If you keep this one simple truth in mind about casual Fridays, you’ll never go wrong — clothing styles that are casual enough for a Saturday afternoon of errands and shopping or a Sunday brunch on the lakefront are probably too casual for the typical corporate office.
According to fashion consultants and female executives, there’s a fine line between casual and grubby, and most of what you wear on the weekends is probably not going to make the grade at work — even on dress-down days.
“Business casual does not mean Saturday leisure,” says Lori Scott, a garment researcher for Spiegel catalog. “You always want to present yourself in a professional manner.”
Scott and others say the definition of appropriate casual business attire has a lot to do with your work environment and the type of work you do. Media, advertising, public relations, graphic artists and the like tend to dress more casually than corporate employees every day of the week. But by and large, executives, middle managers and other authority figures in almost every profession are expected to look the part even when the day calls for less dressy styles.
“Because I meet with clients most of the week, Friday tends to be a more relaxed dress-down day,” says Terri Sutton, an account executive for a Washington, D.C.-based television station. “In the fall, I like to wear a vest with a mock turtleneck over either slacks or skirts, accessorized with tights and boots.”
As a woman on the move, Sutton understands that her physical appearance speaks volumes to her superiors, colleagues and clients about her credibility and ability to perform the task at hand. “It’s important to maintain a professional demeanor in a professional environment at all times”, whether that’s attitude, communication or your physical look,” says Antoinette M. Malveaux, executive director of the National Black MBA Association.
Many companies give their employees specific guidelines in the form of dress codes. If your company has a dress code, that’s where you’ll find immediate answers about what is and is not appropriate. If your company does not have specific rules or if the rules are loosely worded, take note of what the women you respect and admire are wearing, and dress accordingly.
Another thing the wise female executive understands is that corporate America tends to lean toward classic, conservative styles and usually shuns trendy fashion statements. Keep that tip and the ones that follow in mind on your next shopping trip for casual office wear.
If on the other four days of the week women in your company are expected to wear knee-length skirts and dresses, a gabardine pants suit accessorized with a colorful silk scarf may be casual enough on Fridays. Or consider pairing some well-made cotton twill, corduroy or wool flannel slacks with a white cotton blouse, a cardigan sweater or a cable-knit turtleneck, minus the jacket.
“I love to wear pants on dress-down day because during the rest of the week, I wear the traditional skirt and jacket, pumps and stockings,” says Stephanie Thomas, a sales executive for a major telecommunications company. “To be able to wear pants and flat shoes makes a world of difference in how I feel throughout the day.”
Some employers won’t raise an eyebrow if you wear a pair of basic, five-pocket black or dark blue jeans to work. But if you wear them, they should be neatly pressed, free of holes and well-fitting. Baggy-bottom jeans are an office fashion “no-no” as are any pants that are so tight they look painted on. Pair them with a nontraditional vest, a mohair, boucle, or cashmere sweater or a twin sweater set for a well-put-together look.
If the thought of not wearing a jacket to the office makes you uncomfortable, look for a separate cashmere or flannel blazer in a neutral color. On dress-down days you can wear it over slacks or a wrap skirt in a coordinating color, or you can wear it over your jeans. You should also take along a jacket for the unexpected business meeting if your dress or blouse is sleeveless.
In some offices V-knit tops or T-shirts are acceptable as long as they don’t make you look like a walking advertisement for the vacation resort you visited last year. Vibrant, shapely and logo-free, T-shirts look nice under jumpers and blazers. Save the ones you’ve washed limp for the next time you paint the use.
Every work day you want to look feminine without looking provocative. So, if the tight-fitting, micromini you’re thinking about wearing makes you look like you’re going to a bar instead of a boardroom, it’s probably too steamy for the office.
Save your favorite belly-bearing tops and back-revealing dresses for the beach. Low-cut and snug-fitting knit dresses and leggings that leave little to the imagination are bad choices as well. Avoid like the plague anything that looks too much like lingerie. You can get away with knee-length shorts in some offices, but even in your choice of shorts you should lean toward conservatives style.
Unless you work for the local baseball team, avoid clothes that make you look like you’re going to a sporting event. That generally means no baseball caps, jogging or sweat suits or cut-off shorts. You want to look like you’re going to work, not to the company picnic.
Don’t forget your legs and feet. Leave the 2-inch pumps in the closet and instead wear a pair of stacked heel loafers or suede lace-ups or flats. If you’re going to occasionally wear gym shoes, buy a pair just for that purpose and keep them clean and white. Leave the hiking boots, dirty canvas shoes and your favorite kickarounds in the closet, too. And don’t wear your open-toe shoes unless you see your boss wearing his or her sandals.
When the weather cools, throw on a pair of those patterned trouser socks or panty hose you’ve been dying to try out. But be sure to wear neutral patterned gray, black or brown hose — neon-colored stockings look totally out of place from 9 to 5.
Do experiment with other colors besides neons and have a little fun with your accessories. Skip the basic blues, blacks and browns in favor of reds, greens and pastels on casual Fridays. Pass on the pearl necklace and earrings and wear some costume jewelry that’s a little less conservative without going overboard. Tie a brightly colored scarf around your neck or put a novelty watch on your wrist.