Business casual attire is a gray area in men’s fashion. Men everywhere struggle with the concept, trying to find that elusive happy medium between business and casual.
To complicate matters, different designers, employers, and maître d’s have different understandings of what business casual means. Especially for men who enjoy the hoodie-over-t-shirt look, the words “business casual dress code” are cringeworthy.
At the same time, and perhaps to many man’s chagrin, business casual attire is expected in many offices, corporate parties, and conferences. And even where business casual isn’t expected, in the majority of places, business casual outfits will be accepted.
When in doubt, a good rule of thumb is that the more important the situation is, the more conservatively you should dress. If you’re interviewing for a new job, meeting with important clients, or hosting an event, it’s important to look like you’re a mature adult who takes your position seriously.
If that’s not enough information for you – if you spend your mornings parsing the lines between business and casual, struggling to decide if dark wash denim jeans, v-neck t-shirts, and knitted ties pass muster – then you’re in luck. In this 10-minute read, we dive deeper into the business casual realm to ease your men’s fashion woes and give you a clearer understanding of this idiosyncratic style.
- What Is Business Casual Anyway?
- A Little History of Business Casual
- 3 Rules You Can’t Overlook When Choosing Business Casual Attire
- 7 Parts of Your Business Casual Outfit
- Long Story Short….
What Is Business Casual Anyway?
Sadly, even the most popular and experienced designers still haven’t come up with an exact definition of business casual. A business casual dress code for your workplace usually means you have to look professional, but can have some casual elements in your clothing. What is a casual element? Well… that depends. Are you on the East Coast, or the West Coast? Working in a law firm, or the tech industry?
It all sounds clear, right? Probably not. How can you understand where professional crosses the casual threshold and vice versa?
Usually, business casual means that you should wear clean, well-fitting pants and a shirt with buttons. Ties are optional. You can wear a sports jacket or something similar to varsity jackets by VarsityBase, if it suits the season. You can also wear sweaters and cardigans. In men’s fashion, shoes should cover your entire foot. Peep-toe shoes and open-toed shoes might be fine in women’s fashion, but aren’t allowed in men’s.
The best advice you can get is to look around and pay attention. If you overhear your cubicle mate being dressed down for wearing tennis shoes and no tie, then you know you need to dress up a little more than he did. If the people who get promoted avoid merino wool and cardigans, then you might suspect the bosses are biased against sweaters – but you know not to wear them!
When you’re new to a situation – an interview, the first day on a job, or if you’re hosting an event at a new upscale restaurant – then you need to act like Scot McCloughan and do some scouting. You can call and ask the receptionist or maître d’. Or, you can spend time in the lobby of the building, or even on the curb outside. If it makes you feel uncomfortable and stalkery, just remember that spending a few minutes doing a little research will help you feel more comfortable later, and possibly help you get the job, or even get promoted.
As you grow more comfortable and experienced, being conservative with your fashion becomes less important. People get their first impression of you in the first few seconds after meeting you – and yes, clothes are part of what they judge. But for many employers, their understanding of business casual is no better than yours. As long as your wardrobe is as professional as your colleagues’, clean, and inoffensive, they’ll pay little attention to how well you follow those rules.
A couple of centuries ago, the clothing men wore to work wasn’t special or diverse. Men used to wear classical suits, which were often passed from father to son. Over time, people started doubting the need for wearing such suits, which were often uncomfortable.
The process of shifting from business wear to business casual was a natural, gradual one. Men began leaving hats at home or on the train, forgetting to bring suit jackets to work, and loosening ties and unfastening top buttons after long hours at work. Over time, there was a tacit understanding that once-strict business attire stopped being as important as it used to be, and that people were happier and worked more efficiently when they were comfortable.
In the past, all men knew how to dress appropriately for their workplaces. Today, almost none of them do. Let’s start with a few simple rules that can help you on the way to mastering business casual.
3 Rules You Can’t Overlook When Choosing Business Casual Attire
Before we dive into shirts and pants, let’s talk about a general approach to the choice of attire.
