Men's Business Casual - The Ultimate Guide
What is Business Casual Attire for Men?
By definition, business casual attire is a style that's not quite as formal as traditional office wear, like a suit and tie, but nevertheless still designed to showcase a professional or business-like impression. Naturally, that leaves plenty of room for interpretation. Not helping is the inclusion of the word “casual”, which historically imparts visions of men in Hawaiian t-shirts, shorts and sandals.
Hence, when business casual attire is required, you're still expected to abide by the customary principles of style and sophistication for the specific industry or context. It sounds complicated but is simple once you understand the basic fundamentals of what is considered business (dressy) or casual.
What is below business casual?
But as you'll see in this article, business casual has a few definitions so it can get confusing.
Do I have to tuck in my shirt?
No, not always. It depends on a few factors, which will be discussed in this article:
- Your body type.
- The level of "business casual" that is required
- The type of shirt you're wearing.
Can you wear jeans for business casual?
90% of the time, yes. A fresh pair of dark, raw denim jeans in a regular or slim cut, worn with a blazer, can be considered business casual.
Is a polo shirt acceptable for business casual?
A polo shirt is usually acceptable in a business casual setting - but there are some times when it may not be - typically it depends on the industry - finance, for example, may not allow it and prefer button-down shirts, instead.
Do jeans count as business casual?
In the strict, traditional sense? No, jeans are not considered business casual. However, as the definition has loosened up over the years if the industry or event leans toward a looser definition of it, then yes, a pair of dark wash (dark blue) jeans can very much be used in a business casual outfit.
Are chino pants (AKA khaki pants) business casual?
Yes, they are almost universally considered business casual.
Is business casual with or without a tie?
Most of the time, business casual means no tie. There's some outfits where a tie can be used because there is such a thing as 'casual' ties, too. These are often knitted ties (silk or wool) that go very well with sport coats/blazers.
What is restaurant business casual?
Depends on the restaurant, but if you want to be 100% safe, no matter the restaurant's definition - button down or collared dress shirt, blazer, chino pants, dress shoes.
What shoes are considered business casual?
The standard business casual shoes are leather dress shoes:
- Chukka Boots
- Dress Boots
Are sneakers business casual?
If the definition of business casual for the situation is more casual and less business, then yes, some smart low-top leather sneakers in simple colors like white, navy, gray or black, can be considered business casual.
When is business casual appropriate?
Well... when you're attending any event that requires business casual, or if you're looking to elevate hyour appearance, then the beauty of business casual is that it works in most casual situations, too.
What Does 'Business Casual' Mean For Men?
Having dressed men of all ages, body types, and industries for 10+ years now, I'm still baffled by this: Business casual means different things to different events and industries. Either way, business casual (also often called "smart casual" or "dress casual") is taking over.
This trend started many years ago but has accelerated in recent times due to the pandemic allowing people to work from home and/or showing them that dressing in stuffy or season-inappropriate clothing is really not all that great.
I've distilled it down to 2 versions to make it quick and easy for you to understand.
If you work in finance, you're going to have to lean much more toward the "business" end of business casual and dress closer to a fully suited look.
If you work in tech or a more creative or labor-intensive industry, you will likely be able to lean more toward the casual end of business casual.
Also, if the restaurant is upscale and they require business casual attire, then it's usually better to go more business than casual.
After that, there are smart casual weddings or events - what that means will be heavily dependent on the hosts' preference, setting, and weather.
But don't get too discouraged, though, it's not that hard to figure out what is appropriate.
How To Know What's Appropriate
Here are a few strategies I use or instruct others to do to figure out what is meant by "business casual":
So consider your office's style as a whole, look around, and get an average.
I know it might sound like a "well duh" moment, but you'd be surprised how often clients are afraid to ask what business casual means in the context, for fear of looking foolish or ignorant.
I can assure you that when you ask, you're actually showing you're being considerate and respectful of the request and want to fulfill the requirements.
Read the employee packet or welcoming/onboarding material, and they usually mention it in there. If not, the HR department should be able to tell you what's appropriate and not appropriate to wear.
Ask the organizers what the dress code means. If they're still not clear or decisive enough, ask them to tell you what is not allowed and to show you some example images.
