Business casual is a dress code that has adapted to fit a specific company’s culture. In fact, it makes the term elusive; business casual means different things in different industries.

The definition of business casual attire in a traditional white-collar job distinct a lot from an IT startup business, for example. Consequently, there is no single definition or clause the defines the term.

While a suit was traditionally considered the primary and only formal attire, it doesn’t mean that you can’t dress appropriately for a business occasion without it nowadays.

To better understand the term, we will explore different formality spectrum jobs and their appropriate office attire. Just remember that, no matter what, you are always dressing for success!

Understanding the Business Casual Dress Code

Until several years ago, the term business casual did not exist. Business suits were the standard daywear attire for almost all business industries. Nevertheless, times change; and dress codes change with it.

Suits were the only business attire in the 20th century

Suits were the only business attire in the 20th century.

With the rise of popularity to the khaki pants and Hawaiian shirt, many employers looked at it as a possible substitution of suits. On the other hand, many clothing companies recognized this as an opportunity to increase sales to their casual wear.

They began marketing their moderately casual attire like chinos and sport shirts in offices and work environments, and more and more offices began to embrace and accept this slightly casual trend.

What followed was the spread and blend of different clothing, altered and modified to fit many types of offices, almost synonymously with suits.

Business casual dress code

That’s how the term business-casual was coined. It still reflected the same professional framework, loosening the need to wear the traditional and rather conservative office wear.

Business Casual vs. Smart Casual

With time, men’s casual attire has become indispensable in nowadays wardrobe. Whether it’s business or non-formal purposes alike. Why? Because it can easily give you a smooth, elegant and ideal look.

The casual attire has several primary categories, but people often confuse business casual with smart casual.

To simply distinguish the two, keep in mind that business casual is still a dress code to fit a professional work environment, only without the suit and the tie. Smart casual is usually a combination of formal and informal attire for slightly more casual environments.

Casual suit example

Business casual is further defined as no suit – but no jeans either. It also means adapting your outfit to your place of work and the job you do, and at the same time, portraying a sense of professionalism and elegance.

Smart casual is all about avoiding the extreme ends of the sartorial spectrum. It means no jeans, trainers, hoodies, or sweatpants. It also means no tie, suits, pleated trousers, and no dress shoes in black.

Business casual is still the norm in most of the offices. Smart casual, on the other hand, is often referred to as “startup attire”, and is most commonly accepted within newly-established companies.

Business Casual Attire

Business casual attire, by definition, is a style of clothing that is less formal than traditional business wear; however, it is still intended to give you a professional and business look.

Business-casual attire example

Although fashion and style are constantly changing, few things define business-casual attire. Most importantly, it should fit in with your company’s culture. Age is essential too, and the older you are, the more formal the look should be.

The look is entirely open to interpretation, but you don’t want to find yourself looking overly casual. If you’re not sure, steer clear of a polo shirt or a t-shirt. Avoid sneakers and overly casual footwear, too.

White-Collar Business Casual

If you work for a bank, a law firm, or an accounting company and the business casual attire is allowed, this is the look for you.

White collar business casual attire

It is on the more formal end of the business casual attire spectrum, and should include the following:

Blazers

A blazer is an essential component in your business casual wardrobe. Stick with dark colors and avoid gold buttons, made from good-quality materials.

Navy is probably your best bet, as it is the most classic blazer color of all. Go single-breasted rather than double, as this can look too powerful.

A sports coat is another good choice for a professional environment. Stay away from brash colors and opt for something less loud and with a more subdued pattern.

Slim fit bussiness casual navy blazer by FerrecciSlim-fit black suit jacket by Kenneth Cole
Three-button dark blue casual blazer by JiniduCasual blue blazer by Coofandy

#1: Slim fit navy blazer by Ferrecci.
#2: Slim-fit black suit jacket by Kenneth Cole.
#3: Three-button dark blue casual blazer by Jinidu.
#4: Casual blue blazer by Coofandy.

