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How To Crack The Casual Dress Code Once And For All

May 17, 2019 | Filed in: Your Closet

Here at M.M. HQ we often have spirited debates about rules. When are rules helpful? When are they restrictive? And of course, when should they be broken? This comes up a lot when we’re talking about personal and professional style, especially as more industries embrace a casual dress code — which often means less structure, and more confusion about what is office appropriate.

Can you wear sneakers with a dress? Is a blazer always formal? How can you look relaxed but still refined? A casual dress code can be intimidating because it means different things to different people (like that guy who wears gym shorts on Fridays), but the key to pulling off a casual look that doesn’t look sloppy is to focus on styling. Yep, like a well-worded email, it’s all in the details.

Since we’re all about taking the work out of dressing for work, we’re answering these questions and more (because you have #betterthingstodo). Below, our co-founder and head of design, Miyako Nakamura, and our styling excellence associate, Nyjerah Cunnningham, share their best tips for dressing casually while still looking put together.

Mix and Match Formalwear with Casualwear

Wearing formal items with more casual ones is the quickest way to make an outfit look (and feel) more relaxed. For every casual piece you put on, grab something a little more polished or flashy as well. Miyako is a fan of pairing a sweatshirt with a bold piece of statement jewelry, like a pair of unusual earrings or a bracelet cuff. “When you wear a big earring with a sweatshirt, that gives you the sense that you’re putting your look together,” she says. “One piece of statement jewelry with a sweatshirt is really beautiful.”

When choosing the sweatshirt, Miyako recommends skipping the college hoodie and going for something a little crisper, like the Chadwick sweater. “Instead of a vintage sweatshirt, choose something made in a cleaner material, so there’s no wash on it,” she says.

Another high/low tip is to take a more formal outfit and bring it down a few inches — literally. For instance, a pair of tailored pants and the Nichols Shirt are elevated by heels, but made more relaxed with a pair of sneakers. “If you wear our clothes with casual shoes like sneakers, that instantly brings the styling down to more relaxed,” says Miyako.

If sneakers at the office aren’t your thing, try mixing high and low fabrics. We love the look of a casual white t shirt with a more formal skirt or pair of pants. Which leads us to our next tip…

Make An Elevated White T-Shirt Your Go-To Top

Yes, you can and should wear t-shirts to work. “A simple t-shirt can take you from Monday through Friday,” says Nyjerah. “Think of it like a blank canvas. You can add color, prints, whatever you want to do, it’s a necessity for your wardrobe.”

A put-together, relaxed-but-refined wardrobe is full of basic white t-shirts, but they don’t have to be the regular cotton variety. More structured and polished knits, like the Joan and Peggy Top, look just as crisp with jeans as they do with your suit. “One thing I tell our customers is to maximize your wear,” says Nyjerah. “I have so many t-shirts and every one gives me a different personality.”

Roll A Sleeve The Relaxed Way–by Leaving out the Cuff

When it comes to poplin shirts, it’s the way you cuff a sleeve that really indicates what kind of business you’re getting into, as some cuffs look sloppy while others look purposeful. For a more formal look, a poplin shirt can be worn perfectly ironed and buttoned up under a suit jacket. But, for a more casual look, go a little oversized and unbutton the top two buttons, roll up the sleeves, and you’ll immediately look like someone who’s ready to get down and dirty. Miyako’s tip: leave the actual cuff out of your roll. “When you roll up a sleeve, leave the cuff out of the roll, so the harder clothing parts are part of a casual action you are taking.”

Miyako has another important tip for making your basic button downs look a little more purposefully relaxed. “Sizing is something you want to play with when you’re considering dressing in a relaxed format. If you are a true size 2, you might want to try a size 4 or 6, to give a little more ease. Especially with a poplin shirt—maybe you roll up a sleeve instead of getting your proper size.”

Don’t Be Afraid to Go Big (in pants, tops, and jackets)

Playing with proportion is a major way to dress in a more relaxed style. It used to be that most women wanted that nipped-in waist, hourglass look. These days, however, women are going large with wide-legged culottes, sweaters that are three sizes too big, and boxy blazers over t-shirts. And as Nyjerah explains, this look isn’t going away: “We want our customers to embrace the extra fabric.”

But figuring out how to make slouchy seem professional can be a challenge. The key is balance. If wide leg pants and an over-sized blouse overwhelm you, start with one or the other. “If you’re going to do the Zhou Culotte I would recommend a more fitted knit to balance it out,” says Nyjerah. “If you’re going to do a looser top, try something like a Foster Pant.”

If you’re petite, avoid being swallowed by the over-sized look by making sure your pants are hemmed at the proper length for the style, and when in doubt, wear heels to give yourself some height. “There’s a way for the over-sized look to be more formal without adding anything,” says Nyjerah. “If you uncuff your top and pair it with heels, it will work. It’s the little adjusting that makes it work for any formality.”

Let Your Clothing Breathe — and Remember to Breathe in your Clothes

One of Miyako’s favorite tips for owning the casual dress code is to “let the air into your clothes,” as she puts it. In the literal sense, this means opting for fabrics that can breathe, like our poplin shirts and our new stretch linen. But also, metaphorically, it means allowing yourself to be comfortable in your clothes, and not let them restrict you. “Maybe things are more open or we don’t tie things so properly,” says Miyako. “We leave the shirt untucked, the jacket open, and ease things up a bit depending on how you wear it.”


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Caitlin Abber is the Brand Editor at M.M. LaFleur, and an award-winning writer and content creator. Over the last decade she has held senior editorial positions at MTV, Women's Health, Public Radio International, and Bustle, and has bylines at InStyle and OprahMag.com. Read more of Caitlin's posts.


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