Unpacking Business Casual for Men: Everything You Want To Know and Daren’t Ask

Business casual for men. You see it on a dress code and your heart sinks. What does it mean? How can a suit be both business and casual? How can you dress appropriately when you’re not even sure what they want? 

Business casual for men is one of the most hot-button fashion issues we encounter among clients, and sometimes the problem is not knowing where to even start. So we reached out to the team at Oliver Wicks to break down the term ‘business casual’ for us, so you never have to worry again. 

Ironically, ‘business casual’ seems to be one of the most confusing terms in mens’ fashion. Unfortunately, most men first encounter it in their work dress code - which is not an arena where you want to mess up. 

At its heart, men’s business casual wear is a broader and more freeing version of the classic business attire you picture from movies and films. In short, if you aren’t a lawyer or an accountant, chances are you need to wear it to work. It’s become the default professional attire for men, so how do you style yourself for your office and business success? Let’s dive deeper into mens’ professional fashion, and how to make it work for you.

What is Business Casual Attire for Men?

Let’s start at the beginning. What is business casual for men? If you’ve been confused by the term before, don’t worry. Part of the issue is that business casual outfits for men are not standardized. Even after you digest our advice here, we suggest you check in with your workplace and make sure your outfit matches up with expectations. It can vary by country, city, and even industry. 

Andrew Wise

However, the core takeaway is that you want to appear neither too casual nor too formal. You want to strike a balance that's dressy and professional, but not uncomfortably so. It might be easier to conceptualize as part of the overall ‘dress code hierarchy’:

  • Casual
  • Smart Casual
  • Business Casual
  • Business Professional (business professional attire for men can bleed into business casual easily)
  • Business Formal
  • Black Tie
  • White Tie

So we’re looking for a refined-yet-comfortable, business-suitable look that is presentable to clients and appears like you’re on the clock. But it doesn’t leave you sweating it out like you’re at your fraternity brother’s white tie wedding.

A good office that takes its dress code seriously will provide you with some concrete parameters to help zone out the nebulous nature of the term, but not all workplaces do this. 

What do most people conceptualize as men’s business casual style? Think:

  • Shirts: Short sleeves can be fine, but make them button-down. Polo necks are debatable and depend on the workplace. Collared shirts, sports coats, and sweaters make the grade. A long-sleeved shirt is generally ok, but it’s veering into too formal if it’s a ‘fancier’ shirt. Ties are usually out, as are shirts that you can’t wear without one, but this does have its exceptions.
  • Pants: In fashion-forward workplaces, there are indeed business casual mens’ shorts and other daring looks. However, it’s best to leave those to specific workplaces and men who are very comfortable flirting with the boundaries of fashionability. For most of us, professional, casual pants are semi-formal cuts like chinos, dress slacks, or dark jeans that look as little like denim as possible. 
  • Shoes: Dark leather loafers and casual dress shoes will almost always fit into men’s professional attire. Sneakers flirt on the cusp. Well-styled, non-flashy sneakers in a dark color, as non-sporting as possible, can fit into business casual (especially in less formal industries like technology), but tennis shoes and your latest Nike kicks will not. 
  • Jackets: Certain business casual ideas for men will add a jacket (we already mentioned the sports coat), but mostly it’s a no. Weather-dependent, of course. A sport coat may be an in-season necessity, but keep it smart yet not formal. 

Jeff Tumale

What’s on the never-ever list? Men’s sandals, unstructured T-shirts (especially with prints), distressed, ripped, or ‘fashion’ jeans, sports shoes, hoodies, boat shoes, sportswear or ‘athleisure’ looks, and (generally) shorts. Loud prints and flashy styles are a no-no. 

Work boots typically make the list too, unless you’re styling for business casual men’s shoes in an industry where protective gear is used on-site, and you may need it. Shoe choice can be tricky for motorcycle commuters, as the correct protective equipment is necessary for your ride to work. You will have to plan around this and match it with your workplace culture. 