1. Too Large to Be Good
Some men prefer to wear clothing one size too large. It may make them feel free and add extra ventilation but, from the outside, this “one size fits all” approach appears unprofessional. Wear it to a Sunday poker game, or a Thanksgiving feast, but never take it to the office with you.
It’s a common misconception that larger clothing makes some body types look slimmer. At the workplace though, it just makes you look strange.
Designers put the little “S, L, XL” letters on the tags for a reason. Figure out what size you are and don’t wear anything bigger or smaller. Your business casual outfit should fit.
If you aren’t sure if a shirt or jacket fits you well, ask for help. Bring a friend who knows how to dress to the store with you. And here a few guidelines to follow:
- Your pants should barely touch your shoes but not cover them.
- If you are wearing a belt, it should fit around your waist, not higher and not lower.
- The sleeves of your shirt should end near the beginning of your wrist.
Smart tip: Even if you are oddly sized, it’s possible to find great-looking clothing without trying to hide inside a tent. Some men have thick necks and shoulders and relatively slim waists. Others – and be honest – have somewhat thicker waists. Finding the right manufacturer can help. Or, if you can afford it, a little bit of tailoring isn’t that expensive, and make even a pair of jeans fit great.
2. Be Smart About Colors
Are orange and yellow suitable for your office? The answer – as with most things in men’s fashion – is a less-than-straightforward Maybe, if you know how to use them.
If you want to be on the safe side, stick with blue and white button downs. These two colors always work. However, they are also the colors of an office worker who neither takes risks nor cares about diversity.
Business casual allows you to play around with hues. Yellowish brown, greenish beige, cool yellow, and light blue are all excellent choices for a shirt, and look good with the majority of pants, ties, and jackets.
Forget about simple white shirts. Add dots and stripes. They can single you out of the crowd without ruining your casual style.
When it comes to pants, try brown, olive, beige or white. You can even find pants with patterns that look strict and casual at the same time. A belt – either cloth or leather – is a must, and should match the color of your loafers.
When choosing a jacket, varsity jackets are an excellent idea. Especially, if they have leather components. A leather jacket is an integral part of any businessman’s wardrobe.
3. Avoid Inexpensive Clothing
Yes, it helps you show your practical side when you buy $1 shirts at a grand sale. But such shirts likely look as cheap as they are, stretch after the first wash, and end up in the trash before a single season ends.
In the struggle to find the balance between business and casual in a business casual setting, looking cheap is never an okay option. It’s ok to monitor sales and promotions in your favorite stores, but settling for second-hand stuff is inappropriate for even the most casual office.
Sometimes, inexpensive clothing can appear suitable for your business casual attire. If it looks good, check the tag to find the materials it’s made from.
Clothing that contains more than 15% polyester or viscose is likely to appear smoother and brighter. However, if your shirt contains more than 40% synthetic materials, you are in trouble. While in small quantities they can help make a nice shirt be more form fitting or comfortable, these materials can also be used to save money over natural components.
Plastic buttons that aren’t attached properly and lopsided stitches are a sure sign of a cheap garment.
Before buying clothing, check how well it wrinkles. If you don’t want to spend hours in front of an ironing board, choose something that doesn’t wrinkle easily.
7 Parts of Your Business Casual Outfit
Now that you know the general rules, let’s dissect some of the garments that can become part of your business casual outfit.
Big No-Nos: We hope you know that t-shirts, jeans, and tennis shoes aren’t allowed.
1. Dress Shirts
We know that some guys in your office may be wearing polo shirts. Yes, sometimes, they are allowed, especially in the summertime. However, if you want your outfit to follow business casual rules, stick to the dress shirts.
As we already said, dress shirts can come in colors other than white or blue. On top of what we mentioned earlier, other considerations are lavender, mint green or even light pink with stripes and patterns.
Try to stick to classic designs. Avoid anything that seems too bold even if it’s trendy this season.
Don’t forget to tuck your shirt in. Even if it’s designed to look good when worn over the pants, business casual style doesn’t allow such liberties.
