When spring fever starts to sweep through your office building, chances are that your prescription will be to throw all fashion caution out the window and get comfy in your cropped jeans and tunic tops. But before you get too carried away with dreaming about tiptoeing through the tulips in your flip-flops, there are plenty of ways to look professional and still loosen up a bit.
"With business casual, you have the freedom to be a little more stylish and a lot less conservative," says Jill Martin, TV personality, style expert and author of "Fashion For Dummies" (Wiley, 2010). Of course, what you wear to work depends on the particular business environment in which you are employed. However, Martin believes that "business casual" may be one of the most common forms of dress these days.
"Instead of the traditional business suits," she says, "you can wear pants, blouses, skirts and dresses. These selections make business casual more comfortable and give you the opportunity to inject some more of your personal style."
Still, it can get complicated. Waking up every morning and putting on a suit requires much less thinking — pulling on an entire outfit that is comfortable, but not sloppy is a whole other matter.
"If you're the slightest bit confused about what to wear as far as business casual goes, take a cue from the men in your office," advises Martin. "If they're wearing khakis and polo shirts, you can use that standard, even though you don't want to wear exactly that. Your goal is to distinguish yourself in a way that makes you look both stylish and feminine."
Short figure-hugging dresses and skirts may be better suited for cocktail parties rather than the office.
Photo courtesy of designer Guillermo Jop's Guishem spring collection.
She suggests wearing sharp wool gabardine slacks or Capri linen pants with a fitted shirt in a soft pastel, instead of the traditional polo that a man would wear.
"Don't forget a great pair of shoes," adds Martin. "Ballet flats are always chic yet comfortable."
The more options you have when you get dressed for work this spring, the better. But putting them all together is the trick. Here are some more tips from Martin on how not to be a fashion dummy:
— Keep a few items in your office to throw on when you need to. Perhaps a cardigan in a neutral color and/or a scarf.
— Keep a perfect pair of black pumps and a perfect pair of black flats at work. "You'll be glad you have the flats if your feet are killing you, and if last minute plans come up, you can dress up your outfit with the black heels."
— Even if your workplace doesn't require you to dress formally, show up decked out from time to time. "It helps people see you in a different light, which never hurts," says Martin. "And when people ask why the change, just say with confidence, 'I felt like getting dressed up today.'"
— Don't go overboard. "You can be playful," admits Martin, "but make sure it doesn't turn from playful to too sexy." Wearing a tight skirt that keeps riding up during a business meeting is not something you want to worry about or to be a distraction to your clients.
— Are shorts ever OK? "The easiest answer is a simple no," says Martin. "Even if the policy is 'anything goes,' you must remember to always dress appropriately." But in the most casual of offices, long, tailored shorts paired with a blouse or sweater set and heels can be casual yet chic, according to Martin.
— How about jeans? If the dress code at your office is on the "creative" casual side, then jeans are often the "go-to" item, says Martin. "Some jeans scream casual, while others can be chic and appropriate." She suggests sticking to a pair of nicely fitted, dark denim jeans paired with a sophisticated blouse or sweater set.
Forget the jeans with the holes in the knees. Just remember, she adds, "make sure you have a few great pairs of heels and at least one fabulous work tote to pull an outfit together and make you look 'done.'"
— Accessories can also be a way to relieve spring fever at the office. "Aside from wearing more comfortable clothing," says Martin, "business casual dress is an opportunity to wear clothes with more flair. A scarf, earrings and a nice pair of sandals can totally transform your work look. Accessories can be a quick fix when trying to make an outfit pop."
— And last but not least, there's one universal rule of dressing in any business setting, says Martin. "It's always better to be a little overdressed than underdressed. You can never go wrong if you follow this advice. In fact, people will end up looking to you to set the standard."
Sharon Mosley is a former fashion editor of the Arkansas Gazette in Little Rock and executive director of the Fashion Editors and Reporters Association.