Look on their website first, as places with dress codes tend to be quite explicit about what they require. If you can't find it, simply call them and ask.
Want to build a wardrobe that will have you covered for every dress code? Check out our Essential Capsule Wardrobe App.
2 Versions Of Business Casual
Over the years, I've honed it down to roughly two versions of business casual. Let me show you and explain each one below.
If in doubt, always go to the more dressy version of what you've been told is business casual. It's always better to be slightly overdressed than underdressed.
1. Strict Business Casual
This is what finance, banking, government, and more conservative industries and events will lean toward. There are two ways that "strict" can be interpreted, however. When in doubt, lean more toward the "Traditional" version because the "Very Strict" version is atypical, but I've seen it enough times that it needs to be noted.
a) Very Strict
This is a full-suited look, just missing the tie. I don't see it often, but it pops up enough times that it needs to be noted in case you are in one of the above industries.
This is a more traditional business casual outfit, which means no suit, but you'd still wear a jacket, dress shirt, and potentially a tie (a more casual one).
Dress Shoes, Loafers, or Chukka Boots
Optional: Knit Tie or Pocket Square
2. Creative Business Casual or "Smart Casual"
This type of business casual is what I see most often, which is similar to the "Traditional" version above and specifically in tech and more creative industry companies - marketing, entertainment, etc.
How to Tell If Clothing Is Business (Dressy) or Casual?
I see lots of guys new to dressing well struggling with this question. Here are some quick and dirty rules to follow that'll work 98% of the time to guide you in knowing if something is too casual or dressy for a situation.
More Stuff = More Casual
Think about a graphic t-shirt vs. a plain white Oxford shirt.
Or cargo pants with tons of pockets compared to a simple, clean pair of chinos. They might be made of the same fabric, but the excess pockets, stitching, and details make it more casual. You probably wouldn’t wear those to an important meeting.
Later on, this rule will be more apparent when you see me lay out items on the formality scale.
But for now, think about this rule another way: The simpler, more minimal the design, the more formal it will be.
More Trendy = More Casual
A more trendy design – like athleisure sweats, Hawaiian style print shirts, or “crossbody bags” you can place in the casual section. Items that rank higher on the formal scale tend to be more classic, timeless designs.
While this tool isn’t 100% foolproof, it’s a good starting point you can use when shopping and planning your outfits.
Like any good wardrobe, it’s not about a single individual piece, but how your pieces work together as part of a versatile wardrobe.
More Color = More Casual
A pink shirt is more casual than a crisp white shirt. A light blue suit is more casual than a dark navy suit.
When it comes to formality, neutral colors (navy, white, black, grey, olive, camel), come off more professional and formal.
Items To Avoid
So, before we get into what items you need as part of your business casual wardrobe, allow me to elaborate on certain pieces that do not fit within this particular dress code:
I know I said earlier that if in doubt, you should lean more business than casual but there are definitely a few items that are way too dressy.
The reason why is that suit jackets can look particularly boxy when paired with other non-formal items, particularly around the shoulders.
Though t-shirts can look great when paired with dressier items, I’d usually avoid wearing them, as, when it comes to business casual environments, they’re just too relaxed-looking.
This should go without saying but:
No light-wash jeans
Shoe-wise, you’ll want to steer clear of the more casual styles, like high-tops, colorful low-tops, running shoes, sandals, and boat shoes.
This is where a lot of guys screw up, so pay attention to your accessories. Certain items, like casual backpacks, gaudy jewelry, and novelty cufflinks, will sink your overall look.
Want to see all the mistakes to avoid specifically for your age, height, body type, and skin tone? Check out our Essential Capsule Wardrobe App.
Essential Business Casual Items
For a more professional look, I’d recommend tucking your Oxford into your pants but feel free to leave yours untucked if you’re going for a more casual vibe.
Colors & Quantities
Get one in white and one in light blue before moving on to other colors.
As I mentioned earlier, a blazer or sports coat is also an essential business casual item that will allow you to elevate your outfits with ease.
I like to recommend one in a solid color (like charcoal or navy), as this will be easier to layer and pair with different shirt-and-pants combos.
Speaking of layering, you’re definitely going to want some items to throw over your shirts when it starts to get chilly during the fall and winter months. I’d recommend picking up some v-neck and crew neck sweaters in fabrics like merino wool and cashmere
Dark neutral colors like black, navy, and navy are timeless sweater options and always look good when layered (v-necks only!) over white or light blue Oxford shirts.
