AdviceStyle + Ask The Edit

Ask Belle: “Casual” Dresses for an Ultra-Conservative Office

Hi Belle,

I work at a large law firm where the dress code is suits, suits and oh, suits.  Women are required to wear nylons when not wearing slacks.  Nail polish must be clear of sheer pink.  The partners recently decided to implement their version of “Casual Friday.”  Men are excused from wearing ties and jackets, but no chinos, polos, athletic shoes or short sleeves.  Women are also excused from wearing jackets, but dresses or skirts must still be knee-length and sleeveless dresses or blouses are not permitted.

Sounds like a blast, doesn’t it?

I’d like to find a few dresses to wear.  I am looking for a good wrap dress, which HR deemed acceptable if the neckline is modest, but I need more suggestions.  Sincerely, DP

My head is spinning.  I just mentally threw away 2/3 of my wardrobe.

Screen Shot 2013-06-26 at 12.50.10 AM


From Left, Michael Kors Paisley Faux Wrap ($120) // Side Tucked Sheath Dress ($118) // Boss Black Dashina Dress ($495) // Tahari by ASL Shift Dress ($128)

Before we start, I am assuming that all of these dresses could be “knee-length” on you.  It’s difficult to determine length from a photo because you have to consider the height of the model, your height, ability to tailor, etc.  So we are going to err on the side of knee-length.  (Other photos of the cobalt dress suggest it is longer than this photo would make it seem.)

Faux Wrap Dresses. If you’re the least bit concerned that a wrap dress might reveal too much, I’ve found that faux wraps usually have more coverage and less chance of slipping down or blowing open in the wind.  I don’t usually favor paisley, but I like this print and the leather accent on the buckle.

If it’s short sleeves that you’re after, this aqua (?) dress is nice.  I also like this cobalt if you prefer solids to prints.  And if you want all of the waist-cinching concealment of a wrap without the v-neck, try this black dress.

I also like the subtle print on this grey plus-size dress, and the black and white swirl on this petite, short-sleeve dress.

Cap Sleeve Dresses.  Always a favorite for hot days, I’m intrigued by how the details on this dress shape the waist.  I’d definitely want to try it on if I saw it in the store. If you’re looking for a similar dress for less, this Target cap sleeve sheath is $28.

I also loved the neckline and the shape of this Classiques Entier dress, so elegant.  If you’d like a slightly more substantial sleeve, I own this Black Halo dress in the iris color and I love it.

Shirtdresses are also a great place to start because there are so many styles to choose from.  This straighter style is a bit more casual, but toss out that belt in favor of a wide leather one, and it will add a bit more chic.

If you like this straight style, may I suggest this pale pink Ralph Lauren dress?  I like a slightly fuller skirt, so I would choose this crisp, white Jones of NY dress, which also comes in plus-size.  For petites, this Brooks Brothers number caught my eye.

Shift Dresses.  Simple, classic and perfect for days when you don’t feel your figure looks its best, shift dresses are a great addition to most wardrobes.  I adore this cobalt, and this black and white print would be a good choice for summer or winter (with black tights, of course).  I also like this short sleeve coral dress, which I would dress up with a navy statement necklace.

My one word of caution with shift dresses is not to choose a large or tropical print just because that can make the dress look to casual for the office.  But a solid or a small print should be fine.

Good luck with your quest, the marketplace simply isn’t catering to very conservative environments anywhere.  Most of the most stylish “business casual” dresses are sleeveless or they’re not long enough.  Your dress code is certainly a challenge.



  1. Amanda says:

    I’m dying to know which law firm this is!!

    June 26, 2013/Reply
    • Giggling Gourmand says:

      I would also love to know the firm and also the city in which this particular office is located.

      June 26, 2013/Reply
      • Belle says:

        Looked back at the email, she didn’t say.

        June 26, 2013/Reply
        • Giggling Gourmand says:

          Alas. This is a super strict dress code compared to most firms I’ve had experience with.

