Business Casual Women’s Workwear History

business casual women wear

Business casual for women as a workplace style, and women’s clothing itself, has changed drastically over the years. Not so many moons ago, wearing your pajamas outside of your bedroom was the most humiliating thing you could be caught doing. Going to the airport, the grocery store, and even playing outside as a child was an all-out event. Now? Casual Fridays at the office, onesie day at school, and outdoor weddings where the guests wear jeans are common occurrences. 

Business casual as a concept was first seen within the borders of Silicon Valley in the early 1980s, and swept over offices around America during the 90s. As we move into even more of a casual office setup with the appearance of Covid, clothing is following suit creating yet another change to the concept. The idea of business casual is a living and breathing entity that molds itself to whatever is happening in society at the time. What was considered business casual before is likely not the same thing we’ll consider in the near future. Sweatpants and the same t-shirt you slept in seem to be gaining speed on the horizon.  

Women’s Workwear During The Early 1900s 

In order to understand the concept of business casual women’s style, it’s important to understand what came before it. As opposed to men’s clothing choices, women’s clothing has fluctuated greatly throughout the decades. There have been a few moments during history that played a big role in slowly changing the concept of workwear for women. They’re worth diving into before looking into modern concepts of business casual for women’s workwear.  

During the first 10 years or so of the 1900s, women began to be allowed to earn and save their own money. When it came to clothing choices, however, there was a bit less freedom although it ultimately depended on what kind of job they were performing. For example, someone working as a domestic service person would have likely had to wear a prescribed uniform. On that same note, uniforms were also applicable to nurses and waitresses. A person working at a factory on the other hand, while required to wear an apron was able to wear basically anything they wanted under it. It gave them a chance to showcase their individuality via accessories, colors, and patterns.  

Changes During The Late 1900s

Women had to still dress a certain way to convey credibility and to be taken seriously. Clothing choices at the workplace were a weapon women could wield to help push them forward in their careers. Picture a woman working in baking or investment. To fit in with the boys they had to rid themselves of all signs of feminism and delicateness that could potentially play against them, creating the concept of business formal as a clothing style. But even in those circles, clothing could be used to their advantage. Shoulder pads for blazer jackets during the 80s for example, made women look more imposing and strong.      

When Silicone Valley appeared, however, and with Millenials entering the workforce, things started to change once more. It’s true that the first people to reject the concept of a stricter dress code were men in IT companies, but the idea of business casual for women followed shortly after. While the Financial section still maintained the concept of more formal dressing, women in office jobs within less strict industries found themselves with more clothing freedom as the years went by. With the spurting of more flexible-based jobs such as freelancing digital nomads, or those that work at start-ups, dress codes became laxer and laxer. Going back to the concept of how Millenials altered their environment, this was a generation much more open to focusing less on the outside and more on the inside. It was about people’s ability to do their job, regardless of how they chose to dress.   

Business Casual Women’s Workwear Today

The workplace has never seen such freedom of choice before this era. It’s understood that if someone is uncomfortable in their clothes then their work suffers. Ultimately, this could also affect the company’s bottom line. There’s also plenty more social judgment that comes with forcing women to abide by a specific dress code. 

All this said, it still rings true that there are specific industries where maintaining certain clothing rules is necessary. On the one hand, you have jobs that require uniforms to safeguard the worker (a good example of this would be people working in factories having to wear steel toe boots), and on the other hand, there are jobs that require a specific look to still maintain the level of credibility needed (such as someone working as an investment banker). Even the second type however have slowly started to change bit by bit. Nowadays, if a millennial enters their therapist’s office and she’s wearing casual jeans and sneakers it’s unlikely they’ll think she’s any less capable if at her back is a wall of diplomas to showcase her expertise. 

Essential Pieces For Your Business Casual Women’s Wardrobe

You know now a bit more about the history of women’s workwear. Now, let’s deep dive into what building your business casual wardrobe looks like. It’s worth checking if your workplace has a detailed dress code first. But if not, below is a list of basic pieces you can mix and match to create fresh and polished outfits that still showcase your personality.

