Dressing Business Casual for Women Who Want to Command Respect & Earn More

Dressing business casual, without falling into the business casual trap, takes “know-how” and creativity.

John Molloy authored New Women’s Dress for Success. He suggests, “In traditional offices women fail because they do not achieve the look that everyone agrees says professional. In business casual offices women fail because there is often no agreed-upon style that says professional.” That’s the business casual dress code for women trap.

How to Dress Business Casual & Avoid the Trap

Why is not having an “agreed-upon style that says what professional is” related to business casual dress for women a trap, you might ask?

Some women interviewed by Molloy’s team of researchers noticed that they received “second-rate” treatment when they were forced to dress casually. They started to dress as professionally as they could on business casual dress days in hopes of reversing that trend.

Based on the interviews with the women, “To their surprise, they were not only treated better than they were when their dress was casual, they were also treated better than their co-workers who continued to dress casually.”

As a result, those women in business continued “dressing conservatively for the same reason men have dressed conservatively for decades: they think it gives them an edge. That is why casual dress can be a casual trap.” Dressing poorly in business casual wear for women can limit your ability to exert authority, get a promotion, or earn top dollar.

Dressing Business Casual...Expensive Trap?

I knew that women earned pennies on the dollar compared to men, but I didn’t know there was a 20% cavern between what women who dress conservatively earn and what women who dress casually earn...the advantage goes to the more professionally dressed women, according to Molloy.

Molloy’s research was conducted at companies who changed to a full-time business casual “dress code” at least two year prior to Molly’s information gathering. It resulted in an interesting finding.

Molloy’s researchers asked company executives if anyone had failed to be promoted because of how they were dressing business casual, “57 percent said yes and seven others admitted it was a factor.” Of the people who were passed over...wait for it...66% were women.

The executive didn’t indicate that the women dressed terribly. The majority, based on the executives comments, simply “did not look professional--their problem was that when dressed casually they were not the type of person who appeared ready to handle an important assignment.”

Dressing Business Casual Fashion Rules

Molly identified a simple set of rules for how to dress business casual. They especially apply to the classic business casual category of dressing. However, the list also includes some strategies that can be applied to the creative & casual categories for dressing business casual.

Molly’s 21 Rules for Dressing Business Casual for Women

1. Dress to fit in with your co-workers.

Yes, consider your style and your “style mentor’s” (e.g., the person in a postion you desire, who dresses well) appearance, and do be seen as a team player, but be a star player, dress in business casual strategically to avoid the business casual trap and to maximize your earning potential.

2. Be one of the more traditional and conservative dressers in your group.

3. Spend comparatively as much on your casual business wardrobe as you do on your traditional wardrobe. Buy your casual outfits at the best stores (or make it appear as though you did).

4. If your boss is a man, be as traditional (classic) as possible. If your boss is a woman, mirror her style without copying her outfits (if she is not well-dressed, don’t emulate her style, but try to avoid making her feel threatened by your appearance and find a different “style mentor”).

5. Wear only upper-middle-class colors and color combinations. If you come from a limited background, purchase entire outfits in the women’s departments of the most traditional men’s stores in town (but don’t break the bank to do so, learn how to be a savvy shopper).

6. Stick to color and color combinations found in traditional men’s sportwear.

7. Carry and wear businesslike, statusy, traditional and obviously expensive accessories (but don’t break the bank to do so, learn how to shop strategically).

8. If you come from an area with unfortunate verbal patterns, take speech lessons. We found the best teachers were college speech teachers.

9. Make sure your makeup and hairstyle say “upper class” and “executive.”

10. Wear nothing that might be considered too sexy for the office by your father (that goes for if you’re dressing business casual: classic, casual or creative).

11. On those days when you must wear a conservative suit to a meeting, when you are in the office replace your jacket with a loose-fitting sweater or casual vest.

12. The best business casual clothing is made of natural fibers--cotton, wool, silk, and the like. However, since you cannot wear anything that wrinkles easily and makes you look disheveled, choose natural fibers that have been woven or treated to resist wrinkling or blends that look like natural fibers.

13. Wear serious footwear--no boots, sneakers, sandals, spiked heels, or open-toed party pumps--an unless you are tall, don’t wear flats.

14. Keep a navy jacket handy that you can throw on in case of an emergency.

15. Wear pants only if you need them to look like a member of the team or have to perform tasks that require them.

16. If you wear pants, they must be tailored to deemphasize your feminine figure. A full-cut pair of slacks with pleats in a conservative color would be ideal (note: pleats don’t look the best on all of us and might make your apperance seem a bit dated if you choose the wrong pair).

17. Don’t try to copy the outfits your male co-workers wear (please don’t!).

18. Neatness counts more when you are dressed casually. So check your clothing, hair, and makeup serveral times a day...most women, but not all, do this automatically.

19. When dressed in nonstatus clothing, upper-middle-class posture becomes the primary nonverbal indicator of class and rank. If your posture is not perfect, practice sitting, standing, and walking with a book on your head. Suits camouflage imperfect posture; most casual outfits draw attention to it.

20. If you work for or with men, have a man (that you trust) check your casual business attire. If he tells you an outfit that you thinks is conservative is sexy or inappropriate, listen to him. Men see the world from an entirely different perspective.

21. If you cannot remember all these rules, remember that you will get by 90 percent of the time if your business casual look is CUTE:

Upper class
Traditional...and like
Everyone else’s