Ask Allie: Business Casual with Steel Toe Boots

I recently accepted a position at a manufacturing plant. I'll be in an office, where the dress code is business casual. I was told that I'll need steel toe shoes while on the manufacturing floor, but a site-wide steel toe shoe mandate will be policy soon. Do you have any advice for keeping it feminine above the ankle while sporting steel toes below?

While there’s a decent selection of steel toe boots online, the style is not varied, or too feminine. However, gone are the days where your only options were black Doc Martens and tan Red Wings. Now retailers like Ariat, Reebok, Sketchers, Justin, Caterpillar, and yes Dr. Marten have styles that can blend pretty well into business casual attire.

business casual steel toe boot justin women
Shop Similar: dress | boots | sweater | necklace | pants | striped top | skirt | yellow dress | bead necklace

Just as with a traditional office setting wardrobe, decide on the color palette before purchasing shoes. Steel toe boots and shoes mainly come in brown or black, so your first pair should match the majority of your existing wardrobe. While lace up construction-style boots are the norm, a cowboy boot with a steel toe may be a good first purchase since it has a slimmer toebox and profile to work with trousers, but also look adorable pulled over jeggings and paired with more casual dresses and skirts. Justin is famous for cowboy boots and has a good selection of steel toe styles with style; I’m partial to the Stampede which has a very slim profile and a classic cowboy look that will be cool even after the work day is through. For these looks I worked with the distressed brown leather, choosing soft colors, natural fabrics and accessories, and fuller bottoms to balance the heavier shoe.

business casual steel toe boot doc marten
Shop similar: sweater | gold necklace | pants | scarf | cream sweater | trousers | tunic | leggings | dress | necklace | boots

Dr. Martens are back en vogue, and not only does this mean your work boots are considered “cool,” but it means there’s a greater selection for you to choose from. I love their Wellington Boot, which is a pull-on style that can slip under trousers, or be worn over tights or skinny jeans. With this collection, I used the boot as an accent color, pairing with neutrals for a more traditional business casual look.

business casual steel toe boot lehigh
Shop similar: dress | boots | tunic | scarf | leggings | top | skirt | blazer | trousers

When it comes to lace-up steel toe boots, they don’t all look like hiking or construction boots. If you prefer a black shoe, this boot from Lehigh is taller than most, giving a grunge rocker vibe that would look great with black tights or leggings and appear as a standard shoe under trousers. For this look, I was channeling the ‘90s by mixing feminine dresses and skirts with the masculine boot, but also a bit of grunge with the black tunic and leggings with a drapey scarf. Your workplace expects sturdy shoes, so don’t be afraid to pair a well-polished boot with a suit for business meetings.

As a rule, skinny pants that can tuck in or wider legs that flow easily over the boot are best; for skirts and dresses have some volume (looser shift style or a fuller skirt) to balance the look. Play up the industrial feel of the boots and take advantage of the return of grunge and ‘90s trends when Doc Martens played a pivotal role.

The important thing to remember is everyone will be wearing such footwear; no one will be able to pair it seamlessly every single time and your colleagues will end up not even noticing your shoes because they’re part of a uniform, just like a lab coat or hard hat. Don’t worry about making them disappear or look like regular footwear, they’re a smart and important part of your industry and something that should be worn with pride!


  1. July 12, 2014 / 12:08 pm

    An interesting conumdrum. You’ve got an amazing variety of steel toed boots there and some very nice clothes to wear with them.

  2. Ginger
    July 9, 2014 / 2:15 pm

    It sounds like a fun place to work! At least you won’t suffer with uncomfortable heels.
    The letter writer mentions steel-toed shoes. Oxfords with heavy tights or leggings and a skirt would be a non-boot option.

    If the requirement stems from everybody having daily duties that involve lifting/bending then it might be better to ditch skirts altogether and go for pants.

  3. Rachael_R
    July 9, 2014 / 12:35 pm

    One other thing you might need to consider is safety. Skirts and drapey clothing, long necklaces, and even loose hair are frequently prohibited in manufacturing or other industrial settings, because they can get caught in machinery and pull you into moving parts. If you’re required to wear a hard hat on the floor, make sure your hair is low enough to comfortably wear your hat properly. Searching for bike helmet friendly hairstyles will give you some ideas. If you don’t yet have steel toes, and are ordering some, you may be able to buy steel toe shoe covers fairly inexpensively for your occasional floor visits. Other women in the office can give you a lot of help with what’s allowed, what isn’t, and what’s technically allowed but really puts your safety at risk. Just remember that your safety should always be your first priority. I used to work in the office of a mine and had to wear steel toes and long pants at all times, and a hard hat and orange safety vest out of the office. It was hard to get used to–the boots are heavier than my normal shoes, vests are ugly, and hard hats add about 10 degrees to your body temperature, etc. I was allowed to wear jeans, though, which made things easier, but really learned to love wearing my boots–they made me feel powerful!

  4. SDawsonH
    July 9, 2014 / 11:29 am

    What a great post! I know several folks who wear steel toed boots; it is a challenge (for men and women). Hope the arm is healing nicely and talk to you soon! Sara

  5. Patti_NotDeadYetStyle
    July 9, 2014 / 11:07 am

    I am almost 60, and I still love my Docs. These are very cool, tough looks and I’d wear them in a second. xo

  6. Lilliasrose
    July 9, 2014 / 10:21 am

    I actually love all these boots. I want a pair o’ Docs so much, but it isn’t in the budget right now and I refuse to wear faux leather. Any suggestions for real leather laceups that won’t break the bank? (Or my feet, I’m terrified of the break-in process!)

  7. insertcleverbit
    July 9, 2014 / 10:14 am

    I don’t have to wear steel toed boots to my job, but I’m seriously wanting all of these outfits.

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