The modern workplace can have a myriad of bewildering rules – especially in major corporate offices – but one thing tends to stay the same across companies and fields and that is what is considered proper attire for business.
Yet a more recent phenomenon in business dress is the advent of the so-called “business casual” dress code – a subset of the broader business apparel offerings out there for men.
And that’s not just reserved for business – the smart casual dress code has made its way into weddings, birthdays and anywhere else a host has decided they want slightly higher standards from their guests without being too formal.
At its most basic level, business casual is anything but a suit yet in its realest sense it what is defined by your specific company culture.
This means that men’s business casual can mean pretty much anything to anyone and that’s where the problems step into view. For example, are jeans business casual? What are business casual shoes?
In this article, we’re going to outline the basics of what business casual attire is and how you can incorporate these pieces into your wardrobe.
We’ll give you some advice geared towards avoiding anything terribly embarrassing but we have to offer the caveat, again, that business casual is pretty office dependent.
If you know that your office will never allow jeans then, obviously, jeans cannot be part of your business casual attire while you are employed there.
Overall, we’re going to make sure you look your best and that your clothing can accommodate whatever the rules and norms at your place of work might be.
What is Business Casual?
Defining business casual is way more difficult than it is to put together a business casual wardrobe.
The simplest rule about business casual is that it isn’t a suit but not necessarily jeans and tennis shoes, if that makes sense.
We’ve talked somewhat about how individual companies and party hosts define business casual in different ways and that is important to keep in mind when constructing your roster of go-to outfits.
Often you can glean this from the general culture around you but you can also find out from HR what is and is not appropriate.
And, if there is no business casual allowed at all, that means that this article isn’t for you.
The safest thing here is to assume nothing and play it as safe as possible when it comes to what you wear.
After all, what you wear is about more than just following the rules – you also want to put your best foot forward.
We’ve taken that into account in the advice we give you in this article and, hopefully, the components of a men’s business casual wardrobe we discuss in this article will help guide down the right path.
So what exactly makes up a business casual outfit? We’ll discuss the individual components, how you can wear them together, and what each one says about you in terms of the workplace.
Components of a Business Casual Wardrobe
1. Sport Coats and Blazers
We said no suits, but that doesn’t mean we don’t want their nearest cousins when we talk about appropriate business casual attire for men.
Sport coats and blazers, when paired with a nice oxford shirt and khakis, is an excellent way to tone down the formality of a suit while still retaining its grace and elegance.
Plus, you have the added versatility that this clothing items gives you for after-hours activities. Really you can dress up or dress down a sport coat or blazer depending on the situational needs and that’s what makes these two items essential pieces not only of men’s business casual but also of a well-rounded wardrobe in general.
For this reason a few sports coats are a great investment that will pay off for many years. They always look great and upgrade a range of outfits – even t-shirt and jeans.
For the optimum effect we would recommend a proper tailoring shop like:
2. Long Sleeved Dress Shirts
Another versatile item that can be dressed up or down at a moment’s notice is a long sleeved dress shirt.
We recommend a cotton oxford because it is a classic that goes with pretty much anything and is perfect for taking your outfit up a couple of levels if the need arises.
What is an Oxford Shirt?
An Oxford shirt has a button-down shirt collar which is slightly less formal than a normal collar with stiffeners – not to mention more comfortable – but can be worn with or without a tie and still look smart casual.
Paired with or without a tie and with or without a sport coat or blazer, a cotton oxford is the workhouse of business casual for men and you should probably more than a couple in your stable.
Top Oxford Shirts (Price descending)
3. Ties and Bow Ties – To Wear or Not to Wear
You might not associate ties and bow ties with business casual looks and, normally, that is the case but you’d be surprised at what you could do with these two items depending on their construction and material.
Bow ties can be tough to dress down but we won’t tell you not to do that.
One rule that you should follow, no matter what you decide, is that if you choose to go without neckwear then your undershirt should not be visible.
