Business Casual For Men: The Dress Codes Explained Series (Part I)

It's all about balance. Learn how to put together the perfect business casual outfit for your specific work environment.

Boom.

You’ve done it. You’ve landed the new dream job.

Your first day is Friday and your new boss has casually flicked you the text:

“Just wear business casual.”

Or, you’ve finally schmoozed your way to an invite for that big ticket industry event. And as you’re scanning the details you see the dress code.

Yep, you guessed it.

And like any occasion that has a set attire, you want to make the right impression.

The good news? You’re in the right place to learn how.

Business casual is a dress code that has divided opinion for decades. It’s also the most common.

And as workplace dress codes become less formal, our research suggests it will become even more popular.

And that’s why it kicks off our multi-part Dress Codes Explained series.

This article will define business casual attire, explore its history and key elements, and feature a complete style guide for each clothing type and for different industries of work.

We’ll also fill you in on some optional pieces, what not to wear, and some emerging business casual trends.


What Is Business Casual Attire?


Put simply:

Business casual for men = a button-down shirt, dress pants or khakis/chinos, and nice shoes.

As a general rule, business casual is less formal than a suit, but more formal than jeans.

Like any dress code, there are exceptions.

For one, you should always conform to company culture. If it’s an industry event, consider the dress culture of the industry as a whole.

And the older you are, the more you should err on the side of formality.


Business Casual Examples


This is a classic business casual outfit example for a more casual white collar environment.

The lilac dress shirt contrasts well with the check patterned charcoal dress pants and drives home the creative flair that business casual allows. The loafers and matching belt round out the outfit in traditional business casual style.

With khaki chinos, a white dress shirt, a brown belt, and brown oxfords as the base, the style is made more formal with the addition of a light grey blazer, or more casual with a grey cardigan.


The History of Business Casual Dress


Think about the show Mad Men for a minute.

If you haven’t seen it (I guess we’ll forgive you), just think about the men who worked in offices in the 1960s.

What’s notably different about them compared to today?

O.K., we’ll put the incessant drinking, cigarette-smoking, and workplace misogyny aside for a second.

It’s the suits. And the ties.

From a dress code perspective, workplaces like the fictional Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce were stuffy churches of formality.

Nowadays, employers are commonly more relaxed with their dress requirements.

And it all started with the rise of business casual.

But how did the modern Friday office uniform of button down shirts and khakis come to be?

Alongside Beatlemania and the birth of Andy Warhol’s pop art genre, it began in the 1960s. Here’s the timeline:

1966: Aloha Friday

Vintage_aloha-shirt-quilt

You’re the Hawaiian garment industry in 1966 and you want to sell more shirts. What do you do? You invent “Aloha Friday”, of course. A day where employees of Hawaiian businesses can wear Hawaiian shirts to the office every Friday.

What began as a marketing ploy quickly caught on as a cultural statement. Aloha Friday fast became a symbol of rat-race resistance in 1960s Hawaii.

Early 1990s: Dawn of the Dockers

800px-Levi_Strauss_sign
By Cullen328 photo by Jim Heaphy [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], from Wikimedia Commons
By the recession hit 1990s, Aloha Fridays had made its way to the mainland under a new name—Casual Fridays. But there was a problem.

As Rick Miller, PR for Levi’s “Dockers” put it at the time, “People were showing up in Hawaiian print shirts or sandals and shorts. Frankly, there were concerns on the part of management that work might become too much fun.”

Levis saw a shrewd opportunity to rescue its stagnating brand. Enter, the khaki slacks. Under the brand name of Dockers, Levi’s planned to move the khaki slacks from the golf-course to the office and revolutionize business casual attire.

1992: A New Dress Code Is Born

A-Guide-to-Casual-Businesswear
Image via Levi Strauss & Co

Of course, you can’t start a business casual revolution in the 1990s without sending an eight-page brochure to over 25,000 HR managers. So that’s exactly what Levi Strauss & Co did.

The name of the brochure was “A Guide to Casual Businesswear”. And the key feature throughout? You guessed it. Dockers.

As the brand envisaged, HR Managers passed the brochure around at water coolers across corporate America.

Soon enough, Dockers became a staple. And the stage was set for business casual as we know it today.


Business Casual Guide For Men In 2018: The Staples


These are the key guidelines for each individual clothing type that make up a standard business casual outfit.

Shirts

The shirt is at the heart of any business casual outfit.