If you’re looking for something smarter than a crewneck tee but lighter than an Oxford long-sleeve shirt then you really can’t go wrong with a good polo. These have a distinct preppy vibe that just screams ‘smart casual’ and they can be paired with everything from dress pants to dark-wash jeans.
Also, if you’re wearing a belt (that obviously matches your shoes, right?) then don’t be afraid to tuck that polo in to earn some extra style points.
Stick with the classics; black and navy.
Not too dressy, not relaxed, chinos are the perfect smart-casual pant. They allow for a clean and put-together appearance and go with so many different items.
Colors & Quantities
I’d recommend not too bold with the colors and sticking to neutral shades like sand, navy, olive, and gray.
Stick with a dark-wash (dark indigo) color. Anything lighter than that is too casual and black or gray jeans will just look off.
Wool trousers are a classic smart-casual item and are a nice alternative to your go-to chinos or denim. Just try and save these for fall and winter, as they can look (and feel) a bit heavy during the warm-weather months.
Charcoal is a classic shade for wool trousers but you can always go with navy if you're looking for a smarter alternative to your dark-wash jeans.
Want to know what colors you should get for every item in your wardrobe? Check out our Essential Capsule Wardrobe App.
Business Casual Shoes
OK, so at this stage, you’re probably asking ‘But what about my footwear?’ Well, the short answer is that most types of dress shoes are appropriate for a business-casual dress code.
However, before you go out and buy some square-toed leather shoes that look boxier than the box they came in, let’s get a bit more specific.
Oxford Dress Shoes
This is a classic dress shoe that never fails to look smart when paired with the items listed above. If the aesthetic of leather is just too dressy for you, then you could always go for a suede pair instead.
If your outfit features black as its predominant color (in your sweater, pants, or both), then go with black Oxford shoes. Otherwise, stick with medium brown.
If dress shoes aren’t your thing, then consider going for a pair of loafers instead. Provided that you pair them with no-show socks, these timeless slip-on shoes are perfect for the majority of business casual outfits.
I like to recommend a nice chocolatey penny loafer, but you could always go for a more relaxed suede driving moccasin if that’s more your thing.
If you’re looking for footwear that’s a bit more rugged and manly but still office-appropriate, then I highly recommend considering a pair of leather suede chukka boots. This cool stylish boot goes with all types of pants of business-casual pants, from chinos to jeans, and is definitely worth investing in.
Go for medium or dark brown, as these are the most versatile colors.
So, sneakers are permissible but, as they are definitely a more casual item, they need to be paired with smarter items for the overall outfit to work. This obviously won't work in a very traditional business casual outfit, so don't think it works across the board.
You’ll want to go fora minimal, white, preferably leather version. Also, these will need to be kept immaculately clean.
So, when it comes to the business casual dress code, your accessories really shouldn’t differ from any other dress code in that less will always be more.
You really want to nail the fundamentals and invest in minimal and versatile items that will complement your overall aesthetic rather than distract from it.
Everything else, like pocket squares, neckties, cufflinks, boutonnieres, etc, is just overkill and not necessary.
The wristwatch is the ultimate men’s accessory, and when it comes to which kind of watch to go for, you honestly have a lot of room to play with.
I’d recommend choosing one that reflects your own personal style, but try not to go too colorful or cartoony.
Alternatively, you could always go for a nice metal cuff, provided it has a stylish minimal design.
Your sunglasses should be a classic frame that compliments your face in a black, brown, or tortoiseshell shade.
This outfit formula never fails to impress. If you get too hot, feel free to remove the blazer and if you want to dress it down, you could always swap out the dress shoes for a pair of shiny white low-top sneakers.
Want to see how to combine the other items in your wardrobe to create flawless business casual outfits? Check out our Essential Capsule Wardrobe App.
We've got some expert-level business-casual layering going on here! This combo would also work if you wanted to remove the V-neck sweater and make sure that you're going for a brown belt to match the shoes.
Sometimes less is definitely more, as shown in this simple and stylish outfit combination. If you wanted to dress this up even further, you could always layer a charcoal blazer or sports coat on top.