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What on earth is ‘business casual’?

With the start of a new year, many of us are also thinking of new careers. When interviewing for and starting a new job no-one wants to look too overdressed, let alone under-dressed. Personal stylist Caroline Carpenter demystifies business casual.

I had a gorgeous client who was returning to work after having her third child. Being out of the workforce with kids for five years, she was lacking confidence and needed advice. Before having kids she worked in the IT industry and was now interviewing for a role within Government. She knew the dress code was ‘business casual’ but she wasn’t clear what this was and whether her IT wardrobe was appropriate. So we met for coffee and discussed what business casual actually means.

The business casual dress code can often be confusing and you might be surprised to learn what dress code you are actually wearing. In trying to demystify what business casual actually means, we found it helpful to look at formal, casual and then what lies in-between.

Formal business is the uniform for lawyers, accountants, cabinet ministers and that ilk. It’s very conservative. Colour is used sparingly and quality is the focus. For women, this code consists of conservative, dark coloured pants and skirt suits, plain-coloured shirt or blouse, stockings, and formal closed-toe-shoes. For men, dark or neutral coloured full suits, plain light-coloured collared shirts with a tie, and formal dress shoes. I would suggest both sexes should invest in a good formal winter coat to get you through those stormy winter days to and from work. The puffer jacket won’t cut it here.

Casual is the exact opposite. Think the tech startup scene or media companies, which focus on comfort and letting the creative juices flow. Of course you still need to look clean and tidy, not scruffy. Leave your sweat pants and crocs at home, thanks. For women, casual could be dark denim jeans, well-fitted dresses, or mid length skirts with neat t-shirts, blouses, tops or jumpers. Shoes can be tidy casual sneakers, boots, or sandals. For men, dark denim, pants or tailored shorts with a neat t-shirt, casual shirt, or jumper and tidy sneakers, boots or loafers. We have some great stores in Wellington that stock creative, fun clothes for casual looks.

Then we have the infamous business casual. According to the dictionary it is ‘a style of dress or dress code that allows people to wear casual clothes that are professional in nature but not overly formal such as suits and ties.’ So it’s a less formal business look, while still remaining ‘professional’. For women this could be a neat skirt or pants in colour combinations or prints, brightly coloured or printed blouses, with a casual blazer or tidy cardigan. Smart closed or open-toed shoes and bolder accessories. For men, chinos or suit trousers, patterned or plain-coloured shirts tucked into your pants or trousers and a blazer, smart jacket or tidy cardigan and boots or brogues. You can bring a dash of creativity with this dress code, think prints and fun pops of colour.

So what happened with my client? I reassured her that together we would find the right outfit that would make her feel confident. I hit the Wellington shops looking for outfits, and the next day I took her to try on the goodies put on hold for her. She choose Kate Sylvester formal trousers and a fun printed silk shirt. We also found a beautiful merino wrap cardigan with a smart roll collar, an easy top layering piece. She looked and felt great with her new outfit and with her new felt confidence landed the job. It is truly amazing how the right outfit can really make you shine.

Caroline Carpenter trained as a personal stylist at the London University of Arts: College of Fashion and locally here with New Zealand stylist Stacey Beatson. Caroline’s 12 year fashion career spans London and New Zealand with knowledge across production, fabrics, sales and design.

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