A hefty envelope hit the door-mat of my abode the other day.  I finally start my new job on Monday, and they kindly wrote to apprise me of what to expect.  If I wasn’t so cynical I would almost believe they cared about making this experience as comfortable as possible.  The plan consists of training sessions and seminars for about three weeks before I’m unleashed on unsuspecting members of the public who have suffered serious injustice.

Quietly slid into this communiqué were the words the dress code is business casual.

Oh please, do not do this to me.  My talents don’t extend to decoding sartorial short-hand and applying it to practical contexts.   I always get these things a bit wrong, usually on the side of too casual since I was born wearing denim and Birkenstocks.  Two out my last three jobs had no dress-code whatsoever and I like it that way.

I’ve got enough reasonably smart attire to cope with a two-day working week, but this gig is full time.  For the first day or two I will err on the side of very smart and suss the lie of the land.  Still, we’re going to need a bigger wardrobe.  After extensive research on the myriad meanings of business casual, I biked over to the town’s department store to see what I could find that toes the fine line between Mother Flump and the Sex and the City ladies.











Google’s advice included that business casual means different things in different contexts.  Google also only has US-centric information on this particular topic.  What’s acceptable at Twitter HQ is not necessarily acceptable in the heady world of UK public sector middle-tier flow-chart jobs.  I am lucky to have this job, and I do not want to be reprimanded for inappropriate dress.  I want to be promoted, not ridiculed.   I asked K-man, who works in a big city law firm, and he had no useful advice.  He’s a dude, and it’s easier for them since all rules are designed primarily with them in mind.  Business casual for a dude means no tie, smart shirt, no jeans, and leather footwear – easy.   Apparently, K-man has never noticed what his female colleagues wear.  I should be pleased about this; instead I’m frustrated.  But some information can be gleaned: if the women around him were wearing torture-porn shoes and halter-necks, he would have noticed.

On my first pass around the womenswear section, I despaired.  I had ideas about simple tailored dresses in cotton, and shirts that aren’t tight across the boobs.  Maybe a skirt or two that arrives demurely at the knee.  I was drawing a complete blank: everything is about summer floatiness, or is tailored and comes with a price tag that suggests Alexander McQueen rose from the dead and feverishly cut and stitched just for you.

I lowered my bar.  After all, provided it’s reasonably smart and not distracting from my professionalism, it should be fine, right?

Starting from the bottom: shoes.  I already have a pair of nice taupe vintage French Connection flat shoes which should do.  I’ve ordered a pair of all-purpose black pumps:

For days when I need a heel, I already own these:

And for days when I need to distract someone from my professionalism long enough to win an argument, I have them in blood red too.

Well, maybe I won’t wear the blood red ones to the office, but they look amazing on.

So, yesterday I got this, which is pretty inoffensive:

And this, which I am not 100% sure about.  It looks a little bit smart but mainly casual.  I like it, but I feel in need of a second, third, and fourth opinion on its suitability for work.  It probably depends what you team it with, but still.  Too Kim Kardashian?

This is a nice knee-length skirt I got on heavy mark-down:

And this little wrap thingy – again I am not 100% sold, but I think will be useful for wearing with sleeveless or short-sleeve tops, or the long black dress (see below).  It’s a very fine knit:

This black shirt called to me just as I made the decision to go to the cash desk without spending any more money, and I have not yet tried it on, so it may need to be returned:

I’ve got another white shirt in the wardrobe, and a flowery knee-length white cotton dress that can be teamed with a black cardigan and pumps.  I also own a dress very similar to this:

And another one a bit like this but with less curvature, and a more chocolate brown:

A few items in my wardrobe (a white linen top, a pair of black tailored high-quality trousers, and the above shirt-dress) will fit after I’ve dropped the few lbs I will lose fretting through my first weeks.

Anything in there that you wouldn’t wear for business casual? Advice on the jacket and cardigan is particularly welcome.

Day one will be tailored trousers and shirt combo with medium heels, to be completely safe.  Until I’ve seen what everyone else wears I am not taking any tags off the £200 I just spent.

At times like these, I wish they had just said you are expected to wear a suit.  I would have bitched about arse-clenching uptight self-important organisations, but at least I’d know exactly what is acceptable.



5 Responses to “Code-Breaking”

  1. 1 Gretchen June 29, 2012 at 6:13 pm

    In my opinion, you should be pretty on-target, or maybe even a little dressy. But I work in an office that has gone almost too casual so I may be off. I like the jacket and cardigan and they should mix well with a good variety of things. Good luck and let us know how it turns out!

  2. 2 Ashleyshley June 29, 2012 at 8:36 pm

    I think all these selections are good. We’re business casual and this is basically how I dress. I also tend to be too casual and the things you’ve shown are what I shoot for.

    You can also easily dress outfits up with jewelry. I always feel like jewelry is too much, but again I suffer from “too casual” syndrome so I try to push myself. What I think is too much, seems to look just right to everyone else. I tend to wear earrings and maybe a chunky statement bracelet. I try to do necklaces but always pull them off. Again, I feel overdone but everyone else loves it. You could also dress up plain outfits with lightweight scarves or cute belts.

    Here are some links to outfits I have on a Pinterest board that cover a range of business casual looks:

    I’m trying to push myself to wear skirts, but every day I wear something like the tops in those pics, plus nice trousers & low heels or wedges.

    For the first day, I’d shoot for a little dressier than you think is necessary and take a hard look at how everyone else looks when you get there. Then modify accordingly. Also, find out if casual Fridays are a thing – and if so, are they really only a thing for some people? For example, I wear jeans on Fridays but our Admission folks can’t since they see prospective students on Fridays.

  3. 3 Jenn @ Juggling Life June 30, 2012 at 3:38 am

    I think you’ve got good instincts. I dress a touch nicer than most everyone at work and I do a lot of shirtdresses and skirts with camisoles and cute cardigans or wraps.

  4. 4 Gail June 30, 2012 at 5:12 pm

    I think you are spot on. I like all your choices and I think you will fit right in.

  5. 5 Jen July 1, 2012 at 12:58 am

    I think you’re dead on the money and I like everything you picked out.

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