From Louboutins to Lululemon: How casual is too casual in the workplace?

From Louboutins to Lululemon: How casual is too casual in the workplace?

When was the last time you met with a yoga-pant-wearing colleague and thought, “Wow, she’s really on top of her game”? Or when did you interview someone in flip-flops and think, “This guy is going places”?

Business casual is largely the new workplace norm. You may initially rejoice at the thought of tossing aside your structured work clothes for their casual counterparts, but as restrictive as they may seem, formal business attire, like suits, can actually make dressing easier. (Maybe you’ve noticed: Creativity is hard work!) Keeping your business casual game on point takes a level of nuanced social understanding and physical awareness that, frankly, many people lack.

Take pants, for instance. In a “casual” office, leggings, “jeggings,” yoga pants—and everything in between—may beckon to your backside, “Ooooh, feel how plush and comfy I am.” But when your co-workers (or worse, your clients) wonder if you just came back from a lunch-time interval training boot camp or are popping into the office to pick up a file during a personal day, your wardrobe choices start to influence how you’re perceived in the workplace—and not for the better.

Opting out

If nailing an effective casual professional appearance is a challenge for you, rest assured you are not alone. Over the years, I’ve worked with hundreds of executives across a broad spectrum of industries, and despite their vast visual and professional diversity, they share one common fashion gripe: they struggle with “business casual” dress. From law firms to tech startups, dressing casually and still looking professional is harder than it seems. Comfort vs. polish, personal preference vs. corporate expectations. Which wins? And what does it look like?

For some, business casual is so confusing that they shun it altogether. Why? They find casual professional dress more stressful and disempowering than it is cozy and comfortable. There are seemingly endless pitfalls and fashion faux pas awaiting even the savviest of professionals in the casual dress landmine. And it’s not just obvious mistakes, like too much cleavage or a mini skirt. There’s ample grey area with things like accessories (better suited for a night club?), as well as fit and fabric choices (too sheer? too clingy?) leaving some employees reverting back to the safety of business formal attire.

Rethinking “casual”

But it’s important to recognize that casual—when done right—can be powerful. One experiment found that students followed a researcher’s instructions more carefully when she was dressed casually, like them, rather than in more formal attire. What this means is knowing your audience (and dressing accordingly) is key, even in casual offices.

If this still seems a bit ambiguous, let me try to simplify it even further: Throw out the word “casual” altogether. It conjures images of sloppiness, and sloppiness is not effective in any professional setting, regardless of how chill or creative it may seem. Looking too casual can be distracting to co-workers and sends the wrong message to clients (“I’m here to relax, not work”). It also communicates a lack of attention to detail, none of which is aligned with a successful professional persona. Regardless of your office culture or industry, “casual” should still look polished, so before you pull on your stretchy pants, remember that polished professionalism should be your style mantra, even if you aren’t dressed in a tie or heels.

Style with a bit of personality

So rather than going for a “casual” look, use this extra visual freedom to think of ways you can infuse some of your personality—maybe it’s artistry, maybe it’s edginess, maybe it’s whimsy—into your professional appearance, while still presenting as polished and pulled together. Instead of thinking of how you can make your post-work transition to barre class or CrossFit smoother, think of how you can use your appearance as a persuasive tool to demonstrate who you are and what you’re capable of (not just your affinity for Spandex).

Remember: “Casual” clothes are not all created equal. The jeans and T-shirts you wear to mow the lawn are likely not the same ones you should wear to work. So think less in terms of categories like jackets or jeans and more in terms of quality and fit.

“The Rule of One”

When it comes to business casual, I encourage my clients to practice what I call “The Rule of One”. Integrate only one, possibly two, more casual elements, while keeping the rest of your look within the business formal realm (as interpreted and applied within your office and industry). For some, this may mean you can put on jeans, but keep the silk blouse and heels. Or perhaps you swap out the button-down for a nice T-shirt, but add a blazer and some leather boots.

And remember, most leggings still aren’t pants, even in creative spaces. But if you buy high-quality, heavyweight knits and style them just right, they can work. Be sure your top is loose and flowy and comes down beyond your backside. Consider a belt at the waist to reclaim shape. Adding a tall, low-heeled riding boot will also lend structure and sophistication to the ensemble.

Five style mantras

As you rethink your relationship with casual work attire, here are five expert tips and tricks to keep you comfortably polished:

  1. Know your audience: Be aware of your particular office culture. Your workplace guidelines and company-wide dress style should inform exactly how formal, or laid back, your personal style can get. When in doubt, take your style lead from the higher-ups in your office.
  2. Develop a go-to style formula: Once you’ve studied and observed your surroundings, distill a basic style formula that you can follow. Then pair it with whatever polished personal touch feels right for you. Mixing formal/higher-end pieces with casual, less expensive items often packs a powerful visual punch. Consider a colorful necklace with your basic white T-shirt or some pointy-toe animal skin flats with khaki pants. For men, if you’re wearing a blazer and a button-down, round out your look with some high-end dark denim jeans and hip sneakers or ankle boot. Professional basics and creative flair is a great place to start forming a foundational look that’s both impressively professional and distinctive.Stock up on key pieces
  3. Stock up on key pieces: If you’re trying to get dressed using only formal professional pieces and tattered weekend items, you’re bound to be frustrated, and it’s likely time for a refresh. Mindfully stock your wardrobe with a few items that demonstrate stylish ease and polish. Some of the best chic pieces are generally simple, yet have small details—like contrast seams or printed lining— that subtly communicate your nonconformist streak and ability to think outside the box. One affordable alternative to buying new items is reimagining your existing wardrobe. If you have some professional pieces that feel too uptight, work on transforming them before you buy new. Relax corporate basics by rolling your sleeves and pants, and layer blouses, sweaters, jackets, and scarves—sometimes in contrasting colors and prints—to add texture and interest.
  4. Be vigilant with maintenance: While you may no longer reach for heavily structured pieces like suits, you still want your clothes to fit and flatter. Even casual clothing may need a tailor, so give those pieces the same scrutiny as more formal items. Scuffs, rips, and stains are still off-limits, so be vigilant in monitoring the wear and tear on your clothing. Keep in mind that even casual shoes need a regular buff and shine. And, whatever you do, please leave the flip-flops at home.Don’t skimp on grooming
  5. Don’t skimp on grooming: The best rule of thumb is to maintain the same level of grooming you would if you were wearing a suit. For women, maybe you’d play with a brighter lip or nail polish color. But whatever the color palette, the makeup should be neat and not overpowering or distracting, and nails should be tidy and chip free. For men, perhaps a more casual office offers the opportunity to grow some facial hair. That is not, however an invitation to toss out your razor. Pick a style and keep it neatly trimmed, whether it’s clean-shaven or a full beard.

Tell us: What are your biggest casual dress challenges? Have you experienced any fashion no-no’s in your office?