Working in an office can generate a whole number of daily anxieties—even if you really like your employer. For instance, have you ever found yourself dreading your lengthy commute or mentally preparing yourself for having to cope with limited parking spaces? Or perhaps you’re in the throes of dealing with a difficult personality or are currently strategizing how to ask for a raise. Here’s one minor anxiety that I’m willing to bet most of us have experienced at some point in our professional lives: What do I wear to my job? And, if the dress code is business casual, what does that actually mean?
If you’ve ever found dressing for the office to be intimidating, it’s a small wonder why. Every office has its own official by-the-books dress code, and said dress code is typically compounded by nuances specific to the organization. For example, one of my previous employers adhered to a business-casual dress code but had an exception pertaining to company-branded swag, which was fair game any day of the week (even T-shirts).
How people dress for the office can also be subtly influenced by geographic location and industry—two factors that affect salary ranges. Additionally, from a social sciences perspective, these two factors can also influence individuals’ behaviors and perspectives. For example, those working in a city might have a tendency to reach for more posh pieces than those who live and work in a more remote area, where fashion isn’t isn’t as heavily driven by trends or the desire to own designer-label products.
No matter how you slice it, business casual can be tricky to dress for. That’s why it can be helpful to decode the dressing directive by breaking it down piece by piece, or outfit component by outfit component. While skirts and dresses are both popular business-casual attire, there are also plenty of appropriate business-casual pants options. Starting with this foundational element (by understanding what’s appropriate and what’s not) can then make completing your office looks infinitely easier.
What is a Business-Casual Dress Code?
Let’s be clear: there’s no one exact definition of “business casual.” It’s ambiguous (hence the confusion). In general, however, business casual is understood to be a middle ground between formal and casual dress. Common elements you’ll see in business-casual attire for both men and women include collared shirts, blazers and sport coats, sweaters, khakis and trousers, and closed-toe shoes. When examining business casual for women, pencil skirts, midi- and maxi-length dresses, jumpsuits, and heeled sandals are also popular options. Fabrics associated with business-casual dress include linen, tweed, faux leather, cashmere, suede, and silk—to name a few.
Obversely, pieces to avoid when channeling “business casual” include spaghetti straps, flip-flops, cropped tops, destroyed items, bottoms that skimp on the hemline, and anything transparent.
While it’s most often associated with workwear (“business” is in the name, after all), business casual can also be an appropriate default for professional meetings you might hold outside of the office (such as appointments with your real estate agent or attorney) or events (such as attending a play or musical theater performance). So, even if you work from home, having some staple business-casual pieces and outfits in your closet can serve you well.
What Types of Pants Are Business Casual for Women?
When putting business-casual outfits together, pants can be a great option for women. They’re extremely versatile and can also be rather convenient when dealing with cooler temperatures or tackling an active lifestyle (sometimes a skirt just won’t cut it). But before getting into the specifics of what kind of pants fall in line with business casual, it’s critical to really solidify an understanding of what “business casual” actually means. So, let’s take the mysticism out of this common dress code.
The Best Business-Casual Pants For Women
An easy way to tackle business-casual dress is by arming yourself (ie: your closet) with a variety of pants that fall within the category. Here are some favorites.
You can’t go wrong with a pair of trousers. They are chic, professional, flattering—the list goes on and on. Nab a pair in a neutral color that you can style over and over again with different tops, jackets, and shoes. You might also consider building out your wardrobe to include different varieties to accommodate changing seasons. For example, wool trousers can keep you comfortable during the winter months, whereas linen trousers hit on professionalism while also keeping you relatively cool during the summer. Trousers can also be easily dressed down (think tees, sneakers, and the like), which make them extremely versatile and practical (and fun to wear outside of the office).
While jeans used to be one of those gray-area items, they are now considered business casual by many employers (just check your company’s dress code policy to be sure). That being said, when it comes to frequently-made business-casual mistakes, wearing destroyed denim is top of the list. While many employers are on-board with allowing employees to wear jeans to the office, far fewer are OK with those that have been ripped to shreds. Be thoughtful when choosing which pair of denim to wear to the office. Make sure they are full-length and rip-free. Dark rinses are also generally considered more professional than lighter varieties.
Yes, believe it or not, leggings can qualify as business casual—you just have to put a little thought into how you style them. Because they do tend to look more on the casual side, be sure that you’re styling them with tops, shoes, and accessories that are heavier on professionalism. Ponte pants hit on the leggings silhouette while providing some much sought-after thickness, and leggings in non-traditional fabrics (such as suede of faux leather) camouflage themselves as regular pants.
If you’re looking for a way to break out of your same-old, same-old outfit formulas, then a pair of (faux) leather pants can be just the ticket. They’re bold, versatile, and scream self-assuredness. Mix and match with a variety of footwear (from sandals, to boots, to loafers) and tops (from sweaters, to blouses, to tees on casual Friday).
Utility fashion was ultra popular during the ‘90s and has been having a major comeback. Look for utility pant styles constructed with fabrics such as viscose or nylon for a more professional look. Because the silhouette can feel more casual, be sure to also pair them with a polished top. Shoes with some height (such as heeled sandals or a pair of kitten heels) can also button-up the look.
5 Business Casual Pants Outfits for Women
Keeping these no-fail business casual pants in mind, enjoy pairing them with different shoe and top options to channel different aesthetics or accommodate the current season. Scroll through for a handful of outfit formulas to get you started.
Denim + A Blazer + Flats
It doesn’t get more business-casual classic than a stylish pair of jeans and a blazer. Ballet flats are a comfortable shoe option that look chic with all styles of jeans and compliment the silhouette of a tried-and-true blazer. This outfit formula is also well suited for after-work events (think team dinners) and cultural gatherings (such as dropping by the latest exhibition opening at your local art gallery).
Faux-Leather Pants + Converse + A Knit Top
If your office allows for more creative dress, then a pair of faux leather pants can be a fun, edgy way to channel energy into your OOTD. Since the pants will be the highlight of your look, keep the rest of your pieces fairly neutral and understated. A matching headband adds visual balance and a pair of converse is the proverbial cherry on top to nailing a casual cool-girl vibe.
Chino Pants + A Button-Down Shirt + Wedges
In the summer months, style a coastal-grandma-approved pair of chino pants with a simple white button-down shirt. Add some classic never-go-out-of-style shoes and earrings for a sense of outfit completion. A large basket can be a practical bag choice, serving your commuting needs while also adding to the aesthetic of the outfit. Take this look to work or out to lunch.
Trousers + A Blouse + Slingback Heels
If you need a look for your next job interview, you can’t go wrong with a pair of trousers. Reach for trendy, wide-leg dress pants and style them with a pair of slingback heels. An eyelet blouse breaks away from the traditional collared button-down, granting extra interest to your look and—in turn—making you a more memorable candidate.
Leggings + A Sweater
For a comfortable workweek outfit that’s just as well suited for brunch on the weekend, pair ponte pants with a chic embroidered sweatshirt. A collared, oversized button-down shirt layered beneath elevates the look and adds length. A pair of chunky loafers are both chic and practical.