Dress Shirts

Go for a long-sleeved white dress shirt in cotton. Pastel tones, or light blue, are a good choice here, too. An Oxford, for example, is perfectly acceptable. Choose colors that best aligns with your work environment.

A plain white oxford is ideal for business casual wear. Add a serious tie, throw over a blazer, and you’re ready for that unexpected meeting with the boss. To tone things down, leave the top button undone, or go for a knit tie.

To create a cleaner and more elegant look, tuck in your shirt. If the shirt won’t stay tucked, it’s a good habit to wear “shirt stays”. They might be a little uncomfortable, but provide an excellent solution for your looks.

Slim fit white shirt by Calvin KleinSlim fit blue-striped white shirt by Calvin KleinSlim fit light blue shirt by Amazon EssentialsTailored-fit white-stripe pink shirt by Buttoned Down

#1: Slim-fit white shirt by Calvin Klein.
#2: Slim-fit blue-striped white shirt by Calvin Klein.
#3: Slim-fit pale blue shirt by Amazon Essentials.
#4: Tailored-fit white-stripe pink shirt by Buttoned Down.

Ties

White-collar business casual doesn’t demand you wear a tie, but you surely can if you want to. Choose knit or grenadine ties because they underscore the business-casual character.

If you want to make a real statement, go with a bow tie. But when in doubt, stick with a regular tie.

Dress Pants

Pants are an essential part of your business casual attire. When it comes to traditional working environments like law firms or banks, it’s best to keep your dress pants as formal as possible.

Dark colors work best on these occasions. Solid navy dress pants might be a perfect choice. So are grey or even charcoal. You can choose flat fronts or pleated for your business casual wear. Just make sure they are not baggy.

Also, your pants and shirt must match in colors. Tuck your dress shirt in neatly, add a sports coat or a blazer, and you’re good to go.

Slim-fit casual dress pants by HaggarClassic-fit black dress pants by Amazon EssentialsCharcoal slim fit dress pants by VeggorsModern-fit indigo dress pants by Perry Ellis

#1: Slim-fit casual navy dress pants by Haggar.
#2: Classic-fit black dress pants by Amazon Essentials.
#3: Grey slim fit dress pants by Veggors.
#4: Modern-fit indigo dress pants by Perry Ellis.

Khakis, Chinos, and Corduroys

Chinos are one of the most versatile pants. They are a great choice and perfect alternative to the typical dress pants.

Khakis can be appropriate in many casual work environments these days. But check to see what everyone else is wearing first.

Corduroy pants can be a good match in the colder months. Just apply the same rules to these as you would to chinos.

There is no best when it comes to these three types of pants. Pair them with a contrasting blazer to prevent your pants from looking ‘too casual’.

Navy flat front chino pants by Van HeusenSlim-fit navy chino pants by Tommy HilfigerDark khaki casual pants by Amazon Essentials

#1: Navy slim-fit chino pants by Van Heusen.
#2: Slim-fit navy chino pants by Tommy Hilfiger.
#3: Dark khaki casual pants by Amazon Essentials.

Dress Shoes and Boots

When it comes to shoes, the range of acceptable business-casual footwear is remarkably extensive. Even the most formal Oxfords and Derby’s are totally acceptable. If you want to play it safe, keep in mind two things: quality and style.

Want to add more style and diversity? Rather than the classic black oxfords or derbies, get creative and go for unusual colors like burgundy and oxblood. Even better, reduce the formality by sticking to brown or burgundy monk straps.

If you want to go along with something slightly casual, you can also try chukka boots or loafers. Chelsea or lace-up boots are a nice option, too, especially during the colder months of the year.

Black derby dress shoes by Calvin KleinDouble monk strap burgundy shoes by La Milano
Light-brown derby shoes by JousenCasual oxblood dress shoes by Jousen

#1: Black derby dress shoes by Calvin Klein.
#2: Double monk strap burgundy shoes by La Milano.
#3: Light-brown derby shoes by Jousen.
#4: Casual oxblood dress shoes by Jousen.

