Over the years, the dress code in the corporate world has continued to evolve and change. In the past, men would dress more formally when going to work. Today, business casual is often widely adopted and accepted in workplaces.
The workplace dress code can be difficult to get a hang of, especially when there are no distinct rules to follow. It is rather common for professionals to wonder what constitutes the men’s dress code in a place of business and men's business casual attire is of no exception.
In this article, we will be discussing how to wear business casual, where it comes from, tips to apply, dress code rules, and things that you should stay away from. Find out more about the appropriate business casual men’s attire in the workplace so you can wear the look well.
What is Business Casual Attire for Men?
The basic definition of business casual attire is a dress code that is not as formal as traditional office or business wear, but that is still adequate enough to portray someone as a business professional. This could still seem vague and leave many men wanting a more solidified idea of what to wear. Do not confuse it with a casual dress code - business casual for men is very different from a casual dress code and couldn't be more different.
As a general rule of thumb, first understand that business casual is much more ‘business’ than ‘casual’. The word ‘casual’ can be confusing, but it would be a mistake to lean too much towards informal t-shirts and shorts.
It’s true that office fashion has relaxed from the stern and stiff oxfords. However, with business casual, a nice blazer and dress shirt is always a safe bet. Ties are not entirely necessary but always feel free to wear one to take your fashion up a notch. Overall, you’re still aiming for a trendy and sophisticated look with business casual.
Before you fully understand what is acceptable to wear, it is always helpful to have an idea of what not to wear.
As a general rule of thumb, avoid:
- Printed shirts and ripped jeans
- Any denim at all
- Sandals, boots, and tennis shoes
History of Business Casual
Business casual is considered a somewhat new dress code. In fact, until the adoption of business casual, the only categories of dress in the past were primarily daywear and nightwear.
Throughout the day, men would typically be seen wearing what was called a stroller coat for business. When evening came, they could be seen wearing a tailcoat. This was primarily during dinner and events. The most common casual attire for men back then would be a tweed suit for casual activities.
So where did business casual come from? Business casual attire can be linked to casual Fridays which began to take place in the 1960’s.
Casual Fridays got its origins from Hawaii, when the clothing industry there began to introduce the idea of “Aloha Fridays”. On “Aloha Fridays”, men were encouraged to wear Hawaiian shirts to work in order to symbolize the end of the week. However, it was not until the early 90’s that this concept caught on in the rest of the United States.
The beginnings of business casual in the rest of the US was a bit rocky, as many bosses considered what their employees chose to wear to be a bit too casual. Many employers in upper management began to complain that their employees were wearing t-shirts and shorts in the workplace.
Levi’s took this as an opportunity to introduce their new brand known as ‘Dockers’ to the corporate world. To aid their infiltration into the corporate environment, the Levis’ marketing team sent an eight-page brochure called “A Guide to Casual Businesswear” to more than 25,000 human resource departments across the U.S. It was after this that Dockers became an integral part of the business dress code.
What Men Should Wear for Business Casual
Blazers tend to be popular in business casual dress. When wearing blazers, you should avoid wearing blazers with gold buttons. Stick with simple and dark colors. Navy is a safe option that is very popular with people wanting something more interesting than just black.
Wearing a single breasted blazer is the most standard. However, if you wish to stand out with a more powerful, impressive look, then double breasted would be a great option. If you prefer to wear sports coats, you should go for a more subdued pattern. Avoid those bright and summery patterns, as this can come off as too casual and unprofessional.
The fit of your blazer is also very important. Go for a slim cut with a square shape in the shoulder area. The lapel should end right before your rear and the sleeves should stop right before the shirt cuffs. The material always matters and you should adapt your materials according to the seasons. You would not want to wear a blazer that causes you to sweat or one that does not provide you with warmth.
However, if you're on the West Coast where dress code is more casual, you won't need to wear a blazer or jacket.
A Tucked-In Button Down Shirt or Button Up Shirt
Because men’s business casual is all about looking clean and professional, tucking in your shirt is a must. Finding your ideal look is all about identifying the shirt that suits you the most. Any shirt won’t cut it; it is important to find a shirt that matches your silhouette the most.
Look for a well tailored shirt, but don’t make it too tight. Length is also important. If your dress shirt is too long, it won’t tuck in properly. Not only that, the extra fabric that bunches up around your waist can take an outfit from business casual, to more just casual. Your shirt should tuck in comfortably, but give you room to move. You don’t want any parts coming untucked simply because you reach for something.
Should the Collar Button?