If you want to add some “casual” to the shirt, unbutton one or two buttons on top. If you are wearing a tie, keep them buttoned.
Smart tip: If unbuttoning top buttons reveals chest hair, either get rid of the hair or keep the shirt buttoned.
Try not to go overboard with pants. Since jeans (yes, even dark wash jeans) are not an option, consider chinos or dress pants. Thankfully these days, the variety of dress pants is huge. They come with different clasps, buttons, and zippers. They can either have pleats or be flat-front.
Don’t limit yourself to dark colors. Consider beige or even white chinos for the summer. Olive and navy pants for the winter will do. Make sure pants aren’t too long and don’t cover your entire shoe.
When you are trying pants on, check if you feel comfortable in them. Don’t just walk around the fitting room. Go outside and sit down. If the pants are too tight, your overall style may be ruined.
Shoes are the easiest and the hardest part of the business casual attire. As we mentioned before, you should forget about sneakers and tennis shoes. So what do we have left?
- Dress shoes
Do all of the above sound Greek to you? Thankfully, whatever works for you is good for business casual unless it’s sneakers or flip-flops.
Don’t experiment with shoe colors. You have to make sure they fit the rest of your outfit. You can invest in three pairs: black, brown, and beige.
Smart tip: Make sure your shoes and belt match. And the math here is simple: black leather belt = black leather shoes. Brown leather belt = brown leather shoes. Cloth belt with lighter fabrics = lighter shoes.
When it comes to business casual and socks, there is only one rule. Avoid bright colors and patterns. Ideally, you should get a pack of black, navy, and beige socks and forget about this part of the business casual attire entirely.
What you should remember is that when you sit down, your socks show up from under your pants. So try to choose a color that matches the rest of your outfit. Wearing brown socks with a lavender shirt and navy pants is not ideal.
To be conservative or if you’re unsure, matching your socks to your slacks works best. As you grow more comfortable with your style, matching your shirt is of course an option. Just stay away from exact matches – getting in the same color range is ideal here.
5. Sweaters and Cardigans
Sweaters and cardigans are what makes business casual fun and relaxed. Some offices only allow you to wear them in the winter. Others see the sweater as a substitute for a jacket or a blazer.
However, for business casual, you don’t just grab your good old favorite sweater from the back of your closet. Business casual sweaters should be lightweight, solid, and well-fitting. While you can experiment with colors, forget about patterns. Especially if you are wearing patterned shirts or pants.
If you are a fan of dark colors for your pants and shirts, brighten up your image with a yellow or dark red cardigan.
While business casual doesn’t require a tie, you can choose to wear one. Sometimes, a tie is an excellent addition to the business casual outfit since it makes it appear… well… more business and less casual.
For example, if you decide to wear a boldly colored sweater, a solid tie can make it look toned down. Or if you are into strict and solid pants and shirts, a striped tie can add some fun and diversity to your image.
Just like sweaters, jackets don’t just diversify your outfit; they can keep you warm. You can choose between blazers, varsity jackets, and tweed coats. As long as the jacket doesn’t make you look as if you are headed to a ball game, it’s fine.
Consider buying a jacket specifically to go to the office. It should look more formal than something you wear on the weekends, but not as formal as the black suit you keep at the back of your closet.
These days, a blazer or jacket shouldn’t match your pants. In fact, by choosing differently colored jackets and pants, you are reinforcing your business casual style.
No. Not for men or women. If have a romper you love that you just have to show off to your coworkers, we recommend getting together for drinks or lunch outside of work. But if you feel you absolutely must, and you’re a woman, then at least take the time to spruce it up. And if you’re a man – the answer is just no.
No. Henley shirts are collarless pull-overs with buttons. And they might look great while throwing a ball at the pre-game, but their buttons don’t do enough work to make them business casual. If you like the idea of a pullover, then you should go with a nice cardigan or v-neck sweater.