Service Industry Business Casual

This sector includes jobs in sales, trade positions, and any situation where you interact with the public.

Service industry business attire

On the other hand, if you sit in an office without any customer contact, your boss will probably have a more relaxed sartorial attitude.

Jackets & Blazers

Your business casual service industry outfit will start with a nice jacket or a blazer. You have a long-range of styles to choose from, so make sure you feel confident in it first.

Although utterly open to discussion, your safest bet will be a dark, notch lapel, and single-breasted jacket or blazer. Whatever it is, it should be a couple of notches up from the people you are selling or presenting to.

Sometimes, wearing a jacket is likely to be optional. If a dress shirt or a blazer is too much, try a jacket-vest or cardigan instead.

Shirts

A classic shirt for the business casual service industry is the button-down shirt. Keep in mind that you’re probably interacting with the public; you probably want to opt for the more formal end of the spectrum.

A long-sleeved patterned shirt can be acceptable too. Again, check first to see what your colleagues are wearing. You don’t want to be the only one wearing polos.

Hoodies, t-shirts, pullovers, or casual sweaters without a collared shirt underneath, might be some men’s idea of casual. But not when you’re aiming for business casual.

Slim fit blue shirt by Tommy Hilfiger
Example shirt: Slim fit blue shirt by Tommy Hilfiger.

Ties

In this environment, ties and bow ties are optional. But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t wear one. If you are dressing to impress, they can evidently elevate your look.

There’s a huge variety of ties available, so it’s up to you to match the best color combination with your other clothing pieces. Opt for narrow ties; they work well with casual jackets, cardigans, and even knitted vests.

Pants

Dress pants are perfectly fine, but khakis and chinos are probably the best options here. Darker tones like grey or navy are the most versatile, but lighter colors are preferable in warmer weather.

Although some progressive offices in the service industry allow jeans, I’d suggest to leave them off your business casual attire. Don’t forget to include a belt that matches your shoes.

 

Dark khaki casual pants by Amazon Essentials
Example pants: Dark khaki casual pants by Amazon Essentials.

Shoes & Boots

Both dress shoes and loafers are appropriate for this business category. Just stay away from tennis shoes and sneakers. Instead, choose something modern and casual at the same time.

When it comes to footwear color, there isn’t any precisely defined option. Dark leather brogues or navy/brown loafers are probably my most preferred option. The essential part is to make sure they look professional and polished.

You are allowed to vary the material, though. Your shoes don’t have to be leather; textiles, canvas or suede work too.

Navy/brown casual shoes by Sparry
Example shoes: Navy/brown casual shoes by Sperry.

Startup Business Casual

Startups can be far more casual than traditional companies. They are likely not to have a company dress code.

Men's startup business casual attire example

Hierarchies will be typically low, and staff can usually wear what they want. It is especially true of the tech environment.

Jackets & Blazers

Blazers are probably too overdressed here, but startups are known for their generous culture of acceptance. If you enjoy looking sharp, feel free to wear a nice-looking and slim-cut blazer.

More and more people are pulling the no-blazer look nowadays. Startups have replaced the dress shirt and blazer for a sweater and a casual jacket. But even when it comes to casual jackets, there are some things you do, and some things you don’t.

First, don’t wear an overly fancy and colorful jacket. Make sure it’s made of quality material, and it looks sharp on you. Opt for neutral or dark colors; expand your palette when you become more comfortable with your attire.

Shirts

Dress shirts are not the norm, but as with blazers, go for it if you want to. Here, you don’t necessarily have to stick to monochromatic colors like white, pink, or blue. Feel free to explore different patterns and colors instead.