When it comes to collared shirts, there are two main categories: button up and button down. While they sound like they would be the same thing, they’re actually not. You can tell the difference by looking at the collar. Button down shirts have collars with buttons on the tips, which are then secured to the upper chest of the shirt. You may also hear these shirts called ‘oxford cloth button down’ style.
Button up shirts don’t have collars fastened to the rest of the shirt. The collar is more stiff, and should stay in place on its own, without buttons. However, it’s still fairly common to see these shirts with inserts in the collar to keep it straight and stiff.
Which should you choose for business casual? Go with the button up shirt. It’s simple, clean, and classic. Not only that, but a button down shirt risks giving the impression of being too casual.
A Dress Shirt with Long Sleeves
You can never go wrong with a cotton dress shirt. Focus on wearing light blue or pastel colors, just remember that dress shirts are always great for business casual wear. You can easily change your look based on how you wear them.
Wear a more relaxed look by unbuttoning the top button or pairing it with a knit tie. You can also make it look formal by putting on a tie and throwing a blazer on.
Again, if you're on the West Coast it is more casual so you can actually wear a dress shirt with short sleeves or any collared shirt for that matter. In some offices, flannels can even be okay.
For dress pants, your options are not too complicated to meet the criteria of business casual pants. Any pair of solid gray, navy, or black dress pants will do the trick. In terms of style, pleated or flat front pants are the way to go.
To achieve a business casual look, simply pair it with a nicely tucked in shirt and a blazer. The shape of your pants are also vital to the look of your entire outfit. Your pants should be clean and fitted.
If you are going to wear denim, it needs to be extremely high quality. It should be in the same category as dress slacks when it comes to quality. You do not want to be in your workplace in a casual pair of jeans which will make you look too unprofessional.
Another thing to pay attention to with pants is the break. If you’re not familiar with the term, the break is basically where your pants ‘crease’ near the top of your shoe. There are several different versions of a break, and some pants don’t have one at all. However, pants without any break can look poorly fitted, too casual, or may even look like they’re not long enough.
For business casual pants, it’s best to avoid those without a break, and those with a full break. Either option looks too casual and not enough business. It’s really about finding balance. You can choose a half or quarter break, depending on your preference. If the pants don’t already have a break (or the break you want), a good tailor should be your next step.
Sweaters for Warmth
During colder days, it is perfectly acceptable to wear a sweater in addition to your blazer. To be specific, turtlenecks, sweater vests, or cardigans work the best.
What Accessories to Wear
Having great accessories and knowing how to wear them will undoubtedly set you apart from others in your workplace. For example, wearing a pocket square with your blazer will give you a very distinguished look. Add a casual watch to your look when wearing a more formal outfit in order to downplay it.
On the other hand, you can also wear a dressier watch with a casual outfit to add a touch of sophistication. Wearing cufflinks are also a great way to add more interesting detail to a look.
Although ties are optional, this does not mean that you should never wear them. A silk tie always looks nice and can be the crucial factor in pulling your outfit together.
Avoid wearing backpacks. This is not flattering and will make you look like a high school student. Instead, find a leather bag that you like and use that instead. Brown and black will go with anything.
Business Casual Shoes and Boots
If you yearn for more creative freedom, feel free to take things up a notch with your shoes. The good news is - you do not need to stick to regular shoes like oxfords. You can use this opportunity to try different colors and wear more casual shoe options.
Some ideas for boots you can wear are loafers or chukka boots. Colors like burgundy, oxblood, and brown are all great options for business casual looks. However, we recommend that you start out pretty simple if you are unsure of what to wear.
Modern dress shoes are always a safe option. You can never go wrong with a pair of black or brown dress shoes for any business environment.
A Classic Watch
Having a timepiece on hand is helpful, but it should also be part of any business casual wardrobe. That doesn’t mean you have to wear it everyday. However, a classic looking watch spruces up any ensemble, and adds a flash of your personality.
Your watch should coordinate with the rest of your outfit; look at color, texture, and overall balance to make your choice. White dial watches, as well as silver watches are always a top pick. They fit with nearly anything you might wear, and give the same effect. That said, watches with a leather band are another great option, and they’re always appropriate for business casual dress codes.
Just remember, don’t clash colors with your outfit if you wear a watch with a leather band. The classic fashion faux pas in any situation is mixing brown and black. If you’re wearing black pants, opt for a black band. Likewise, if you’re wearing a deep brown pant, go with the watch band that matches.
