After college graduation, when I wasn’t working as a bank teller, I clung to my college uniform. It consisted of black leggings or denim overalls, some sort of shirt or sweater, another shirt or sweater tied around my waist, and combat boots or, inexplicably, Bass Weejuns. When my branch manager excitedly announced that she would be implementing “Casual Friday,” I had a fashion crisis. My grunge-inspired look would not fly, Casual Friday or not. Armed with a rudimentary knowledge of what adults wore in their more relaxed moments, I headed to the one place that would have it all, my mother’s closet. Most of my work clothes came from there, hand-me-down skirts from Talbot’s, matching sweaters and jewel toned shell tops to wear under blazers. Sadly, in this instance, her pants were cropped on my longer legs, and her shirts were a little fuller where I was not, so I was on my own.
Each Friday, an unexpected malaise would overtake me, rising with the sun. As I made coffee in my grown-up espresso maker, in the apartment I paid for all by myself, preparing to go to my adult job, with adult benefits, the dread would creep in. Fridays at the bank, which should have been a day of rejoicing from the beginning of the weekend, were the worst because I had to wear “Business Casual,” a phrase that struck fear in my heart.
As a bona fide adult, I fear no fashion edict, but I’m a writer. My professional look, on a good day, might include a pair of sweat pants — maybe even those overalls from the 1990s. My Casual Fridays are spent in pajamas, which I am not afraid to wear to drop the kids at school or to retrieve them at the end of the day. These days, when I read “business attire,” “business casual” or “business cocktail,” I want to send my regrets and stay home. But I hate to miss a party, so I’ve tried to crack the code.
Let’s assume Business Attire refers to fashion in a field other than my own, one with an actual office. There are three options. The first is what my mother referred to as “church clothes,” something we wore not only to church, but also to family holiday dinners, school interviews and synagogues. The second is a look I like to call I-Don’t-Care-What-You-Think-I’m-a-Grown-Up. This option can include skinny black jeans, the modern iteration of my college era black leggings. I will add a tailored blazer, in a salute to the business world. I may be rebelling, just a little. Rebellion is often grounded in insecurity, isn’t it? The third option, though I haven’t managed to achieve it, is the best one. A professional look includes tailored pieces that fit well and complement the wearer’s looks without overpowering them, classic jewelry and tasteful heels or flats.
Business Casual, sadly, does not mean a house coat and slippers, not even really nice ones. Let’s call it “jeans for grown-ups.” It may also include slacks, trousers, chinos or whatever your mother called pants. T-shirts are not an option, and jackets pull the look together. What would the most grown-up person you know wear to a fancy tailgate before the game? That’s Business Casual. There are no rips, stains or tears, not even for the sake of fashion, and the shirt is either tucked in or very obviously a tunic-like top. The jewelry remains tasteful, as do the shoes. Sneakers aren’t allowed, and loafers should be polished.
Business Cocktail might be the same thing as my mother’s “church clothes,” but with a little more sparkle. This includes every look in those ubiquitous “Day to Night” stories in women’s magazines. It requires super hero-like quick changes, an evening purse stashed in your briefcase, a sparkly tank hidden beneath your suit jacket, gold shoes hidden under your desk, ready for a quick change at just the right moment. Channel the naughty librarian, whip off your glasses, and loosen your hair. Voilà! Business Cocktail!
Five Key Pieces for Business Casual
• A tailored blazer. Nothing adds polish like a sharp blazer. Your mother was right.
• Jeans in a dark or black wash, with no holes, rips or patches. You might even consider ironing them. Try a flair cut with a pair of heels or cute pumps, and skinny cuts with dressy flats.
• Flats or loafers — yes, just like my Bass Weejuns, but with no scuffs. Keep an eye on the heels and have your flats re-soled because sloppy shoes make a whole look messy.
• A well-fitted button down blouse. Be prepared to tuck it in, possibly to a high-waisted casual skirt, slacks, or even jeans, and pair with a tasteful necklace.
• Pants that aren’t jeans. These days, tailored, dark jeans are usually okay with heels or dressy flats, but be prepared. If your boss wouldn’t wear denim, stick with a well-cut pair of pants.
Five Bonus Pieces
1. A bag that’s less structured. Consider a monogrammed leather tote if you need something big or a cross body bag for just the basics.
2. A scarf! You may be able to find a few in your grandmother’s closet. Tie a different scarf around your neck so no one will notice you wear the same outfit every time the dress code is business casual.
3. Boots. Some of us (okay, me) hate wearing flats. They make us feel short. High-heeled pumps in a relaxed environment will blow your cover, but boots look casual, even with a little added height.
4. A classic trench coat. You don’t have to reserve this one for casual days. You can wear it over everything.
5. A casual dress. One piece is never as versatile as a wardrobe of tops and bottoms, but a tunic style dress with opaque tights can be a fun option on casual day. You can always change the look with a cardigan … or a scarf.