          June 26, 2013/Reply
  2. M says:

    I work in a formal office, too. The Antonio Melani brand at Dillard’s regularly has business dresses. They’re styles vary a lot, but I usually find one or two per season.

    One tip: the brand regularly fails to reinforce the top of the slit in the back of skirts and dresses well enough to stand up to regular wear. Fortunately most of the pieces are lined and otherwise well-made, so whenever I buy a skirt or dress from that brand I always have my tailor sew a small piece of fabric across the top of the slit so that the seam doesn’t split.

    June 26, 2013/Reply
    • M says:

      Their. Thank you autocorrect.

      June 26, 2013/Reply
    • M says:

      Oh also, LK Bennett, Reiss, and Hobbs are good brands for business dresses. I think they’re all British. The prices can be pretty steep without reductions, but they usually have good sales just before they release a new season of clothes.

      I also recently discovered The Fold, and hot d*mn do they have some pretty business formal-ish clothes. I’m saving my pennies (and a few hundred dollars) for the Astor dress.

      June 26, 2013/Reply
  3. Leigh says:

    I know these brands tend to skew ‘older,’ but try Talbots and Boden. They’ve had some conservative dresses that are pretty stylish lately. Jones New York generally has dresses that will work as well.

    June 26, 2013/Reply
  4. BN says:

    ok this is a dumb question, but what makes something a shift dress? what does it have (or doesn’t have) that makes it flattering?

    June 26, 2013/Reply
    • Lisa says:

      A shift dress is usually one long piece of fabric, minimally styled. Think jewel, scoop or boat neck, sleeves, and minimal or no shaping. On the very low end, a shift dress looks like a long t-shirt. On the high end, it flows over the body, neither adding bulk, nor binding and is a great “blank slate” for accessorizing.

      On a stick figure like me, however, it tends to look like a sack unless there is some real waist shaping, but that is more of a sheath dress than a true shift.

      (Lily Pulitzer was the queen of the preppie shift dress.)

      June 26, 2013/Reply
    • Belle says:

      A dressmaker once told me that the primary characteristic of a shift dress is that it is one piece and hangs from the shoulders. So in my mind, a shift dress is more of an a-line cut, looser fitting than a pencil dress and it doesn’t have a waistband.

      June 26, 2013/Reply
  5. Kim Lawyer says:

    I love the look of the pintuck dress…on a mannequin. I’ve seen a similar pintuck dress by Calvin Klein on many a woman here in DC – only one side is tucked. It tends to accentuate the hips, making even those with small hips look enormous.

    June 26, 2013/Reply
  6. Pancakes says:

    Is a sleeveless dress with a cardigan permitted? Provided, of course, you don’t remove your cardigan. Or is that still a no…

    June 27, 2013/Reply
    • Jenn L. says:

      Even if it isn’t expressly permitted, as long as the doesn’t remove the cardi, how would they know? Are they doing wardrobe inspections…?

      June 27, 2013/Reply
  7. Joules says:

    Great advice on the faux-wrap versus regular wrap. Regular wrap dresses definitely show more skin than I’m usually comfortable with at the office, but faux-wraps are perfect and very lady-like.

    Style by Joules

    June 27, 2013/Reply
  8. Meg says:

    I work for a biglaw firm with a permanently business casual dress code (and jeans days every Friday). I just realized how incredibly lucky I am! But… because I am a younger associate, and I tend to wear a lot of bright colors, I try to dress a bit more professionally and classic than many of my colleagues.

    So, on that note, I usually have a blazer on over whatever I’m wearing. It makes me feel a bit more professional, even though other people in the office are significantly more casual than I am on a daily basis. A well-tailored blazer makes even a fairly casual sleeveless dress look professional. I’ve had great luck with Talbots, especially because I am tall and large chested, and their clothes are cut more conservatively.

    June 28, 2013/Reply