Anyone starting a new office job since the mid-‘90s has had to contend with the confusion surrounding business casual dressing. While “business” is in the name, it’s not entirely formal. But, on the same token, it’s not casual, either – as traditional casual pieces like jeans, tees, and sneakers fall clearly out of bounds.
This post may have affiliate links, meaning we earn a small commission on purchases through the links (at no extra cost to you). This does not change our opinion but does help support the site. Thank you!
And, to throw in a curveball, “smart casual” sounds extremely similarly – but it’s a few degrees less formal. So, before you make a blunder on your first week on the job – or even after you’ve been there for a few years, for that matter – here’s our comprehensive guide to business casual dressing.
How Business Casual Evolved
All you have to do it turn to some period TV – Mad Men or even Mindhunter, for starters – to see that, up through the 1980s, the two-piece suit remained the default way men dressed for the job. Perhaps the fit shifted – from wider to slimmer cuts, to double-breasted at points – but you couldn’t have a more reliable uniform.
Somewhere in the ‘60s, Hawaiian shirt Fridays kicked off in the Pacific island state, and this trend traveled across the water to the mainland, where it eventually morphed into casual Fridays. By the early ‘90s, Levi’s ads for Dockers khakis hit this point home a bit more, and employers didn’t seem to mind a certain preppy, country club-esque style of dressing in the office.
From here, retailers like J. Crew and Ralph Lauren expanded their offerings to address the polos-and-khakis set and angled these items beyond their weekend-wear origins.
Now, it’s exceeding rare you’ll spot your coworkers in a suit – unless you work in an industry like law or finance where proper business dress is still required, or one of your colleagues comes directly from a funeral. Beyond these scenarios, the traditional single-breasted suit – in charcoal, black, or navy – is best reserved for the job interview. Casual suit – think brown, green, burgundy, or the innumerable patterns out there – can come out for the cocktail party.
Business Casual Basics
When in doubt, consult the company handbook, or if you’re about to start a new position, speak with HR before heading in on your first day. Unfortunately, doing this still might not add clarity, so, for a rundown of basics:
- No jeans and no suits: The vast realm of menswear between these two is up for the taking. As such, anything from dress pants to chinos and khakis goes, while for your shirt, make sure it buttons up to the collar. Additionally, while a suit may be too formal, your coworkers may still show up in blazers or a fine-knit cardigan, depending upon the weather.
- Don’t go bold: We’re talking about colors here. No reds, yellows, or orange, and as all-over as they are right now, neons should be left to the weekend. Prints, too, follow the same rules – keep it small, classic, and neutral tones.
- You don’t need a tie: But other select accessories certainly don’t hurt. While it’s not required, add some character with a pocket square, watch, or cufflinks.
- Fabrics: Generally, 100% polyester and 100% rayon are too thin and cheap looking. Instead, turn to 100% cotton – in a midweight for most of the year – while textured heritage materials like twill, corduroy, wool, and even linen add some variety.
Building a Business Casual Wardrobe – Key Pieces
You don’t have to go out and buy a whole new wardrobe. Instead, your closet may already contain a mix of the following:
A Blazer or Sportscoat
Although unstructured may be fine in more casual-leaning environments, err on the side of structured, with a single-button, notch-lapel silhouette featuring more angular shoulders and clear lines. And, while purple, cobalt, and even pink are all on-trend now, keep it subdued for the office – grays and charcoals, brown or tan, or classic navy. Pinstripes or checks may give you an edge – but nothing more adventurous.
Dress Shirts & Polos
Preferably long-sleeved, although plenty of guys get away with a short-sleeved variety when it’s hot out. Here, too, strive for structure: A sharper, stiffer collar, rather than a softer, button-down version. As well, don’t go crazy with the colors and prints: White, light blue, grey, or dark green should be in regular rotation. Patterns should be traditional – think stripes or checks – and kept on the small side.
Polo shirts may be an option – but look at what your coworkers regularly sport before you don one yourself. And, in this case, adhere to the same rules – nothing too flashy.
Fit, as a final point, is regularly an issue with dress shirts. For today’s business casual wardrobe, lean toward classic – slim and straight, but not skintight. Although more relaxed fits – last seen in the ‘90s – are making a comeback, these show wrinkles sooner and may look sloppy. And, whatever you select, always tuck it in, and belt your pants at the waist.
Pants – Dress, Chinos, and Khakis
On the subject of pants, the general consensus is, stick with dress pants in cotton, wool, twill, or gabardine, or go in a slightly more casual direction with chinos or khakis. As with your shirt, stay away from anything too skinny – no spray-on fits for the office – but avoid anything baggy on the same token. In any case, you can’t go wrong with a flat-front silhouette in black, charcoal, tan, or navy that hits right where your shoes begin and offer a bit of a break.
Are Jeans Business Casual?
Plenty of hiring managers, especially in these current times, see this question. The answer, where strict business casual is concerned, is a hard “no,” no matter what the fit and wash are.
On the other hand, this is where smart casual breaks off from business casual. If your office runs more in the smart casual direction, then, yes, some jeans are fine. Pay attention to this keyword, though: “Some” means a classic fit – nothing skinny – in a black or dark wash, free of fading and distressing. Keep the light washes and blown-out knees ready for the weekend.
Sweaters – Fine Knits and Neutral Colors
Let’s state the obvious: Offices get cold and require a layer. A blazer on top of your button-front doesn’t cut it when the A.C. is on at full blast. Here’s where sweaters come in: They add just enough warmth without looking too informal, in the way a fleece or sweatshirt could.
As with all garments listed here, go toward subtle and classic options that layer well: Think a V-neck cut that contrasts with your collar, in a fine-gauge knit. Chunky sweaters – especially if they’re multicolored – read as too informal and cross over into statement territory.
Formal dress codes dictate that oxfords are the only acceptable footwear – perhaps with a bit of detail. Business casual expands your choices just a bit:
- A derby, for something low and lace-up.
- Chelsea boots and loafers for an easily slipped-on style
- Monk straps for a loafer-like fit that looks a bit more put together.
- Lace-up dress boots, for a polished look even in cooler weather.
In all cases, don’t have your shoes unintentionally make a loud statement. Rather, they’re secondary to everything else, so stick with brown or black and keep them polished and crease-free.
Sure, you take your coat off at your desk, but the top-level managers are still taking note. You’re present and prepared from the moment you step through the front door, and your coat contributes to this impression. Generally, especially once the temperatures drop, overcoats and peacoats in wool or a similar blend, ideally in a dark color, are fairly versatile and – as an added but equally essential point – offer enough space to be worn over without wrinkling your blazer underneath.