Probably. If you’re not sure, then we recommend staying with a more conservative style. But as you grow more comfortable in the office, you’ll probably see coworkers wearing jeans. There are a few tricks to pulling this look off well. First, they have to be clean and free of holes and tears. Jeans that come with holes and tears – even in innocent places like at the top of a pocket – are too casual for business casual. Another trick is to match a nice pair of dark wash jeans with a jacket. This mash of casual and conservative looks great and can be very comfortable.
Yes. Though it depends on the company and the industry. The less sure you are of the company’s standard, the more you want to stray on the formal side of business casual.
Yes, in the right environment. If business casual in your office means a tie with no jacket, then denim of any kind might be too far of a step down. But if your colleagues regularly wear polos shirts and white sneakers, then some dressed-up denim is almost certainly okay.
Most situations. But being a little over-dressed is always better than a little underdressed. So if you’re unsure, dress a little more conservatively than you otherwise might. If you’re going to a job interview where you know they have a casual style, dressing on the higher-end of business casual is probably smart. At the same time, if you’re going on a casual date to something simple like dinner and a movie, don’t wear jeans and a t-shirt when your date might be dressing up – but slacks and a tucked-in polo is probably going to be fine.
Maybe. Here again, it depends on the environment and the industry. On the West Coast of the United States, it probably is. But on the East Coast, where people dress more conservatively, you’ll probably feel underdressed. If you do go this route, be sure the jeans aren’t ripped or torn – even if they’re designed that way – and pair them with nice loafers or brogues.
Yes. But they work best with a blazer and a pair of dark slacks. Turtlenecks, like v-neck sweaters and cardigans, can work to soften an ensemble. But wearing them with jeans can be too much casual and not enough business.
Business professional attire for men is a suit and tie. Unlike business formal attire – which requires dark suits, white shirts, silk ties, and pocket squares – there is some leniency in business professional about details such as the color of the shirt, patterns, etc. But in business professional attire, sweaters, knit ties, and dark wash jeans are too low key.
Probably – but it depends on the kind of boot and the rest of the ensemble. Over a nice pair of jeans or slacks, cowboy or chukka boots will look just like heeled dress shoes. Work boots and desert boots, on the other hand, will lend the outfit a more casual tone – which isn’t to say they can’t be worn. The rest of the outfit, though, might need to be a little more upscale – a white button-up shirt, or nice sweater – to bring the outfit to a business level.
No. Most men’s fashion experts agree that tucked-in is the way to go, even in casual settings. The style of the outfit dictates how casual it is. With few exceptions, an untucked shirt makes any outfit look sloppy.
No. Especially not for men. In a more casual office, with the right outfit, women might be able to get away with open-toed or open-heeled shoes. But in general, these are seen as too racy, sexy, or in other way unprofessional for an office setting.
No. An expensive pair of fitted shorts paired with nice loafers and a button-down shirt might be considered smart casual. But shorts don’t make the grade when it comes to a business setting.
No. Though there are times when they’re appropriate, such as a job interview, important meeting, or when you just want to impress.
It depends. Business casual looks offer a great deal of flexibility regarding colors. However, being overly flamboyant is a mistake. Dark wash jeans can bring down the tone of an otherwise overly bright shirt. Or a brightly colored knitted tie can lend a casual tone to an otherwise formal jacket and slacks.
Long Story Short….
Let’s make a quick list of things we’ve learned today:
- Business casual clothing should fit perfectly and never be too loose.
- Don’t run after cheap deals. Office attire should be made out of quality materials.
- Limit your choice of colors but don’t stick to white and blue. Use your imagination and hone your sense of style.
- Dress shirts are a must-have for any business casual attire. Polo shirts are sometimes allowed.
- Be careful with jeans, especially fashions that come with rips and tears.
- All shoes work as soon as they aren’t sneakers and cover your entire foot.
- Jackets don’t have to match your pants.
- Sweaters and cardigans are a great choice for business casual as long as you are smart about the colors.
- Ties aren’t necessary but can sometimes save your image.
- Buy a pack of black, blue, and brown socks and when in doubt match them to your slack, not your shoes. If by any chance you are still unsure about what to buy for your business casual outfit, ask your coworkers. They are likely to know what’s allowed and what’s frowned upon in the office.