Too often the word casual is equated with sloppiness, but being well-dressed does not (and should not) imply formality. The various dress codes exist to ensure that we are properly dressed for each individual occasion because there is not one single look that will work for every aspect of life. The assumption that wearing heels and a suit to work is the only way to look professional and feel confident fails to take into account that every work environment differs. I strongly believe that you should love what you wear everyday and use your clothes to promote the best version of you, not the other way around.
However, I do agree that casual wear has seeped into other dress codes. You should not be attending a business meeting in your pajamas (unless it is over the phone from the comfort of your own home) and your gym clothes should not be the stars of your wardrobe. But both of those categories exist for specific purposes, not for general casual wear. So what exactly falls under the label of casual? Jeans and t-shirts are obvious answers, but cardigans and dresses can also be considered casual. It has less to do with the specific piece and more to do with the look as a whole. A casual outfit is one that is feels relaxed and does not limit the mobility of the wearer. Casual dress is here to stay because it works well for our busy lives.
To remove the negative connotation from the word "casual," we need to add polish to our outfits, not ban all denim and cotton tees. You could run out the door in the torn-up denim that you wear for home improvement projects, a wrinkled tee from a race you ran last summer, and a zip-up sweatshirt. Or you could wear dark wash jeans with a long-sleeve striped tee, a cardigan, and a scarf. The two outfits share similar building blocks and take the same amount of effort to put together. Which one would you rather be wearing when you run into an old friend at the grocery store? We already know that casual wear feels great to wear and with a few tweaks it can look just as amazing.
Last week the New York Times ran a Room for Debate discussion titled "The Casual Couture of the Average American." Six voices discussed the topic from a variety of angles including the belief that casual attire can promote creativity and idea that clothing can change our feelings. I have written a response from the practically stylish perspective so I hope you will join the discussion in the comments and take a moment to vote in the poll at the bottom of this post:
Last week the New York Times posted a Room For Debate discussion about whether or not stilettos (and high heels more generally) are appropriate for the workplace. Contributors tackled the question in the context of health, style and professionalism, but what really stood out to me was that there isn't a consensus on what is appropriate footwear for women at work. We have many more options that our male counterparts which is great when trying to find a shoe that is comfortable as well as stylish, but it also means that we don't have an easy answer when we are trying to decide if we can or should wear a particular style. A black pump is a fairly standard pairing with a suit, but when does it become too high?
My rule of thumb is that 3 inches is the maximum height for work and that platforms should be avoided in the office. Of course, there may be some exceptions, for example, some heels that technically have a platform front are designed or covered in outer material so that the platform is hidden. The biggest variable is your office culture. If you work at a fashion magazine, then chances are the norm will be to wear heels considerably higher than 3 inches and if you work in a law office you might feel that a wedge is too casual and that only a navy or black sensible pump will be acceptable. But regardless of your job, you should choose a shoe that is comfortable.
Below the slideshow shows a few shoe options based on different office environments and dress codes, but only you know what will and will not be viewed as appropriate in your field. Let me know in the comments what you look for in a shoe for work. Do you rotate through several styles or wear the same one every day? Comfort or style (or hopefully you get both)? Are your shoes a bright and cheery hue or do you stick to neutrals? Share your thoughts as well as links to any shoes that you love for both comfort and style!