One major benefit to business casual is that it allows some leeway in terms of shirt styles. Again, your company culture will weigh in here.

Since you probably won’t be wearing a tie (more on this below), opt for a shirt with a nicely fitted collar that hugs your neckline on its own.

Slim fit is still in trend, but if slim doesn’t fit your body type, stick to a classic fit.

Your shirt should always be tucked in. Depending on your workplace (or the weather), chances are you won’t be wearing a jacket or additional layer at all times.

Because your shirt will be more prominently on display, it’s important that it’s not only tucked in, but tucked in properly (learn how here).

Industry Guidelines For Business Casual Shirts

  • Traditional white collar. Stick to long sleeved dress shirts (like the Oxford) and classic colors such as light blue or white. Opt for conservative patterns like thin stripes or plain.
  • Tech startups and creative roles. Trendier and casual is a lot more acceptable here. Casual fabrics and more flamboyant patterns will usually fly, as will rolling up your shirt sleeves. If it’s a startup and it’s your first day, a trim cut polo shirt is a smart choice.
  • Sales and service roles. As a general rule, the more customer contact you have, the more formal your business casual attire should be. The button-down collar shirt is a widely acceptable go-to across sales, trade, or other customer service focused roles.

Pants

Dress pants and khakis are business casual staples, and we don’t see this changing any time soon.

As we set out above, the Original Khaki Pants by Dockers are the Granddaddy of the dress code. But really, for khakis, you can go for any brand that’s within your budget. It’s more important that they fit right. As a general rule, opt for slim fit (not skinny).

For dress pants, stick to navy, grey, or charcoal with a pleated or flat front.

Chinos are rapidly growing in popularity as a business casual go-to. If your workplace allows them, they’re an accessible and comfortable alternative. Stick to slim fit and classic colors like navy or khaki.

Industry Guidelines For Business Casual Pants

  • Traditional white collar. Dress pants or khakis should be your go-to. Chinos are acceptable if your work environment is more on the casual side.
  • Tech startups and creative roles. Dark denim is fine for most startups, but chinos will also work well as a slightly more formal option. More obscure chino colors are O.K., provided you match well with your shirt and the rest of your outfit.
  • Sales and service roles. You can more readily opt for chinos and khakis and be a little bolder in your color choices. Olive works really well in a more casual setting and pairs beautifully with a navy or white button-down. Avoid anything with a prominently visible logo.

Shoes

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Yanko Double Monk

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Your wheels round out any outfit and business casual is no exception.

And one of our favorite things about this dress code is just how creative you can be with shoes.

The classic oxford and derby dress shoes are obvious choices, but you can also mix in Brogues, as well as casual dress shoes such as loafers and monk straps.

Boots are also in play. Opt for chukka boots or Chelsea boots.

For colors? Brown is always a strong business casual choice. You can also mix in bolder colors like Oxblood and burgundy for a stronger statement.

Important: Your belt must match the color of your shoes. And if you’re wearing a watch, it needs to match both too. Click here for a complete guide on matching your leathers.

Industry Guidelines For Business Casual Shoes

  • Traditional white collar. Get creative with the classic and casual dress shoes mentioned above, as well as boots if your office culture allows it.
  • Tech startups and creative roles. Sneakers, boots, and dress shoes are all fine, as are suade fabrics and driving shoes. And there’s no need to stick with brown either. Reds, greens and blues will all work well in a more casual startup environment.
  • Sales and service roles. All the classic and casual shoes mentioned above will work, minus the sneakers.

Optional Business Casual Extras


Jackets And Blazers

A jacket or blazer adds an element of class to any standard business casual outfit.

They’re well suited as a versatile extra for more traditional white collar environments such as  banking, law, or accounting. Particularly if you need to attend an unexpected last-minute meeting. Simply add a blazer or jacket for an instant touch of formality to your business casual get-up.

If you only have one in your closet, make it a single breasted navy blazer. A corduroy jacket or tweed sport coat will also work well. Stick to dark colors and subtle patterns.

As a final note, steer clear of the vest for business casual. The vest moves the needle too far toward formal.

Sweaters And Cardigans

In colder climates, sweaters and cardigans are acceptable additions to business casual style. Keep in mind that they will always add an air of informality to your look.

Stick to slim fit and swerve away from loud patterns. You don’t want to emulate the “Ugly Christmas sweater” look.

Neutral solid colours like beige, brown, navy, or black are your best bet, provided they tone well with your choice of pants or denim. Avoid clashing by learning how to match colors.