4. Smart Casual Pants
Whether you decide to go with khakis or jeans, be sure to check to make sure that your look will be appropriate for your office.
We recommend khaki chinos as the safe option and, in many ways, they define men’s business casual.
Are Jeans Business Casual?
When it comes to business casual jeans, the dress code either includes them or it doesn’t and, if wearing them is allowed, then making them work it largely up to you.
We suggest a tailored, fitted look that looks brand new and sharp.
Something like some classic Levi slim fit jeans.
A ragged pair of jeans might not be business casual and could be inappropriate.
For khakis, a contrast blazer often works wonders when it comes to pulling an outfit together and the same can apply to jeans.
Dress pants also work just fine but might not be as business casual as khakis are.
It depends largely on what you are comfortable with wearing in this area.
Dress pants in solid colors are always a good bet if you have a great blazer or sport coat with which to wear them.
5. Business Casual Sweater
When it comes to the colder months, function and form arrive center stage and there’s nothing that looks quite as good and keeps you as warm as a v-neck cardigan or sweater vest.
These winter essentials are not only perfect for business casual at the office but also great for keeping you warm otherwise.
More startup workplaces always appreciate a Steve Jobs black rollneck sweater.
The great thing about this garment which appealed to him was that you could just fall into it and look great with minimal effort – leaving more time for changing the world.
6. Accessories Like Tie Bars and Cufflinks
Just because it is business casual attire doesn’t mean you have to skimp on the accessories.
Wearing a shirt with cufflinks or using a tie bar adds a small hint of sophistication to your outfit and also helps it stand out through tiny details. Perhaps save novelties like these Star Wars cufflinks for more casual situations but you never know.
We would recommend you stay away from complex or woven jewelry and, instead, stick to watches with metal or leather wristbands.
Sunglasses and belts also factor into this equation but how you wear them is largely up to you.
7. Business Casual Shoes
Here, you have a little bit more freedom to express yourself than you might otherwise think.
You don’t have to stick with traditional shoes and you can choose to opt for other types of leather shoes.
We don’t really recommend tennis shoes as it is just a bit too casual for most workplaces.
You could wear leather loafers, monk straps, various types of men’s dress boots, or whatever strikes your fancy as long as it is not too “out there” and ostentatious.
Of course we would always recommend quality shoes with Goodyear welting to make sure they last more than a season.
See our guide to men’s dress boots here.
Here, the only real advice we have to give you is that you should avoid backpacks.
We know they’re convenient and we also know they store a ton of stuff – but they make you look somewhat juvenile and unprofessional.
When it comes to bags and workwear, formal or business casual, you want to stick with brown and black leather bags with simple designs and durability as your number one goal. A leather messenger bag is probably your best bet here.
9. Short Sleeved Shirts
In the warmer months, you might opt for a polo shirt if that is acceptable or a short sleeved oxford dress shirt.
You can try buying them in pastels or with thin stripes to add a little bit of character and pop to them. For those of you that enjoy outdoor activities, the polo is probably the best option as it showcases this sporty side to your nature. The top choice is undoubtedly the eponymous Polo Ralph Lauren.
Again, you need to make sure polo shirts are acceptable in your workplace as business casual as they might not be.
The one tip we have when it comes to short sleeved shirts is that you typically want to avoid white as it not only casts a mean glare in the sun but also doesn’t really do anything in terms of sartorial flare.
Have a look at these great styles.
Go for light blues and pastels and pair with a fun nautical belt and shoes. .
10. Shorts – To Wear or Not to Wear?
Pretty much without exception, shorts are one step too far when it comes to business casual attire for men in the workplace.
Again, this isn’t a blanket rule and certain places might allow it.
It also might be climate based as you wouldn’t want your workforce sweating to death in the summer months if shorts would make more sense.
If shorts are allowed, we recommend cotton shorts in khaki and solid colors with or without a pleat.