When it comes to patterns, windowpane, gingham, or Shepherds-check shirts are the most versatile choice. Tartan plaid and pin check shirts are good, too. In fact, it’s more about personal choice and preferences than some predefined set of rules.

Most startups consider t-shirts to be just fine. I wouldn’t wear one, even if it’s utterly allowed. But if you must, know that a nice trim polo looks a lot smarter than your regular t-shirt.

Regular fit casual shirt by Double Pump
Example shirt: Red/Navy regular fit casual shirt by Double Pump.

Sweaters

Once you decide to drop the jacket, let sweaters become your best friend. They’ll keep you warm, look stylish, and add a casual note to your outfit.

Cardigans and turtle necks work well on colder days when paired with a sports jacket or a blazer. Slip them over a cotton shirt for casual Fridays. Generally speaking, knitwear will make your formal outfit to look a lot more relaxed.

Trousers & Shorts

Most startups will be totally fine with denim. You might even see people wearing cargo shorts. That said, you’ll probably make a better impression wearing lightweight summer slacks.

It’s because, at least subconsciously, people will judge you on your appearance. Looking your best can never harm your reputation. Turning up at the office dressed as a slob can.

Try a sports jacket matched with a pair of good quality jeans. This combo will create an effortless, polished look that will fit in with most work-related situations.

Navy blue pants by Dockers
Example pants: Slim fit navy blue pants by Dockers.

Boots & Shoes

An attractive pair of boots or shoes will always make a better impression than a pair of sneakers. Be adventurous here. Mocassins, spectators, and stone, blue, green, or even red suede loafers, are all allowed.

If you must wear sneakers, go for a clean pair in good condition. Nice canvas shoes can be acceptable, too, but stay away from tennis shoes.

Blue oxford shoes by Golaiman
Example shoes: Blue oxford shoes by Golaiman.

Business Casual Attire & Accessories

If your job involves being always on the move, you need to pair what you wear outside with your indoor attire. The active, weatherproof jacket you wear on your travels may not sit well with your office blazer, for example.

The Quilted Jacket

This wrinkly warm and lightweight classic is easy to care for and machine washable. Just make sure it’s slightly longer than your indoor jacket for a well-put-together look.

Navy/grey quilted jacket by Vince Camuto
Example: Navy/grey quilted jacket by Vince Camuto.

The Trench Coat

Trench coats look great in the Spring and Fall. If you want to create a less mature impact, go for one that stops just above the knees.

The Peacoat

A perfect cold-weather business casual companion, the peacoat is less formal than an overcoat. But it’s still stylish, and due to the many pockets, it’s also highly functional.

Gloves and Scarves

A lovely paisley scarf and a pair of quality leather gloves can provide the perfect finishing touches to your business casual attire.

Wool lined dress gloves by Acdyion
Example: Wool lined dress gloves by Acdyion.

Bags

A leather or canvas bag is your best bet here. Color-wise, anything goes, except maybe a glow-in-the-dark green and pink with a cartoon figure on the front.

Bags with cable and camera compartments along with built-in chargers are widely accepted these days. But whatever you go for, skip the backpack.

When in Doubt Dress Up, Not Down

You might be unclear whether or not business casual is allowed in your workplace. If that’s the case, always go for an overdressed look rather than underdressing.

When in doubt, wear a suit and tie the first day, then see how people react. If all else fails, ask your supervisor or a superior.

In Conclusion

Business Casual for men means different things in different work environments, so it can be challenging to get right.

The trick is to observe your surroundings and check out what your peers are wearing. Finally, if you’re unsure, always dress up rather than down.

Alexander Stoicoff
Author: Alexander Stoicoff

Hi, I’m Alex, and I’ve studied and specialized style in Rome. Through my writing, I want to help men dress well and learn the purpose and significance of suits and other formal attire. My final goal is to make men more confident in their wardrobe choice and life in general.

Stay in Style!

Stay in Style!

Join our mailing list to receive the latest style trends.

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Pin It on Pinterest