A Pocket Square
A pocket square absolutely isn’t mandatory for business casual dress. However, pocket squares are making a big return in popularity, so they’re worth considering. You don’t have to go overboard, but adding a good pocket square or two to your wardrobe is a good idea. They’re small, but can add a big dose of your personal style to any outfit. Like with anything else, you should still take care and coordinate it with the rest of your attire. Otherwise, it’s up to you to choose what you like best.
Need another reason pocket squares should be a part of your business casual wardrobe?
A pocket square can change the overall look of an entire outfit. You don’t have to spend your salary on new suit jackets and blazers when a pocket square gives the same piece an entirely different look.
A Leather Belt
When you think of accessories, your mind is probably closer to watches and pocket squares than belts. Don’t let that stop you from using your belt to enhance your look, though. A good belt can be the perfect finishing touch, no matter whether you’re wearing a blazer or not.
Belts come in plenty of different materials, but for business casual, you should stick with leather. It lasts forever (as long as you take care of it, of course), looks great, and never goes out of style. As long as you make sure the belt coordinates with the rest, like your watch band, you can add subtle, or less subtle detail with it. Whether your belt is flat, textured, braided, or anything else, it’s an important part of your outfit.
What About Hats?
In some workplaces, hats aren’t viewed the way they used to be. Gone are the days where everyone removes their hat as soon as they enter a building. While they may be more acceptable for many occasions, they aren’t if you have a business casual dress code. Leave the hats for home and friends, not the office or an important meeting.
Naturally, if your business does get-togethers outside of the office, hats might be accepted for very casual outings. However, we suggest going on the safe side and avoiding them all together for the most part.
Finding Well-Fitting Dress Shirts for Business Casual
When it comes to business casual, your choice of dress shirt is extremely important. There are several things to focus on when it comes to finding a dress shirt that fits you well. Every section of your shirt is important to consider.
Collar: The collar of your dress shirt should not be too loose or too tight. You should be able to slide one finger underneath when it is buttoned. Try turning your head while you have the shirt on. If the collar turns with you, then that means the collar is too tight. When wearing a button down shirt, unbutton the first button, as this will make the shirt look better.
Shoulder: When wearing the shirt, the shoulder seams should be resting right where your shoulder begins to slope down your arm. Use this as a guide to determine whether the shirt is too big or small.
Armholes: The arms of your shirt should always be comfortable for you. You do not want them so tight that they squeeze your arm whenever you bend them or that you can see all the details in your arms. However, you also do not want your shirt so loose that it flaps around.
Shirt Torso: When wearing the shirt, a good test to see whether or not the shirt is too large for you is to pinch it to your sides. You should not be holding more than 2-3” of fabric on either side of your waist. Regardless of your size, you should never be wearing a shirt that is too tight or too large.
Length of the shirt: Always pay attention to the shirt length. As mentioned before, you will always want to wear your shirt tucked in for business casual. Because of this, you do not want the shirt to be too long. The length of your shirts should always end around your mid-crotch area. If your shirt is longer than this, you should never wear it untucked. Wearing your shirt untucked in general tends to look very messy and sloppy.
Do’s and Don’ts to Keep in Mind
It is always important to remember that there are times when business casual is not appropriate.
Here are some situations where you should forgo business casual and opt for a traditional suit instead:
- When you are attending a meeting with important clients that you need to make a good impression on.
- When you have a meeting with a supervisor or a manager
- During events where you will be representing your workplace
- When representing your company in the media
- During board or committee meetings
- When you are interviewing for another position or during a raise negotiation meeting with your employer
- And lastly, never wear business casual to a job interview. You always want to look your absolute best.
Here are some tips you should keep in mind while wearing business casual:
- Make sure your blazer is tailored and made from quality fabric
- Wear a cotton button-up shirt
- Tight fitting sweaters or cardigans look great with a collared shirt underneath.
- Dress slacks, khakis, or trousers are all great options for pants.
- When you are first starting out, it would be wise to stick to some monochromatic colors, at least until you get more comfortable
- Always make sure your shoes add to your outfit, not take away from it.
Business casual can be daunting when you are first starting out. However, it is an ideal look for men in the workplace today once they have mastered it. Once you have discovered what looks best on you, it is possible for you to be one of the best-dressed people in your place of work. Paying attention to details when putting together an outfit counts. Always remember that you have options when you are putting together an outfit. Even when putting together a business casual outfit, you want to ensure that your outfit is still quality. Casual does not correlate with cheap and your employers will begin to notice if you are not putting in effort to look nice for work.