Anything edgy and avant-garde outside of specific creative industries will probably not make the grade as business casual, either. 

A Brief History of the Business Casual Dress Code

Men’s business casual fashion is a very new concept. Business used to mean, well...business. Either you wore a uniform, work gear, or a suit. No informality was acceptable. However, times change, and so do workplaces. 

With the rise of the tech industry, modern workplaces are a different beast from the past, and a different look came with it. Today, many people would feel outright uncomfortable dealing with someone in a full three-piece suit day-to-day, at least outside of the legal and financial industries. Even there, we have seen an evolution in what’s acceptable and what isn’t, with Wall Street recently downgrading its fashion expectations.

Business casual was born in the notion of ‘Casual Friday.’ Supposedly this idea stemmed from ‘Aloha Friday’ in the 1960s, an initiative from the Hawaiian garment industry to promote local fashion by wearing casual shirts to work. Once we hit the 90s, the idea accelerates, and business casual clothes for men become the workplace default. 

It wasn’t smooth sailing, however. At first, the swing went a little too far, with many casual Friday clothes being too informal for the workplace mood. Where there is a void, someone fills it. In this case, weekend-wear firm Dockers, recently acquired by Levi, stepped up. 

Their marketing brochure, “A Guide to Casual Businesswear,” was sent to HR departments throughout the U.S, and a new look was born. A new look that had to have Dockers’ khaki pants, of course!

Surprisingly, the idea gained traction quickly. It’s strange to think that khaki pants, of all things, could be a genre-buster, but getting them accepted as workwear every day, not just Friday, was a very groundbreaking notion at the time. 

Today, however, the look is seen as ‘low-level’ and suitable only for cubicle-farm workers, a bit of fashion snobbery that has, nevertheless, opened up the business casual dress code into a category of its own. 

It’s important to realize that smart casual dress codes are ever-changing. Barely a century ago, men never stepped out of doors without a suit, coat, hat, and tie, let alone went to the office without them. 

In 5 years, business casual for men may look different again. Perhaps we will see shorts come fully into fashion, loud colors will become ok, or we’ll revise what denim is acceptable. 

This is why all style guides on business casual for young men first entering the workplace will suggest that you ‘suss out’ the mood of your employer, too. Even if they do give you dress code guidelines, these don't always make it into day-to-day use. Look at what your peers are wearing and your managers (and their bosses), and make your decisions from there. 

It’s one of the best possible ways to make sure you fit-in in a career-promoting, sensible way, especially with a notion as nebulous as business casual can be. A general rule of thumb is not to wear an item until you’ve seen it on someone a few years ahead of you in their career path.

The Do’s and Don'ts of Business Casual Attire for Men

So, in a style category with very few rules, what are the rules you can’t break? What should mens’ business casual wardrobes look like? Let’s take a look. 

Firstly, let’s draw a bit of a distinction between interview business casual and ‘normal’ business casual. We mentioned that ‘business professional’ is a sometimes-debated subcategory of styles. It’s a little more formal and less casual than day-to-day business casual, and that’s just what you want for an interview. 

You don’t want to go overboard on formality, as that can be as gauche and off-putting as being too informal, but don’t pitch up in clothes you’d wear for the first day on the job, either. Err on the side of formality, even if your interviewer isn’t dressed formally and the company culture is relaxed. 

Always keep your eye on the ‘business’ part of business casual, too. You need to look dressed for- you guessed it- business. Dressing for business means nothing that’s worn out, holey, ripped, seen better days, or stained. Even if the item technically makes the “acceptable” list. No cracked and scratched loafers, no baggy sweaters, no comfy polo necks. 

You want things to be crisp, pressed, and clean at all times. Take care that it fits well, too, and avoid super-tight pants, gents. You don’t want clients eyeing your package instead of the deal you’re selling! 

