Discuss: A Casual Outlook on Life

Apr 15, 2011

Earlier this week, USA Today featured a fascinating article about business casual attire.  The paper found that in 2002, 53-percent of employers listed their dress code as “business casual.”  Now, only 38-percent do.  

The article also found a company who spelled out in their policy that cleavage-baring tops, torn clothing and “exposed thong undergarments” were not appropriate for work.  Have we really fallen so far that we need to be told that whale tail isn’t work attire?  

Implementing a business casual dress code implies that you trust the judgment of your employees to decide what is casual while still being appropriate for a professional environment.  Unfortunately, a good percentage of staffers at the U.S. Capitol and elsewhere would rather focus on the casual than the business.  

The article features a woman in her mid-twenties who wore an outfit to work that was so inappropriately casual, she was asked not to attend a meeting so that a client wouldn’t see her.  They literally hid her away like clutter, but she still didn’t understand that/why this outfit wasn’t okay for a professional office. 

image courtesy of USAToday

Flip-flops, shorts and t-shirts are not casual business attire. This outfit is, at best, backyard BBQ, baseball game or day at the beach attire.  And the fact that a woman looked into her closet, saw this outfit and thought, “Perfect for work,” makes my head throb like Ben-Hur is hosting a chariot race in my cranium.  (Not that the outfit they picked for her was any better.)  

When the paper asked her why she thought she should be allowed to wear this to work, she described normal business attire as “stifling,” claimed it hurt her creativity and said that being comfortable allowed her to “focus on her work.”  Seriously?

First off, her outfit is NOT creative, so let me disabuse her of that notion right away.  This is soccer Mom at a PTA picnic (no offense to the stylish soccer Moms), not Grace Coddington-esque self expression.  So please don’t use the First Amendment right to have a sense of style as an excuse for being completely clueless about proper codes of dress.  Because let’s be honest, it doesn’t take a lot of creativity to choose the teal t-shirt.

I also can’t believe that even after being told this outfit is wrong, she is still defending it.  Her lack of self-awareness is mind blowing.  

Look at your co-workers, look at your clients, look at the people in your industry, and if you are more casually dressed than they are, you are clearly the problem.  Don’t defend yourself with a cadre of pitiful excuses and an argument so lacking in merit that it would make Socrates laugh out loud.  Simply go home, and wear something better tomorrow.  Lesson learned.

Secondly, your employer is not asking you to surrender an essential part of your being by having a dress code. He is asking you to dress like a professional who respects your clients, your bosses and yourself.

You are a reflection of your employer.  Thus, what you wear is a reflection of your employer.  So your Boss is the final arbiter of what is and what is not appropriate for work. If you find this stifling, then maybe this company isn’t the right fit for you.

When employees wear weekend attire to work and call it business casual, I get really frustrated.  This is especially true in the case of Hill staffers.  We gripe all the time about how no one respects government employees and the tiring, difficult, emotionally taxing work that we do here.  But we definitely don’t help the voter’s impression of us when we show up for work in shorts, flip-flops, mini-skirts, tank tops, halter tops, and wrinkled clothing.  When the constituents are dressed better than you are, that is a problem.

Impressions matter, and you are a reflection of your boss/company/Member of Congress.  If you take your job seriously, you need to dress like a serious professional, not like a woman on her way to a cruise vacation.  

Now, I know that some of you have always worked in casual environments where the rules are bent and broken regularly, so I’m going to help you out.  Next week, is going to be Business Casual Week.  There will be jeans, and t-shirts, and chinos, (oh my!) but every outfit will be professional.

Additionally, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter.  What is appropriate for a business casual workplace or a casual Friday?  What is inappropriate?  And why do you think so many women are dressing like above and then making excuses for themselves?  


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  1. Jersey says:

    Excellent post – great for discussion. Now, I have a question for you. What is considered appropriate for teacher, educators, and administration to wear? As an elementary teacher I find it difficult to buy a suit only to risk having food spilled on it in the cafeteria! However, I am also shocked to find that many of my colleages have resorted to jogging outfits!

  2. Nina says:

    How timely! I was just thinking about this today.

