It can be confusing, right?
What exactly does “business casual for men” mean?
Many men still think a business-casual dress code allows jeans.
But I understand the confusion. Frankly, everybody seems to have a different opinion on what business casual men can get away with.
And that’s a problem because many guys will just google “business casual men”, read a bunch of articles and deduct that they have plenty of leeway. So they end up dressing as close to casual as they can.
But that leeway is imaginary.
When an office or event sets a dress code, they expect you to dress up to a certain standard.
But because the standard for business casual attire differs from office to office, a clear definition doesn’t exist. And that’s the root of the problem; defining what is business casual for men, which is something different to different people is difficult.
But as you know, I thrive on simplifying things that are difficult, so I’m gonna give it a shot. You can be the judge if I succeed.
So what is business casual for men? What is the proper implementation of the dress code? What are the do’s and don’ts?
What Does Business Casual Mean for a Man?
To put it simply, business casual is not dressing up a casual outfit; business casual means dressing down a business outfit. In other words: Business casual is dressing down from a suit.
Business casual is not meant to be a casual look. It’s a look meant for business purposes.
The idea behind business casual is to project a professional image while enjoying more casual attire. You must appear neat and groomed, and yet, relaxed at the same time. But never too relaxed.
You can’t just wear the same casual wear that you wear to your neighbor’s barbecue or your favorite bar, such as flip flops or baggy casual pants, no matter how you dress them up.
That’s the main principle you should follow.
But I know that’s not enough to clear up all the confusion. I’ll give you more guidelines to follow later on.
A Fun History of Business Casual Clothing!
Ever wondered where this concept of business casual came from?
It all started with Aloha Friday!
Till the mid-60s, businesses had a very strict professional dress code for men’s clothing. Men had to wear a formal suit with a shirt and tie.
Then in 1966, the Hawaiian shirt industry came up with a brilliant marketing plan to increase shirt sales. They encouraged local businesses to allow their employees to wear their most colorful Hawaiian casual shirt once a week.
They called it Aloha Friday.
The message was not to take yourself too seriously and not to get caught up too much in the rat race. have a little fun in life.
“Aloha Friday” was hugely popular and soon after drifted to the mainland, becoming known as Casual Friday. Before long, the rest of corporate America was wearing clothing like slacks, t-shirts, and dark denim to their workplace every day.
But, then people took it too far, started wearing shorts and flip flops to work. People in upper management started to feel people were having a bit too much fun with Casual Fridays.
The time was ripe for another shift in the formal dress code trend, and it happened with a little nudge from Levi Strauss & Co.
In the early ‘90s, Levi’s launched a series of marketing campaigns to boost sales of Dockers — its new brand — to the corporate world. They printed a brochure called “A Guide to Casual Businesswear,” that showed different business casual looks and sent it to HR departments across the country.
The business casual men’s style prominently featured Dockers paired with a button-up shirt and loafers, or with a long-sleeved shirt and jacket.
Their timing worked well. Companies struggling to keep their employees’ dress code geared towards the formal, directed their employees to refer to Levi’s brochure when dressing up in professional attire.
Other brands, like Ralph Lauren, Jos A. Bank, Brooks Brothers and J.Crew also jumped into the fray with their line of men’s style casual office wear.
And the business casual dress code was born.
But enough with the history lesson,. I know you’re itching to know how to get the business casual dress code right.
Let’s jump into the real meat of this post.
Your Basic Guidelines for the Business Casual Dress Code
So business casual men should dress down from a suit, but what exactly does that mean?
What is considered business casual attire in men’s fashion?
Well, your business casual wardrobe should always include a suit or sports coat, a dress shirt, slacks or chinos, an optional tie, and dress shoes.
Now, let’s go over some rules.
3 Essential Rules When Wearing Business Casual
These are just the basics:
- Your business casual wear should always be clean, unwrinkled and have at least some formal elements. You should, at the very least, wear a collar.
- Your clothes should always fit you properly. This is somethingthe well-dressed man should always ensure, even when dressing casual, but it becomes even more important when dressing for business purposes. After all, you don’t want to make a sloppy impression on a potential client or employer. It could hurt your career.
