What To Wear To Work: From Business Formal To Creative Casual

If you’re one of the 72 million American women who are currently employed, chances are you’re reading this at work. Maybe you’re scrolling through your phone during a slow moment in a meeting (we won't tell!), or scanning the site while you eat lunch at your desk. And if you are at your job, you’re probably outfitted according to some kind of dress code, whether it’s been explicitly dictated by your boss or absorbed by osmosis through observing your co-workers.
The rules of professional dress are changing faster than we can say “OOO,” and the levels of formalism in office attire are still very much alive, and very much a shopping conundrum — one that we’re here to help you work through, of course. Based on intrepid research and conversations with a few experts — including the human resources department here at Refinery29 — we’ve narrowed down the three traditional categories, and we’re even proposing a fourth, based on how much the work environment has evolved in the last few decades. “The standards of our dress codes are definitely changing and shifting,” says Samantha Spica, communications director for the women’s career hub Fairygodboss. “Casual today is not casual 30 years ago.”
When you think of traditional, suit-and-tie office attire, you’re probably envisioning business formal or business professional — two historically separate categories that have slowly been merging together as work dress codes evolve. These rules of dress are common in industries like finance or hospitality. “Wearing a dark suit, a conservative dress, a blouse with a collar — all of these things fall into the category of business formal and business professional,” says Lillian Landrum, director of people and talent for The Muse, an online destination for young job seekers.
Business casual relaxes this hyper-formality, allowing for prints and brighter colors to co-exist with suit separates that should be tailored, but don’t always have to match. Of footwear, Spica says, “you can easily skip the heels, and go with the flats.” However, Landrum emphasizes, “You’re still wearing collared shirts. Your skirts are still falling right at the knee; you’re not wearing miniskirts.” Smart casual begins to incorporate jeans and sneakers. Here, Landrum explains, “if you’re going to wear jeans and a trendy blazer with a tee, I would still suggest wearing polished shoes to pull the look together.”
With the R29 HR department just a Slack message away, we thought it would be prudent to get an insider’s take on the dress code here at Refinery29. “We’re creative casual,” says Hildi Canos, a four-year veteran of our human resources team. “We try to be as inclusive as possible,” she explains, “and anything that inspires you, creates conversation, and represents who you are as a person, falls under our umbrella of office-appropriate." Spica agrees that the popularity of “a dress code that allows people to express more of their personalities” is rapidly growing. “Companies are more concerned with the work employees are actually doing than with the clothes they wear.” We’re therefore proposing the new category of creative casual, with the only rule being respectful self-expression.
With these ever-shifting parameters in mind, we’re presenting some common work situations, and suggestions on how to shop depending on your office’s dress code. Whether you’re in the traditional school of it’s always better to overdress than underdress, or in the come-as-you-are world of R29, we hope you find your ideal work lewk in this round-up. And if you don’t, let us know what we’re missing.
At Refinery29, we’re here to help you navigate this overwhelming world of stuff. All of our market picks are independently selected and curated by the editorial team. If you buy something we link to on our site, Refinery29 may earn commission.

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