    I work for a large membership organization with a business casual dress code. One of the best things about dressing for working here is that my schedule is very predictable. Unlike many in DC I never have to suddenly run to the Hill, I know when I have an out of office meeting that I need to break out a suit for. Day to day I wear dress pants + shirt (sometimes with 't-shirt material' but never with screenprinting)+cardigan + jewlery + work appropriate flats.

    However, we do have casual Fridays where I usually wear jeans instead of dress pants. Today for some reason I decided to go a little extra casual: jeans+ printed tshirt + cardigan + trendy sneakers. Which my boss has no problem with at all, but OF COURSE this would be the day that another department is having an important meeting on our floor with some notable political figures. Before I run across the hall to use the restroom I'm changing into the spare pumps I leave at my desk and buttoning up my cardigan just in case I run into anyone famous.

    TL;DR Constant Vigilance on the casualness front! You never know who will see you.

  3. P says:

    I think the perfect business casual or casual Friday outfit includes a casual blazer like this one: https://bit.ly/f2D6Xl or this one: https://bit.ly/eGcw0O
    They would probably look strange over a formal black pencil skirt, but look very cute with a mid-length cotton skirt, cropped cotton pant or dark-wash jeans. At the same time, a jacket with some structure to it really helps keep a look “professional”.

  4. Shannon says:

    The top is OK. The outfit could have been rescued with ankle-length slacks (like J Crew's City Capri) in gray or black, with nicer shoes. Ugh, haaaaaaaate flip flops.

    My office has a “dress for your day” policy. Generally, we are business casual (slacks and nice shirts, or dresses with cardigans). But if we have a board meeting or a funder swinging by, or we're hosting a conference, we're expected to bust out the suits. I must admit I'm in skinny jeans, a tunic, and cowboy boots today…but that's because we're cleaning out the office later and I need to be comfortable for that.

  5. Kelly says:

    The woman has a teddy bear hanging from a swing in her bedroom- clearly her judgment is impaired.

    I saw a femaile MEMBER OF CONGRESS wearing those exact same capri shorts in black with black knee high boots walking through the Rayburn tunnel today, I almost died.

  6. LT says:

    Great topic Belle, and I look forward to next week's posts. Shannon and Nina's offices sound like mine — cardigan + shell + long necklace + slacks + kitten heels/flats gets repetitive. The outfits you usually post are what I have in mind when I have to do business formal for a meeting. Your suggestions on how to make business casual work on a daily basis will be great, especially when the tendency is for it to veer into too sloppy over time (hence flip flops, spandex and inappropriate t-shirts). We also have a jeans-on-friday rule which for me basically means wearing the same thing I would wear on top during the week, but swapping the slacks for jeans.

    How the woman in the USA Today article thought that her outfit was appropriate is beyond me. Her 'after' is much better (well, more appropriate), but boring. That is how I remember dressing right out of college for business casual in NYC.

  7. Anastasia says:

    Hi All,

    What are everyones thoughts on Black Leggings?

  8. Professional Freshman says:

    im so glad you posted about this!
    I work in a business casual environment, and i consistently wear black jeans to work. (i ALWAYS make sure my top is dressy, nice cardigan, silk shirt, or blazer), and i always have nice pumps, but my job is entirely on my feet (teacher style)

    are they ok?

  9. Professional Freshman says:


  10. VA Gal says:

    My office is business casual unless we have court, in which case one obviously breaks out the suits. We have a couple of people who veer into “too casual” territory, but for the most part people stay professional. No denim (unless it's announced as a jeans day), no leggings, no flip flops, tanks or casual t-shirts.

  11. C says:

    Depends entirely on the office. Her outfit would be fine in our office (although no one ever wears shorts or flip flops, really, people do wear shorter skirts and nice sandals, myself included). I work in DC in publishing and we have a very casual office (almost everyone wears jeans unless you feel like dressing it up a bit). I agree with the point that they should make the rules more clear, I bought a dress last summer that I hesitated wearing to work for a long time because I thought it might be too short and was sleeveless. When I finally wore it, I got tons of compliments, including several from my bosses… who knew?! Funny comment above about the teddy bear, that was the first thing I noticed too.

