Can jeans be business casual? How to style denim for a smart casual office look in 2023
Discover how to make jeans be business casual with these outfit ideas from the experts
Can jeans be business casual is an age-old sartorial conundrum and although jeans are considered more on the casual end of the style spectrum, giving them a smarter spin is actually surprisingly easy.
Dress codes are often confusing with nothing more baffling or conflicting than the smart casual dress code, particularly when jeans get involved. But it’s actually pretty easy to find the balance between the two and there are heaps of smart casual outfit ideas that can be considered office-appropriate, including your best jeans. With office dress codes, on the whole, becoming more relaxed post-pandemic, jeans are becoming more accepted in a workplace environment, although it's always important to check your own workplace dress code before trying this look. In offices where jeans are acceptable, there are still a few styling tricks to abide by to keep your denim looking professional and polished, such as avoiding distressed or ripped jeans and sticking to darker washes. Opt for slim-fit styles such as straight leg jeans or skinny jeans, rather than baggy styles which have more of a relaxed aesthetic.
“Jeans were born as workwear so they actually have a very natural place in the workplace. They have a unique place in the American wardrobe because they are so strongly affiliated with the workplace and the American worker,” explains UNLV fashion historian Deirdre Clemente.
“One of the big pieces of advice I would give from a historical perspective is that faded jeans and lighter jeans have the connotation of things that are used or worn. So if you’re looking for a more high-end jean you’re looking for something darker. I like a higher-waist pant. It gives a little more formality and is really figure-flattering for a lot of different kinds of people."
7 ways jeans can be business casual this season - outfit ideas chosen by a fashion editor
But it isn't just the cut that's important when asking can jeans be business casual. You also need to consider what to pair your jeans with. This is where you look to the ‘business’ side of the dress code and look to items that will naturally smarten up your jeans such as the best blazers, blouses, tailored shirts, and smart shoes such as jeans and heels or loafers for the perfect high-low mix.
“A fun thing to remember is that smart, work-appropriate jeans don’t have to be boring, it’s just a case of styling your jeans in a more formal way with structured pieces and the right accessories - if patchwork jeans are exactly your style, maybe look for a pair that has a more subtle variation in color between the patches and team them with a chic top and loafers, finishing the look with a blazer and gold jewellery,” adds Emily Stott, Stylist Ambassador at Stitch Fix.
1. Add a blazer
Add polish with a blazer for a speedy to route to a jeans business casual ensemble. A combo you can reach for time and time again, a blazer-jeans combo is one that works for weekends too. Whether you like a double-breasted design, an oversized boyfriend fit or a cropped silhouette, most blazers will smarten up your denim in an instant. If you opt for a cropped shape, make sure you team with high-waisted jeans to offset the shorter hem. Stick to neutral hues such as camel, creams and black or add extra interest with a classic check. Depending on how smart you want to keep it, you can layer the best t-shirt underneath or a button-up shirt for a sleeker approach.
RRP: $168 / £200 | These super smart jeans have a trouser-like quality that makes them ideal for spring outfit ideas for the office. With clever pleats and a relaxed fit, they’re effortless and easy to wear. Best teamed with a chunky heel to balance the length.
RRP: $64.99 / £39.99 | You can never have enough blazers and the linen-blend fabric makes this breathable beauty perfect for summer outfits for work. The structured shoulders offer a flattering fit that will balance out hips and help to skim your frame.
RRP: $25 / £17 | Cos is a master at elevated basics so if you want to stock up on your wardrobe essentials, make sure you give it a look-in. Made from a soft cotton-jersey, this timeless tee has a regular fit and a ribbed round neck for extra interest.
2. Team with a shirt
Sometimes the simplest of outfits have the most impact and a crisp cotton shirt and jeans pairing is one way of answering whether can be jeans be business casual. Super sharp and timeless, keep it pared-back in a white shirt or add some subtle stripes for a dose of Parisian chic. This outfit combo looks sleek paired with dark-wash jeans and a high waist with the shirt tucked in to show off the waist. You can try half-tucking in the shirt for a more relaxed feel and finish with some heels or loafers for an androgynous spin.
RRP: $108 / £104 | Sitting just above the belly button, these ultra-high rise jeans offer a contoured fit, giving you legs for days. Cut from a heavier fabric, they will become like a second skin over time and have heaps of sustainable credentials too.
RRP: $118 / £132 | Sticking to a classic piece like a striped shirt will give your outfit a life-long appeal. This has a borrowed-from-the-boys look so you can let it hang loose or tuck it in for added structure. We love the candy pink and white stripes too.
RRP: $920 / £655 | Nothing nails the smart-casual dress code more than a pair of loafers and Gucci’s designs are some of the most coveted out there. When it comes to how to style loafers, wear them with dresses, jeans, and everything in between.
3. Stick to a dark wash
Ask any stylist 'can jeans be business casual?' And they'll tell you when wearing denim that darker washes always look smarter. A light-wash or acid-wash jean is a lot harder to dress up for the office so these jeans are best saved for weekends and social activities. Avoid any rips or distressed detailing as these will also make your jeans feel over-worn or tired, rendering them instantly more casual.
“If you do have a particularly smart workplace, it’s probably wise to avoid heavily distressed denim or a severely framed hem as both of these features tend to casualize the look,” adds Emily.
You can keep it simple with your styling and opt for a close-knit tee or a flowy blouse for a smart look without any stuffiness.
RRP: $69.50 / £95 | Bootcut jeans have made a bit of a comeback and they’re actually one of the most flattering silhouettes out there. This dark-wash pair from one of the best jeans brands, Levi’s, have a mid-rise fit and stretch for comfort.
