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Nikki’s Inbox: Mastering Business-Casual

I just started my first office job and I am looking to find a way to express myself through fashion. My workplace has a business casual dress code (they are generally pretty relaxed about it) and I find it difficult to be creative and stylish as I feel quite restricted. I mainly wear a suit, a dress shirt, and a tie. I interchange my shirts from light pink, light blue, and white and change my tie/suit to match and that is as creative as it gets.

I am hoping you could give me some advice on what other outfits I can wear to change up my wardrobe and express myself. I am pretty open to anything and I would love to try new things.

I am 5’6, 118lbs, and have a slim build so it is difficult to find clothes (especially business clothes) that fit my small stature in a stylish way. I hope you can help me look my best even at work!

Andrew, 23/California, USA


Congratulations on your first job, Andrew! I can understand your frustration about your current work wardrobe. While your company may have a business-casual dress code, it’s always best to talk to Human Resources what this policy allows and forbids.

While we’re not as lucky as Mark Zuckerberg who certainly has the chops to wear hoodies just about everywhere, a business-casual dress code also means you still have to be mindful about the nature of your job. Are you a front-liner, such as in accounts or customer service? Are you always meeting clients? These things very much matter to your workday wardrobe choices. They contribute to a person’s impression about you, and most of all, the company you represent.

From Suit Jacket to Blazers, Cardigans & Jackets

Your suit is more business than business-casual, Andrew. First, lose the stiffness and go for less structured but still architectural blazers that have little to no padding at the shoulders. A one- or two-button number should suit your build. You shouldn’t limit yourself to blazers and sports jackets either. A zip or buttoned shawl collar cardigan is also an option, as well as a sleek denim jacket, or matte bomber jacket in cotton, polyester or even wool. Make sure that all your outerwear fits you well. Avoid any distracting elements like distressing, appliques, embroidery, shiny buttons and such.

From Dress Pants to Chinos, Jeans & Jogger Pants

I’m always a fan of smart dressing that includes trousers and jeans that match your inseams. Nothing looks lousier and more unprofessional than saggy pant and jeans cuffs. So please have your trousers altered if needed. That said, you’re also spoiled for choice in the pants department, Andrew. Chinos are no longer for your dad as the latest versions look more hip and modern with tapered silhouettes and smart pleating.

On the athleisure side, you can rock dressy jogger pants as long as they don’t have the too-obvious elasticized cuffs, and have the conventional button-and-zip closure. Some do have a half-elasticized waistband that makes the fit a little easier. And jeans, of course! Stick to dark-rinse jeans — no acid washes, whiskering or distressing — and dark colors, as well as straight-leg or slim-leg styles (no skinnies or super baggy fits, please), and you should be fine.

From Dress Shirts to Chambray Shirts, Polos & T-Shirts

Make use of your office’s relaxed dress code to wear button-downs in softer fabrics, and even collarless styles. Instead of the usual V-neck sweater layered over a shirt, you can go for a classic crewneck sweater, and make the shirt optional (but do wear an undershirt). A long-sleeved polo shirt in a refined knit can also smoothly transition you through fall. For tees, avoid wearing muscle shirts and what are obviously meant to be undershirts. Make sure your tops hit your hips so you can tuck them if needed, while not looking sloppy if not.

What’s Important: Fit, Cut & Color

Did you notice? I never mentioned ties at all. That’s because you don’t necessarily need to wear ties all the time, Andrew. For shoes, sneakers are acceptable everywhere these days but I vote leather sneakers over canvas ones if you’re wearing them for work. If you’re wearing trendy white sneakers, make sure they’re clean, and absolutely no basketball shoes please. You can also try simple loafers or variations of it like monk-straps, as well as derbies and chukka boots.

However, all these suggestions are moot if you disregard proper fit, cut and color. The nice thing about business-casual is that you don’t have to stick to a serious palette all the time, and this is where your style instincts come in. A nice light sand blazer over a gray tee and paired with burgundy trousers is perfect for fall. You can also go for punchy jewel tones like tangerine, electric blue or aubergine. You can go light over dark or vice versa, as long as you have a neutral color to ground the entire outfit to keep the mood business-like.

Good luck, Andrew!

Ask Nikki will be taking a brief break and will be back on October 13th!

P.S. If you’re sending a question, please don’t forget to include any helpful information about your body type or shape, your tastes or personality. You can include a selfie (link only please) or a photo of your clothes (which I will never publish without pre-approval). Thank you!

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