  • Jeans: You read that right. Depending on the office specifications, most workplaces will allow specific types of denim. No rips or frayed hems. Stick to a uniform dark shade and a classic silhouette. You can match it with a more formal top and shoes, and you can confidently walk through the door with no issues.
  • Blouses: This is the section you can have a bit more freedom with. Colors, patterns, and prints should be very much acceptable here. But, aim to keep the materials loser and stick to natural fabrics. This will help with temperature fluctuations in the office.  
  • Flats: No chunky combat boots, sneakers, or open-toed high heels. Stick to flats, sandals where your toes are covered, and dressier boots during the winter season. 
  • Trousers: The safest choice, apart from skirts, when it comes to the bottom half of your outfit. Focus on neutral shades and straight-leg designs. Patterns are ok as long as the colors are more muted. 
  • Skirts: Try to keep the glitter, feathers, and sequins at home. To achieve the ideal business casual look, the skirt shouldn’t necessarily be the focal point. Be sure to choose comfortable materials such as linen or cotton during summer, or wool during winter. They are all good options to help work against the heat or cold. 
  • Accessories: belts, necklaces, earrings, scarves. These are great items you can use to help you express your individuality. 

Get started on achieving your goals today with our free course on Building Your Personal Annual Plan!

Related Readings

Getting People Right (GPR) is an educational website providing professionals from all types of businesses with practical education in entrepreneurial leadership. To keep evolving your leadership toolkit, additional GPR resources below will be useful:

Recommended Resources:

Uncover your strengths and weaknesses with our complimentary assessment. Boost your effectiveness at work and with your team.

Free Resource Library
Access our extensive collection of valuable resources for instant support in your personal and professional growth.

Explore Our Course Library
Enhance your leadership skills with our diverse selection of courses. Take your abilities to the next level and become a more effective leader and team player.


Our Clients Love the Professional Leadership Institute

Your team will, too! Check out some reviews from our students.
The PLI program was invaluable to our network.
The range of topics delivered, the open dialogue, experience, and examples that PLI brought to each session were outstanding and provided a path for our Franchisees and Managers to look at leadership, coaching, and connecting with their teams in a new light. Many have implemented these strategies in their bakeries and have seen immediate results.
Michelle C.
COBS Bread
Highly recommend to help your team move forward
We have locations around BC and Alberta, so getting people on the same page can be very difficult... Until now. Our entire management team and location managers take the same great courses and then meet monthly online with our coach to apply it to our situation. People are engaged, the courses are excellent, we love our coach, and we are all learning together!
Jason Fawcett
President, Kelson Group
The result has been a transformation of our culture. 
We decided to implement PLI's strategies across the country in over 150 locations and over 3500 employees.  The result has been a transformation of our culture.  People's lives have been positively impacted - professionally and personally.  Morale is high and sales and profits are up as a result.
Daryl Verbeek
Daryl Verbeek
We’ve learned how to fix ongoing personnel issues once and for all
The roadmap laid out set our business up to quintuple in sales.  We've learned how to fix ongoing personnel issues once and for all, attract top talent, and spend our time focused on results, not internal staffing problems.  I highly recommend PLI to you - it's worked for us!
John DeJong
Satisfied Client
I had no idea that running a business could be this fun!
In less than 18 months of working with Trevor, he has transformed my business from being average to exceptional, where mediocrity is not acceptable, where being great is standard.  Working with PLI has allowed me to realize my dream of not simply owning a job, but owning a business.
Justin Bontkes
Principal, Caliber Projects
Our culture has taken major steps forward this year
Our culture has taken major steps forward this year with Trevor’s help.  He is funny, relatable, and his tools are very very practical and have helped us focus and upgrade our teams throughout our retail network. Trevor recently spoke to an employee group, and one person remarked, “I could listen to Trevor all day.”   We would highly recommend Trevor.
Stan Pridham
Founder, KMS Tools
The results have been remarkable
At first, we resisted, “This just won’t work with a law firm.” But we persisted and the results have been remarkable: our client base and profits have steadily improved, and staff engagement and morale is the healthiest its ever been.
Doug Lester
Partner, RDM Lawyers
Helped our fast-growing business become what it is today
I've experienced PLI's approach first hand and it's been crucial to sustaining our growth.  I can't imagine a business that wouldn't benefit greatly from his help.
Brian Antenbring
Founder, TEEMA
Provided practical ways to make positive changes
Trevor was incredibly well-received by the entire organization. He was able to articulate people issues that many of our franchisees were experiencing and provided them with practical ways to make positive changes. We have implemented the Star Chart tool across the organization and see it as vital to building happy, effective teams.
Aaron Gillespie
President, COBS Bread
Scroll to Top

Start Learning Today

For Individuals

Unlock your potential and accelerate your career with sought-after management and leadership skills.


Transform Your Organization

For Teams

Book a consultation to discuss your challenges and discover how we can help you build a winning team.


Sign Up For Weekly Tips!

Get Weekly Coaching Tips Straight To Your Inbox Every Monday.