  12. harder says:

    I'd like to know what is considered business attire for the Hill. The other day I wore a gray Antonio Melani dress that I purchased in their business suit section, and my LD told me that it wasn't appropriate attire to staff a committee hearing. I'm not sure if it's because dresses aren't considered business formal, or if it's because I work with all men that they aren't sure what's business form for women. Tips? It was something similar to this: https://www.dillards.com/webapp/wcs/stores/servlet/ProductDisplay?catalogId=301&langId=-1&storeId=301&productId=502686273&view=15&No=0&N=1615634+2010079&searchUrl=%2Fendeca%2FEndecaStartServlet%3Fview%3D15%26No%3D0%26N%3D1615634%2B2010079&R=03512187

  13. Deb says:

    We have casual Fridays in my office (Federal Department) as long as no one important is coming in (whether we're meeting with them or not). Otherwise the dresscode is slacks/skirt and a sweater/blouse or a suit if you have to take an important meeting.

    For Fridays, my rule is if I look like I could be a DC tourist, I am under dressed. If I have to deal with them on the Metro I at least want to be able to stand out as not being one of them. This means obviously no shorts, no ill-fitting log tees, no flip-flops. I have worn my converse before but with nice jeans and a nice top (they give some personality, and I always have my heels stashed in my desk if I need to change out of them).

    The picture from USA Today screams tourist to me…so that's definitely not something I would wear to work…

  14. RMS says:

    To harder – If a dress is sleeveless, it is not business attire unless you wear a jacket or sweater over it.

  15. Ms. B says:

    Best boss I ever was fortunate to be employed by had a very strict office/business attire dress code. For the women, it was no pants! Business attire skirt suit, dresses, – jacket, etc…PERIOD. Twice a month on “catch-up Fridays” we could wear pants. Men – suit for office meetings, casual friday was khaki slacks, shirt, tie -sport coat at the ready. And that was casual??!! We were highly challenged and motivated, creative and productive. He had standards and rewarded positive results, and had no patience for office drama. It was an office run by “the golden ruile”…break it and you were gone. But, because of his standards turn over was very low. Thus, as a team we very successful which meant HE was successful. The current “casual Friday” attire makes me think of picnics and barbeques. Unfortunately, women especially should heed your advice Belle and keep it kicked up a notch. Sadly, Different times…

  16. Marie-Christine says:

    Much depends on the office, and the location thereof. Make sure whatever pronouncements you make next week allows for different climates and 'casual climate'. What's good in DC isn't necessarily in LA, much less Hawaii or Alaska. Ditto for banking vs IT.
    That said, I think several issues are being confused here. There's the 'business' level of things. Then there's the female specifics. Thong underwear in full view isn't just inappropriate, it'll hurt your career much more than flipflops or the non/ironing of your shirt, and it could even be dangerous if it gives the wrong ideas to the office psychopath. I'm afraid a contemporary issue is the fact that young female teenagers are encouraged to dress like whores by advertising, allowed to do so both at school and by their parents, and are now having trouble making the transition to adult wear. The poor things believe that showing your undies is the essence of being sexy, and that they need to.

  17. Nina says:

    Mrs. B – No pants for women? NO PANTS FOR WOMEN?! That is some sexist bullshit. It's bad enough that unspoken cultural rules hold women to different standards of dress, but to have that be the official company policy is awful. I hope he gets sued.

  18. Heidi says:

    Great post! I work in a business casual environment – by that i mean my bosses regularly sport jeans. Pretty much anything goes but we do forbid shorts, tank tops, etc..

    that being said, I've always abided by the 'dress for the job you want not for the job you have' mindset. I may wear jeans but i'll never sport a tank top, and i may wear flip flops (common in our office – sorry belle!) but i keep my toes polished.

    That all being said, I interned on the hill and I worked for a nonprofit so I know what proper business attire is – even business casual – her outfit? Definitely not business attire. Not even business casual. It's sad that she got so much attention from the article and like you said – her lack of self awareness is so obvious but seriously? Playing the “wahh business attire is too stiffling” card is crap. Anyone who's done any sort of internship in college or in high school knows better. Never mind if you've been in the workforce for a number of months/years.

