Style Search: Casual but Professional

Photo credit.

We love getting mail from readers.  This one comes from Trent, who wrote in on behalf of his girlfriend:

Hello. My girlfriend and I live in a small rural town and she is employed as a primary school teacher. Being more rural the dress code for teachers at most schools is fairly (possibly too) relaxed. I’m looking for a little help I can pass on to her about how to dress professional but not “professional.”

To throw a wrench into this problem, this couple lives in Australia…and it’s winter there.  So I’m going to focus on clothing you can wear in both winter and summer, barring extreme temperatures.  First I’d say, just because the dress code is relaxed doesn’t mean you have to dress relaxed.  You can always overdress.  Schlubby coworkers may give you grief about your nice threads, but it certainly isn’t inappropriate to dress nicer than your dress code requires.  In fact, you’ll be joining good company.

But if you just don’t know how to breach the sweatpants/power suit divide, I can give you some pointers.


Dark wash denim

BR Boot-cut Jean – $79.50; Gap 1969 Long & Lean – $69.95; Levi’s Skinny Jean – $39.99 ($58)

Dark wash denim is everyone’s friend.  It looks sharp, flatters every body type and shape, and is comfortable.  Denim is really on the edge when it comes to professional wear.  As we as a society have gotten more slovenly in our dress, denim has become more acceptable in the workplace.  But I’d recommend that you wear only very dark washes, and that you always pair with more formal elements.  No hoodies, t-shirts with logos, or flip flops.  Also, be aware that bootcut and trouser styles are the dressiest silhouettes for denim.


Button Down Shirts

BR Soft-wash – $49.50 ($59.50); Chelsea & Theodore Linen – $16.79 ($27.98); Sonoma Plaid $17.99 ($30)

Another very flattering piece for the wardrobe.  Button downs are also formal, but relatively comfortable.  You can roll up the sleeves a bit if you need to make more casual, and you can adjust formality for your needs depending on the fabric you pick.  Linen or matte cotton is more casual than a sateen finish.  This is an example of the type of shirt you could pair with dark wash jeans to dress them up a bit.



Pintuck Suede Flat – $19.40 ($23.40); Nine West Solare Flat- $89

Flats are naturally more casual than heels, but that doesn’t mean you have to wear orthopedics.  Pick flats with embellishments, interesting textures, and bright colors.  There’s nothing like a fun, flashy shoe to really amp up an ensemble.  A bonus for Trent’s girlfriend is that flats are comfortable for chasing the young ‘uns around the classroom.



Chevron-Stripe – $14.97 ($26.94); Karen Kane Knit – $41.16 ($90); Veranda – $39.99 ($59)

Unless they look like they were fashioned from an old sweatshirt, skirts are automatically dressy.  But there’s no need to wear itchy wool or confining pencil silhouettes if you have a bit of leeway.  Above a couple options for professional, yet comfortable skirts.  At left, a blue and white chevron stripe from Old Navy.  The photo makes it look more casual than I think it is in person–it’s made from rayon and polyester, so it’s probably pretty floaty.  In the middle, a pencil skirt, but this one is made from a knit material and is not cut as slim as some pencil skirts.  And finally at right, this orange number…which after I put it in the image above, I realized I’ve picked before.  Well, good to know my tastes are consistent yes?  Seriously though, I like this skirt because the uneven hem and bright color make it fun and fashion forward, but it’s not tight or short, so it’s totally appropriate in the workplace.



JS Cedar – $88.90 ($178.95); BP Runway – $89.90 ($129.95);  Naughty Monkey Risk It – $99.95

Here in the States as we suffer through a never-ending heat wave, we’re not thinking much about our boots.  But boots are great for professionally casual wear.  Pair them with a skirt, skinny pants, or leggings.  They’ll dress down the skirt and pants, and dress up the leggings.  Great for getting to that happy middle place of casual but professional.  Right now, Nordstrom is having their anniversary sale, and the two babies at left are part of that deal.  I picked low-heeled options to keep it casual–not surprisingly, a stiletto heel is dressier than a half inch wedge.

Other things to keep in mind–don’t show too much skin.  No tanks, no tube tops, no mini skirts.  Most blouses can be dressed up and down, same with sweaterssame with jewelry.  That just about covers it, Trent, hopefully your girlfriend is on her way to professional comfort.  Or casual formality.  Or dressy slacking.  Or laidback fancy.

Well ladies, did I cover the bases?  How do you dress casually but professionally?


2 Responses to “Style Search: Casual but Professional”
  1. Amber Dillon says:

    If Trent’s girlfriend added one of the blazers from yesterday, then that would step it up a notch too.

  2. Sarah says:

    I really agree with jewelry as a way to really dress up a casual look, and jewelry is so easy! Also, infinity scarves can change an outfit. Regular scarves can too, but I’m assuming as a primary school teacher you don’t want to be dealing with the loose ends of a scarf all day. You can create an infinity scarf out of a regular one just by tying the ends together.