It's for this reason that you should avoid logos, graphic tees, and similar items. Doubly so if it has swear words or dubious images on it! The only brand that you should display during business hours is the business you are working for. No one else. 

The short vs. long-sleeved debate in business casual is a bitter one. Some think long sleeves are way too formal, and they look sloppy rolled up. Others would never accept short sleeves.

Cold climate companies may suit long sleeves, while a warm climate or summer office would think you a fool. This is best discussed with HR ahead of time, frankly, as the debate is fierce. 

Polo shirts and structured, collared T-shirts are technically acceptable as business casual, but they also sit right on the borderline. Stick to a quality cotton collared shirt until you know how well they will be received. Keep your knitwear slim-fitting and high-quality. 

Likewise, bright colors and loud patterns come over as attention-seeking when misused. It is technically possible to make bold colors or simple patterns work in business casual for men, but it needs experience and a specific workplace. Stick to cool neutrals and monochromatic looks until you’re confident in both your skills and your place of work.

Jeans have become more and more accepted as men’s business casual dress pants, but we still advise caution. Dark denim in a simple, flattering style will fit in perfectly. Traditional or stonewash denim, street styles, baggy legs, and gaping waists, and anything with too many bells and whistles added for fashionability will not cut it, though. 

While some more daring suit-short looks for men out there could be accepted in the right space, for 90% of us, the answer is just no. Long pants all the way, please. Put down the sweatpants, too. You know athleisure isn’t acceptable. 

We looked at something similar with converse shoes, boots, and sneakers earlier. If they can blend in as a bland neutral, you’ll probably be ok, but if they stick out too much or look obviously like what they are, instead leave them for weekends and play it safe with a casual leather shoe.

Let’s revisit jackets and blazers. A tailored blazer made of good quality fabric will fit right in, but a fancy suit jacket will not. Remember that it is perfectly possible to overdress as well as underdress when talking about men’s professional clothing. For this reason, modern fashion accouterments like fedoras and ostentatious jewelry (outside of wedding rings) are best left for the weekends, too. 

When in doubt, play it safe. Being a little too formal can look a bit inexperienced, but it’s better than looking sloppy and uncouth. 

Business casual is used across many workplaces now but typically won’t rear its head outside of working hours. If you do see it on an invitation or non-work dress code, stick to similar parameters as we mention here, though you can likely add a few personal touches that aren’t generally appropriate at work. 

Within work, do realize that business casual isn’t always appropriate. We looked at job interviews. Treat meetings, especially client-facing meetings or meetings with your higher-ups, the same way, and up your wardrobe from business casual to at least business professional, if not a full-blown formal look. 

Likewise, you should probably not use business casual for events and conferences or media appearances. It’s designed to be a more comfortable workplace day-to-day, not the only business style you ever wear.

The Business Casual Attire for Men Essentials

Are you still feeling a little unsure? Don’t worry. Because this is a somewhat nebulous concept, it can be challenging to conceptualize perfectly. We’ve put together an essential business-casual-looks-for-men guide here to help you. 

As a general rule, remember that the ‘more’ something has, the more it’s likely to be a casual outfit, not business casual. More colors, more fancy embellishments, more fashionability or trendiness… business casual is a minimal fashion environment, so the more extra it is, the less likely it is to fit the mood. 

The Shirt

Shirts in Wardrobe

As we mentioned, shirts are often a battleground when defining business casual, so don’t feel out-of-line asking for clarity on your specific workplace expectations. Men’s business casual shirts are almost always collared, and some structured T-shirts can make the grade, or your workplace may even insist on a polo shirt with company branding. 

However, remember we need more business, less casual. Don’t start out assuming a T-shirt will do it. Most men are best served with suitable casual shirts in a breathable fabric they can comfortably wear all day. 