  19. Maria says:

    excellent post, Belle!

  20. Ms. B says:

    Nina – LOL. It was indeed a different time. He felt women should look like women and men should be all polish. He was the boss. He was “old fashioned” to be sure and an unparallelled gentleman. But your perspective on sexism is out of line. It was an equal pay, benefits (including maternity leave) and reward office three decades ago. He was ahead of his time. Because there was a dress code there was also a seasonal allotment for all employees to make sure they adhered, both for the men and women. I didn't mind it at all, because the equality was in the paycheck and at the conference table.

  21. Alla says:

    For summer, spring and fall – I'm a huge fan of the cropped pant. (JCrew Minnie, and a few types at Banana) with flats and an un-tucked button down.
    You're completely covered, but super comfy and showing no more than 3 inches of ankle.

    Flip flops, meanwhile, are NEVER ok.

  22. Caitlin says:

    Today I'm wearing jeans, a flowery peasant blouse and gray CK blazer. I try to take Belle's advice that if I
    Going to wear jeans, a blazer can help keep it professional. I dress nicer than my boss but I believe in the dress for the job you want policy.

  23. R says:

    This woman really made herself sound/look like an idiot in this article. Not only is she a woman in business, she is in the business of PR! Her job is to represent brands, but why would her customers trust her if she can't even put herself together? This is just another example of common sense gone wack. I'm 24 and work in PR and I think we all know it's not that confusing…

  24. Great post! I will never understand people who complain about business attire being “too stifling.” If that is really true for you, then you need a different career or work place. I think dressing for work shows a respect for the people you work with, the people you work for, and for yourself. I always felt that I could not do my best work unless I was dressed for it.

    I also think there has been a shift where “business casual” has become what I consider just plain “casual.” I would never wear jeans or khakis to my office on a normal day if my dress code was business casual and it wasn't a Friday/recess day/moving day or I was CERTAIN I wasn't going to have to go to the Hill. Business casual to me was suit separates, nice slacks, dresses, jackets, button downs, shells and blouses. If I had a meeting or a hearing or a PAC event: SUIT.

  25. prosecutordc says:

    It seems you should aim to be the better dressed person in the room rather than the questionably, undressed person. Why walk a thin line? I do not think jeans day should include leggings or jeggings or shirts like the one in the picture. Those are far too revealing for the work place. As to business casual, each business has a different definition. And if they don't have a definition, they need one. At my place of business, sleeveless dresses without a jacket or sweater are a no-no. And short skirts even with tights–a no-no. Plunging necklines, also not a great idea. I think most people garner more respect if they dress with class…less skin showing and careful attention to accessories.

  26. VA says:

    The non-profit where I work is business cazh Mon-Thur, casual on Fri. For women, the culture is dress pants/skirts/dresses with work-appropriate tops. Sleeveless is fine, strapless/spaghetti strap would be frowned upon. No rules about tights, open-toed shoes, etc. My go-to outfit is a pencil skirt, heels or flats, a silky tank/blouse, and a cardigan (plus jewelry). Nobody wears a suit unless they're presenting at a Board meeting or chatting up donors.

    In the winter I'll wear leggings under skirts or dresses with boots, but never by themselves.

    Casual Friday means jeans, except for the one girl (every office has this girl) who wears leggings as pants with tops that don't quite cover her booty. Ugh.

  27. ~M says:

    One thing I'm really surprised no one has mentioned is productivity level associated with clothing. I'm currently on a VERY long-term training assignment where the dress code is nebulous but very casual. I'm finishing up part where I have been wearing jeans, long-sleeved t-shirts, and big sweaters all winter. I'm really looking forward to returning to the office dress code. I find myself too relaxed. I don't keep my normally tightly sealed mouth shut. I'm much less diplomatic. I give my opinions too readily and too strongly.

    When you wear professional clothes, you act professionally. When you wear casual clothes, you act casually.