- If you are just starting to build a business casual wardrobe, stick to neutral colors such as white, black, grey, tan, navy, and brown for your business casual shirts and pants. This way, your business casual wear will never go out of fashion and will be easy to mix and match.
Are Jeans Business Casual?
I get this question a lot.
Can you wear jeans?
Well, you may not like hearing this — but denim jeans are off-limits when it comes to business casual men’s fashion. Even dark denim, black jeans, or dark wash jeans are not suitable.
And while we’re at it, t-shirts and sneakers are off limits too.
The business casual dress code ranges from suits without ties to wearing just shirts and pants. Dressing down further would take you too far into casual territory.
Yes, you’ve seen great outfits that combine denim, v-neck t-shirt and white sneakers with sport coats. But those looks are a too casual style for business-casual.
Always lean towards the business side rather than the casual side. Think of it as your business professional attire, but slightly less formal.
Note: Some companies will allow denim jeans, or even T-shirts, so you might get away with it. But ask yourself whether you want to wear clothes that you get away with or wear ones that make the most professional impression at your workplace.
Why Is Being Overdressed Better?
Once you’ve been to an office, you can just gauge the room and see what everyone else is wearing. (I’d still recommend taking it up one notch).
But if you haven’t been there before and you’re unsure how they expect you to dress, then remember that overdressed is better than underdressed.
At least when you’re overdressed, you still present yourself as a professional. When you’re underdressed though, your potential client or boss might just think you don’t take your job seriously enough.
And that’s the last thing you want, right?
So always keep professionalism in mind, and when in doubt, dress up.
Wear the right clothes and wear them the right way…
The Essential Business Casual Clothes for Men (and How to Wear Them)
So by now you should have a clearer idea of what business casual clothing looks like, and you have some basic guidelines to follow.
So let’s dig a little deeper and go through all clothes that belong in a man’s business casual wardrobe and how to get the look right.
1. Dress Shirts
Dress shirts are business-casual must-haves. Every outfit we’ll cover in this article will involve a shirt.
Some offices also allow polo-shirts in summer, but those belong more in a casual wardrobe than as professional attire. Go there only when the heat is otherwise unbearable (and you know your office allows it).
Otherwise, stick to dress shirts.
Start off your wardrobe with dress shirts in traditional colors like white and light blue. A white button-down oxford is a classic go-to shirt for business casual attire. You might also opt for alternatives like light pink, mint green or lavender.
You might consider subtle patterns like gingham or pinstripes. But avoid business casual shirts that are too bold or trendy in design. Remember that you want to err on the conservative side when selecting your professional attire.
Fit is essential, so try out the three main types of dress shirts: slim fit, regular fit, and relaxed fit to see which goes best with your body type.
While current fashion trends seem to prefer a slim fit, select it only if it compliments your body type and you feel comfortable. Whenever in doubt, choose long-sleeved shirts in a regular fit.
What about button-down vs. button-up? What’s the difference?
A button-down shirt has buttons that fasten the collar to the body of the shirt. A button-up shirt, on the other hand, has a stiffer collar and may use a plastic shirt stay to keep the collar in place.
Both are fine for business casual attire.
Which reminds me — tuck your shirt in! An untucked shirt has no business being in a business-casual outfit. And unless you’re wearing a tie, leave your top two buttons of your shirt undone (unless that shows too much skin or chest-hair; then just leave the top one undone).
I already mentioned that jeans are a no-go, so on your bottom half, you want to wear either dress pants or chinos.
Make sure your pants fit well and don’t crease too much around the ankles. Go for a no-break to half-break.
What’s the break?
The break is the fold or creasing of the fabric where your pant leg meets your shoe.
There’s a thin difference between a no-break well-fitting pair of pants and pants that are too short. So ensure you have a good tailor at hand to alter your dress pants.
And again, start with more conservative colors like navy, grey or camel. If you do wear more colored pants, make sure they’re appropriately muted.
Business Casual Pants
Business Casual Chinos
When you’re dressing business casual, the only footwear you want to look at is sneakers.
I kid, of course. Sneakers have as little business being in a business-casual outfit as tennis shoes or flip-flops.
