. We have very different styles. Pat is very distinctive she was and will always be an art student and this is very evident in how she puts an outfit together. Me, on the other hand, sew how I would like to dress, lots and lots of dresses but tend to live in jeans and t-shirts. Hmmmmm, what does that say about me?

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