  28. CynthiaW says:

    I cannot believe that anyone would believe that outfit is appropriate for work, let alone a meeting with clients. To be frank, if I were her boss, that demonstration of a complete lack of judgement would make me question her suitability to work in my office at all. The fact that she thinks that she should be able to express herself by dressing like that at work boggles the mind.

    I teach elementary school and we have had to add the “no track suit” rule to our handbook – which blows me away that someone would have to be told that – but at least the offending teachers were only dressing that way on casual day (still wrong, but not as bad as if they didn't even realize that it was casual attire). I mostly wear dresses to work, with the occasional skirt/blouse or dress pant/blouse combo thrown in – I just make sure that they are wash and wear. I have a few “dry clean only” outfits and I just try to keep from wearing those on days that I know will be messy. Of course, I don't teach art or a lab science – our art teachers dress much more casually than I would and understandably so. On casual day, I'll wear jeans with a nice top or, when weather permits, nice cropped pants. I would never wear cropped cargo pants or Bermuda shorts to work.

  29. lulu says:

    That picture is hilarious. “what's wrong with this outfit?” Humm, everything?

    I don't know in what world expressing yourself would mean wearing black flip flops. Very creative! and she's in PR!

  30. S says:

    I think the rules of the House chamber are instructive for Hill staff; according to the Rules Committee, “Members are required to dress appropriately, which has traditionally been considered to include a coat and tie for male Members and appropriate business attire for female Members. Members should not wear overcoats or hats on the floor while the House is in session.” The standard for women is notoriously vague but I know from personal experience that sleeveless (and anything too close to it, including sometimes cap sleeves – and definitely the white and black dress deemed inappropriate for a committee hearing) is not considered by chamber personnel to be proper business attire for Members or staff. Just my (or rather, the House of Representatives'!) two cents.

  31. P says:

    Appreciate the sentiment, but “appropriate business attire” is way too vague to be very much help!

  32. Katherine says:

    I'm really looking forward to next week's posts, as I am trying to break out of the camisole/cardigan rut I've been in for much too long.

  33. MidwestChic says:

    I was always taught to dress for the job I want, not the job I have. And this woman from USA Today makes me want to punch a kitten. Like most of the women above, as well as you Belle, I HATE flip flops. I do not even enjoy wearing them after getting a pedicure. There are plenty of work appropriate sandals to jazz up an outfit.

    I am really looking forward to this week's posts on more casual attire, as our state government is fast approaching the interim. Could you also help us out with how to wear those J Crew cropped pants? They are adorable, but finding the right length/shoes/top to wear with them is driving me nuts. Help!

  34. Jennifer from A Touch of Garlic says:

    I know flip flops are out of the question, but working in a somewhat casual office, I always debate about the appropriateness of dress sandals, i.e. strappy wedges or open-toed kitten heel sandals? I mean, open-toed pumps are okay, but what about a sandal that shows just as much as a flip flop?

  35. Stef says:

    My association is business casual and I have seen everything from thongs peeking out of skirts to dirty clothes (eww). Dressing appropriately doesn't have to stuffy and boring. Accessories and proper fit (even if it's a size up) can make a world of difference in your career. No, we shouldn't be judged solely by our clothes, but image is everything.

  36. Liz says:

    I couldn't agree more with the author of this post. I don't mean to be snide, but mixed company (those from other generations) view flip flops as non-business like. I have a personal issue with the shorts… Work is not a fashion show, nor is it a place to bring expectations of being taken seriously without thought on the worker's part, including clothing.

    I went to a class where the lecturer stated women who wear business suits with skirts were still perceived as smarter than women wearing suits with pants. The decision is easy for me, but then again, I'm aggressively climbing the ladder.

    Conversely, I'm glad someone is pushing the limit in this direction – pantyhose are quite gruesome on the physical, mental, and financial front.

  37. Holly says:

    Sadly, I have seen this exact outfit on a government employee greeting the Queen of England.