RRP: $425 / £250 | Inject some on-trend '70s vibes to your look with this chic pussy-bow blouse. Crafted from 100% silk for an extra fancy finish, there’s a cleverly concealed zip so you can adjust the fit. In a polka dot print this will never go out of style.
RRP: $89 / £109 | This classic pair of pumps will suit a minimalist capsule wardrobe. The low-block heels guarantee 9-5 comfort, while the neutral hue will go with everything. The gold hardware on the toe delivers a designer-led finish. Win-win!
4. Opt for a slim-fit
If you want your jeans to be business casual, other than looking at how to style jeans, you need to consider the type of jeans you go for. Stiff wide leg jeans can look smart but you really want to avoid anything too baggy, with something slim and well-fitting such as straight-leg or skinny jeans generally considered the smartest jeans. Balance your proportions by teaming figure-hugging jeans with something looser on top - an oversized blouse or blazer - and choose jeans that finish just at the ankle so you can show off some smart shoes. A simple slingback or the best designer heels will work a treat.
“A cropped straight or skinny jean works well for the office, as the cropped length will highlight your ankle and smarten up the look when teamed with a pointed court or loafers,” explains Emily.
RRP: $230 / £215 | The perfect hybrid of super skinny jeans and a boyfriend fit, these can be worn slightly oversized for a more relaxed fit, without compromising on polish making them a lot comfier for all day in the office. Finish with some chunky loafers.
RRP: $99 / £69 | From workwear to beach cover-up, a linen shirt is the versatile piece your wardrobe is missing. We love the bold blue hue and the flared sleeve for a more contemporary finish. This color works brilliantly as part of white jean outfits too.
RRP: $695 / £695 | Put your best foot forward with these timeless designer heels. Taping into this season's shoe trends, they tick all the sartorial boxes, with a comfy kitten heel, sturdy slingback strap and a leg-lengthening pointed toe design.
5. Try black jeans
Similarly to dark-wash jeans, black jeans are a smart choice when it comes to solving the can jeans be business casual dilemma. The best part about black jeans ensembles is that with a fresh pair of dark black jeans, from a distance barely look like jeans at all, meaning you get all the comfort of your fave denim, whilst still appearing super smart.
For what to wear with black jeans, you can create a polished, monochrome outfit and style your black jeans with a white shirt or black sweater. Alternatively, don’t be afraid to add some color - a vibrant shoe or a bold knit can really lift this look and inject a dose of dopamine dressing.
RRP: $119 / £75 | The clue’s in the name but these certainly have the power to become your fave pair of comfortable jeans. A classic slim leg, comfort stretch and a high waist, they’re crafted from a soft organic and recycled cotton blend. Dreamy!
RRP: $129.99 / £79.99 | A black blazer is a hard-working spring capsule wardrobe piece, making it well worth investing in. This blazer has a simple one-button fastening, structured shoulders, and a neat straight cut, offering a smart solution to any outfit.
RRP: $179 / £89 | Collared tees are having a moment so add a sporty spin to your look with this ribbed polo top. The collar and button detail adds character to an ontherwise plain tee and we love the pop of green - one of the top fashion color trends 2023.
6. Layer a trench
A key player in many a capsule wardrobe, the best trench coats are a smart and practical outerwear option, especially during spring and fall months when the weather can’t quite make its mind up. Ideal for transporting jeans to be business casual, the tailored cut of a trench coat leans into the ‘business’ side of the dress code, while the jeans keep the look a little more casual, allowing you to keep the rest of the outfit pretty low-key for an effortless aesthetic that still feels practical. Add a lightweight roll neck and some heeled boots on wetter, cooler days.
RRP: $215 / £175 | With some serious leg-lengthening powers, flared jeans make a flattering fit, especially in a darker wash. For how to style flared jeans for maximum style, team with heels for an extra leg boost and lean into that '70s flair with a boho blouse.
RRP: $1,450 / £765 | Get the most mileage out of your trench coat and stay classic in neutral shades of beiges and creams. This has an intended oversized fit but the self-tie belt will add structure to your shape to create an hourglass silhouette.
7. Add heels
Never underestimate the power of a decent pair of heels as a means of taking your jeans to business casual level. Heels offer an instantly more dressed up and glam feel to a denim ensemble, and wide-leg or flared jeans look great styled with a chunky heeled sandal, while straight-leg or skinny jeans can pull off something more delicate such as a barely-there sandal or slip-on mule.
“Accessories are also key when it comes to smartening up a workwear look; try tucking a plain white tee into your jeans, layering over a blazer and accessorizing with a tan belt and pumps. By matching the accessories, you will create a more put-together outfit that is fitting for the workplace,” says Emily.
If you’re heading to the office for the day, make sure you opt for a comfortable level of heel - a block or kitten will ensure round-the-clock comfort.
RRP: $130 / £95 | The tapered leg on these relaxed jeans gives them a more polished finish which is perfect for dressing up or down. They work just as well with heeled shoes as they do boots and the high rise waist offers a curve contouring finish.
RRP: $135 / £95 | Mules have made a return thanks to '90s fashion trends and we love the summery makeover of this raffia pair. With stylish knot detailing and a sturdy heel, they’ll go with everything from your white holiday dresses to your work jeans.
Charlie is the Deputy Fashion Editor at Future plc across multiple women’s magazines including Woman & Home, Woman and Woman's Own.
She bagged her first magazine job in 2009 and has previously written for titles including Stylist, Closer and Dare. Over the years Charlie has embraced anything that was thrown at her from styling celebrities to testing out the best jeans on the high street to writing about must-have beauty buys.
With a weakness for a printed midi dress, Charlie is on a mission to shop more sustainably and loves finding new ethical brands and second-hand buys.
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