As I explain in my post on business casual shoes for men, you can choose from the following seven options:
- Monk Straps
- Chelsea Boots
- Dress Boots
- Loafers (in suede or leather)
Get a pair of dress shoes in black and brown, so you have a couple of appropriate lace-up shoes to wear with any color of your pants.
Chukka boots tend to bend more towards the casual, so avoid them in a business casual outfit.
Keep socks in neutral colors of brown, black, grey, or beige. Or, if you want to play matchy, find socks with subtle patterns that include both the color of your pants and shoes.
Business-Casual Dress Shoes
Some business-casual offices still expect you to wear a suit to work. They just allow you to leave the tie at home.
But even when you don’t have to wear a suit to work, doesn’t mean you never should. It still looks most professional (and handsome as well, so the ladies tell me).
Having a suit (or a few) in your wardrobe will also come in handy when you need to step your personal presentation up a notch. What if you’re meeting an important client or have to give a presentation for upper management?
Wearing a suit gives you the most professional image, even if you forego the tie.
While some business casual offices still expect you to wear a suit, others are fine as long as you wear a jacket.
If that’s your situation, navy or grey blazers, tweed sports coats, corduroy jackets and quilted jacket are your basic go-to’s.
A dark blazer worn over a long-sleeved shirt with a tie and leather shoes is a classic business professional attire that always looks smart.
Sweaters and cardigans also make fine layering pieces for a business-casual outfit.
In some offices, you may only wear them during winter, as a middle layer between your shirt and jacket. But other offices allow you to wear them as a substitute for your jacket.
But don’t think you can just wear that chunky Christmas sweater your grandma knit for you. A v-neck sweater in merino wool works very well as a substitute for a jacket.
Keep your v-neck sweater or cardigan lightweight and solid. Leave the chunky knits and bold patterns for more casual occasions.
You can be a bit bolder when it comes to color though, so don’t be afraid to lighten your office up with a pop of red or yellow. But if you do wear bright colors, pair it with a neutral-colored shirt like a white button-down.
Business-Casual Sweaters & Cardigans
7. Business Casual Accessories
Accessories are essential in any men’s fashion wardrobe when you want to take your fashion quotient up a notch.
Let’s go over a few business casual accessories.
You don’t always need to wear a tie when you dress business-casual. In fact, the business-casual craze started with just leaving the tie at home.
But especially when your outfit leans more casual — say, when you’re wearing a cardigan and chinos instead of a suit — a knit tie can slide your outfit back a bit more toward the business side.
Of course, you don’t dress business casual to black tie events, so you can play around with patterns and colors, or even opt for a knitted tie.
Business Casual Ties
When it comes to sporting a business casual look, a backpack has no place. You want to go for something classier.
Instead, opt for a leather bag or canvas-leather bag in brown or black. An all-canvas bag or a portfolio may also work for you but stick to neutral colors and classic, clean, functional designs.
Business Casual Bags
Belts & Watches
Most people don’t consider belts and watches as necessary accessories. But a smart, stylish man would.
The classiest business casual style for the belt would be plain or braided leather in brown or black. When it comes to watches, nothing beats a brown leather strap style.
You want to make sure your leather belt and watch match your leather shoes.
What this means is – if you are wearing brown leather shoes, your leather belt should also be brown as should be the leather strap of your watch.
Business Casual Belts
Business Casual Watches
Pocket squares can bring a dash of color to your business casual attire. If you are wearing a blazer or a jacket, team it with a contrasting pocket square. When worn with a tie, try and have your pocket square complement rather than match the tie. One easy way to do so is by having one color in the pocket square pattern match the tie (or vice versa).
Business Casual Watches
4 Simple Examples of Business Casual Outfits for Men
Now that you know what clothes are essential for dressing business casual, let’s cover a few examples of looks you could put together.
Different professions have different standards of what is the appropriate business casual look. As a banker or lawyer, you likely need to be dressed more formally as opposed to if you work at a startup.
(When starting a new job, it is better to be overdressed for the first day in office. You can also discuss with the HR or a colleague to understand what business casual means at your new office.)
I’ve ranked these men’s business casual examples from most formal to least formal, and as I’ve said before, which one’s most suitable depends on your office. But if you’re unsure, start with the top one, and dress yourself down from there.