    I work for the federal public service in Canada and in Ottawa-Gatineau, this outfit is pretty typical for many of my female colleagues during the summer. The federal public service has no official dress code, there may have been one at one time but I think it was declared against the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

    Last summer I visited Toronto and happen to be staying at the Royal York Hotel at the same time that the Queen and Prince Philip who were on a royal tour. (The British royals usually stay at this hotel when in Toronto.) The evening they were to arrive in Toronto, I hung out in the lobby to catch a glimpse. I work in the same complex as the department responsible for ceremonial events including royal visits so I recognized the women who were overseeing the protocol. I have to say I was shocked at their attire; two of the women were dressed like the woman in your post. Although a third woman was wearing a suit, the skirt had more in common with a belt, her t-shirt under the blazer was too tight and too thin and her high-heeled pumps were way too high. All three seemed oblivious to the fact that their clothing was not appropriate despite the fact that they were surrounded by hotel staff wearing their best suits and uniforms and the RCMP officers were also in proper suits if they weren't in their red serge.

    While I was appalled by their choice of clothing, I don't think these women intended on being disrespectful to the Queen; they just saw this as another day at work and this is what they wear to work. I do not dress like this myself even to go to the grocery store. I love getting dressed up for work and wear a suit most days. Casual for me is usually dress pants or a dress without a jacket. Over the years I have had a number of female colleagues approach me for style advice and when I talk with them I discover that most are not dressing their best because of laziness. In my opinion, many of my female colleagues are not putting in the effort to build a professional image because they feel they don't deserve it for a number of reasons, whether because the money could be better spent elsewhere, they've gained weight, or don't know where or how to shop. Many of the stores here seem to cater to either very young or much more mature women so it can be difficult to build a work wardrobe that is neither too revealing or frumpy and still affordable. Fortunately Banana Republic opened up here a few years ago and J.Crew will be opening some stores, so there is some hope.

    There are also some cultural reasons for some of my colleague's clothing choices too. Canada, and Quebec in particular, have become pretty non-secular so most of us are not buying clothes with the idea of “Sunday best” anymore. A lot of the women I see are wearing clothes to work that would be better suited to a night club, so maybe they're thinking of their “Saturday night best”. I am lucky in that I work at a quasi-judicial organization and most of my colleagues do dress appropriately though there's one woman on my floor who, on most days, looks like she's going to a costume party – her interpretations of runway trends can be a little too literal, but I can appreciate the effort.

    By the way, I was wearing a simple black dress, black ballet flats and a red cardigan while I waited for the Queen to walk through the lobby. I have to say it was a thrill to see her in person. She has the bluest eyes I've ever seen and seemed to be in good spirits despite having endured a full day of events and official duties. She didn't do a walk-about but did smile and waive at the crowd who had gathered to greet her. She was gone in an instant but she definitely left a lasting impression with me, my boyfriend and the many Shriners who saw her. And her pink and yellow outfit was totally appropriate for the occasion.

  38. terri says:

    Capitol Hill Barbie – “I always felt that I could not do my best work unless I was dressed for it.” Outstanding observation.

  39. gingerr says:

    If she'd had heels and a jacket on with those shorts/t-shirt she could have gotten away with it.

  40. K says:

    Am I the only one who gets better work done when dressed casually and comfortably? When I'm comfy in jeans and a hoodie, I can focus and get through a ton of work because I'm not fidgeting with my skirt, shifting the clasp on my jewelry, or replacing bandaids on my blisters. That doesn't mean I dress too casually for the office, but on the occassions when I can (and on my telework days) I'm a much happier employee. Sometimes I just wish I could focus on my work and not so much on my appearance.

  41. Belle says:

    K-I appreciate that people have different needs when it comes to comfort, but I don't sit at work and fidget or mend blisters. I think you need to invest in some professional shoes and clothes that fit you better and aren't so uncomfortable.

  42. Montana says:

    I dress by one rule – the old saying “You only have one chance to make a first impression”. I don't think jeans or any type of capris or shorts are appropriate for work. My opinion is that pepole are lazy, you have to make it a priority to dress well. I don't mean to sound unpleasant – but people are judged by their appearance, and that will never change. Women need to cover up a little more and dress more feminine, leave a little to the imagination!! Mystery is everything – and in case you're wondering, I'm under 40.

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