Can You Wear A Tie With Business Casual?

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how to dress to work with @justusf_hansen

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The tie is a universally accepted beacon of formality. And for this reason it generally doesn’t find it’s way into the business casual conversation.

But as you’ve learned today, business casual is all about balance and interpretation.

So can business casual include a tie? The answer is yes. With some exceptions.

It should be a knit tie. A knit tie is accepted as being less formal than its regular tie cousin. Stick to solid colors like navy, burgundy, or emerald green.

Another accepted use of the tie in business casual is when you’re wearing a cardigan. A knit tie underneath elevates the formality of the look slightly.


Are There New Rules For Business Casual Wear?


Business Casual With Jeans

Guys, hold onto your hats. Because this one stirs up sartorial controversy the globe over.

And we can understand why. Because strictly speaking, business casual is defined as an outfit that is more formal than jeans.

But the truth is, a growing number of businesses are following Silicon Valley’s lead and relaxing their dress codes in an attempt to win back the war on talented employees.

And generally, denim is fine in most startup environments, if not for everyday attire, then certainly for business casual.

So, the big question. Can you wear jeans as business casual attire?

Well, like most advice in this article, it depends.

If you know it’s unacceptable as part of your workplace culture, then the answer is obviously no.

But overall, we’re now leaning toward a yes. But they need to be the right pair of jeans.

Your business casual jeans should be dark wash and slim. In terms of length, opt for no break (or a very slight break).

You can pair them with a blazer as long as they show no signs of fade or wear.

But guys, be smart about it. If it’s your first day at a new job, or you’re unsure on culture, play it safe and stick to dress pants or khakis/chinos.

Business Casual With Sneakers

Yes, we’re coming around to the idea of jeans for business casual.

But with sneakers we’re putting up the stop sign.

That said, if you work in a startup culture, or your HR department is open minded about footwear, then sneakers are perfectly acceptable for casual Fridays.

But as was the case with denim, they should be the right kind of sneakers.

Opt for soft suede sneakers that offer up a retro feel, and for color, stick to the same classic colors we advocated for other types of casual footwear (brown, navy, gray, and black). Avoid crazy color mix-and-matches.

Business Casual With No Socks

As a general rule, you should always wear socks with business casual attire. And specifically, solid, dark colored socks.

Reserve the rolled up chinos and sock-less/nude-sock look for outside the office, or in more casual environments.

But again, this one is also going to be workplace dependent.

The good news? There’s a really easy way to find out.

Simply ask your HR department or boss how they feel about ankles.


The Link To Hair And Grooming


Presenting well for work includes taking care of your personal hygiene, facial hair and hairstyle.

If you have nice clothes, but ultimately look dishevelled, you’re going to be doing the whole style a disservice.

Check out these resources to help you polish up any look:


What’s The Future Look Like For Business Casual?


Some believe that the dress code of the future is no dress code at all.

As the labor market grows tighter, employers are more commonly offering relaxed dress codes as a way of enticing young talent to join their ranks.

They understand that the millennial generation doesn’t have the same affinity for dress codes as generations before them.

The likely result for business casual attire?

In our view, the most likely result is that workplace dress codes will continue to lessen in formality until business casual becomes the new standard.

In effect, business casual will become the new corporate dress code.

And when you think about workplace dress codes historically, this makes sense. Even at the most formal end of the spectrum, the average 25 year old lawyer in NYC today is not dressing the same as the average NYC lawyer of the same age in 1922.

It’s simply the evolution of fashion. And you can’t deny that the train is heading away from the formal and toward the casual.


Your New Guiding Principles


Well, that about covers it.

If we were to summarize this entire article into two guiding principles, they would be:

  1. For business casual, adhere to either your formal workplace dress code or the informal dress code set by your workplace culture.
  2. Business casual is all about balance.

Self-expression is great up to a point, but when you join a workplace, you’re expected to conform to its culture. That’s just how workplaces are.

Observe what others are wearing and mimic it with your own style. Ask your HR Manager or other appropriate leader about your business casual dress code. If you have casual Fridays, ask about that too.

If dress code is a deal breaker for you, ask the question at interview stage.

Once you’ve got the culture and dress code down, you can get away with experimenting a little within those constructs.

It’s all about making those slight tweaks until you get the balance right.

That blend between formal and casual that is appropriate for your environment.

Now that’s business casual.

Additional Resources:

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