Better to be overdressed on the first meeting than underdressed, remember?
1. The Suit Sans Tie
The first way to dress business-casual is to simply wear your suit without the tie.
Worn with a button-down shirt, this look is just one step down from business-formal and still looks the most professional.
Also make sure to wear a nice watch that’s not too blingy. A leather strap with a subtle silver or gold face is fine. Avoid silver or gold straps.
And consider sprucing the outfit up a bit with a pocket square. You’re going without a tie, which frees up the neck, but also diminishes the visual interest some. Adding a pocket square will fix that.
This outfit is actually quite safe when it comes to dressing business casual. When you arrive at an office that’s one rung down on the dressy ladder (i.e. look #2), you wouldn’t stick out too much in a suit sans tie. And if you arrive at an office where the dress code is more casual (i.e. look #4), you can just take off your jacket to fit right in.
2. The Odd Jacket
The term odd jacket isn’t used much anymore, but it means a jacket that wasn’t made with a matching pair of pants. Whenever you wear a jacket with pants that don’t match the color and fabric of the jacket, you’re wearing an odd jacket.
So that means your navy blazer, tweed spots coat or corduroy jacket.
You can pull this look off in two ways: With dress pants or with chinos. The dress pants will give you a dressier look whereas the chinos are a tad more casual.
Both looks will probably be fine if your office has this standard of business-casual, but the dress pants will give you a more professional edge.
3. The Dressed-Up Knit
The dressed-up knit outfit has you wearing a sweater or cardigan over your business casual shirts instead of a jacket.
This look leans far more towards casual than the previous two, so I’d recommend pairing the knitwear with dress pants, rather than chinos. The latter works too, but dress pants will slide the look back towards business a bit.
And as I mentioned earlier, pairing a tie with your knitwear will have the same effect.
4. The Shirt & Slacks
This is the most casual of the business-casual looks. It leaves both the jacket and tie at home.
Like with the previous look, go with dress pants rather than chinos to avoid venturing too far into the casual wardrobe territory.
However, unlike the previous look, don’t try to elevate this by adding a tie. Wearing a tie without a jacket makes you look boyish. It’s the outfit your mom made your younger self reluctantly wear to a wedding.
And that’s exactly the impression you’ll make, except now your boss makes you wear the tie and you refuse to go all the way with a jacket. Not a professional look, my friend.
So either wear a jacket and tie or wear neither. You can take the jacket off as you sit down to work, or even carry it on your arm as you move from your office to a client’s. Just having it around will make the tie look deliberate.
Summing it Up: Business Casual Do’s and Don’ts
Just to sum things up, here are some do’s and don’ts for the men’s business casual dress code:
- Do wear dress shirts, sweaters, cardigans, and/or tailored jackets.
- Don’t wear sneakers, jeans or t-shirts.
- Do wear a tailored jacket with a tie.
- Don’t wear a tie with a suit. (You can, but it’s not business casual.)
- Do wear dress pants or chinos.
- Don’t wear shorts, sandals or slippers.
- Do wear dress shoes, watches and pocket squares.
- Don’t wear loud patterns or colors.
- Do wear clothes that fit properly.
- Don’t dress up your casual outfit.
- Do dress down your business outfit.
- Do project a professional image, even if you’re wearing more casual attire
- Do check the dress standard of the other employees at your company and aim to take it up a notch.
There are also situations in which you definitely should NOT dress business casual:
- Don’t dress business casual for important meetings with clients, managers or executives.
- Don’t dress business casual when representing your company in the media, at a conference, or at an event.
- Don’t dress business casual for important job interviews (unless you’re 100% sure they have a casual dress code, in which case, I’d still suggest wearing a suit sans tie).
Now You Can Join the Business Casual Men Who Get it Right
You know now what business casual means for men, and how to make it work. So don’t be the guy that emphasizes the casual when you have to dress business casual. Be the guy that gets it right.
Even if the rest of your office is wearing jeans, just hold yourself to a higher standard. Take it one step up. Be the guy that look professional, even if you’re the only one. You’ll stand out in the right way.
The people who matter will notice.