Button-up (shirts with no collar buttons and stiffer collars) and button-down (buttons fasten the collar to the shirt) can both be used for business casual. It’s more about how they look on you than their style

The fit of your collared shirt will have a considerable effect on the appropriateness of the look. Men should always fit their shoulders first, then ensure the collar and neck are a comfortable fit. The classic ‘two fingers’ trick helps there. 

Armholes should be high- not pinching, but fitted. Lastly, your sleeves should meet at the thumb joint. Remember that a tailor can always help you fit the look to your body. Never bring a baggy or ill-fitting shirt into the workplace. A sloppy shirt is not preferable to a well-fitted structured and collared T-shirt. 

Talking styles, we advise an Oxford shirt until you discover otherwise. As button-down shirts go, they’re comfortable and well-balanced between style and practicality. Collared shirts must be able to stand without a tie or be designed for an open neck if they’re to work. And never, ever, leave your shirt untucked.

The Pants

Business casual men’s outfits favor jackets less and less, which means trousers are more crucial than ever. Once again, fit and tailoring matter as much, if not more, than style here. Make sure your pants are always clean and well-pressed, and that they fit slim, but not overly tight, on your body. 

Chinos in a practical cotton make a good starting point for most semi-formal workspaces. However, a trouser separate is a classier and more presentable alternative. Keep the looks timeless- a regular length without overtly fashionable fronts will serve you for years, long after fashion trends have dated. 

We looked at jeans in more detail above, but just to recap- keep it slim (not skinny) and fitted, dark, and without ostentatious additions. Distressed or faded looks and ripped jeans are a big fat no. Don’t even go here.

The Jacket

Jackets are being seen less in the workplace, but it’s tough to construct a believable men’s business casual look without one. Most of us simply don’t look smart and confident in a shirt and dress pants alone. A jacket elevates the look to suave and stylish. So we would suggest investing in a few anchor pieces for your wardrobe. 

You can always take them off in the office, but it’s difficult to make up for their absence when you need them.

You can’t simply take a jacket from a suit you own, however. Not only are suit jackets meant for the suit they belong to, but the cut is far too formal. Instead, invest in some high-quality blazers or sport coats. 

We recommend three key looks to men. Summer heat needs a lightweight, light-colored blazer that keeps you looking and feeling cool. We advise beige in a cotton or linen fabric. Nippy winter mornings call for something that looks winter-appropriate without being too formal. 

Tweed is an excellent way to create a subtle contrast with texture while keeping it business-like and pairs well with knitwear (like a cashmere cardigan or pullover) underneath. If you’d like to look elegant but a little different, consider grey

Lastly, every man should have a classic navy blazer in his wardrobe. No arguments. Even in the traditional lightweight wool, navy has a brighter, fresher feel than black, yet is still flattering to most complexions and will bring out the best in any physique. It’s the perfect blend of smart yet accessible, and no man should be without one. 

We simply cannot overemphasize the importance of fit in your jacket. Again, fit it to your shoulders as these are near impossible to alter down the line convincingly. A slim cut through the sides finishing just under your backside, and sleeves that allow the shirtsleeve to peek through will serve you well for years to come. 

The Shoes

Brown Shoes and Black Suit

We’ve covered a lot about shoes up above, but it’s worth reiterating. Your safest choice is a comfortable, simple leather loafer. Oxfords, Derbies, Brogues, Monk Straps… the specific style is up to you. 

These also have the advantage of being comfortable, preventing you from sweating excessively, and are long-lasting. They look business-like, fade into the background appropriately, are hard-wearing, and are easy to match to most of your wardrobe if you pick colors smartly. Tan, black, brown, and oxblood are all versatile and appropriate. 

Unless specifically enforced by your workplace, you should check almost any other shoe style with your boss before you wear them to work. Generally, it’s a good idea to wear simple socks, especially with loafers, although it’s becoming more and more optional even in the workplace. However, you won’t look out of place with dress socks.

The Knits

Knitwear isn’t seasonally appropriate in every wardrobe, but a business casual men’s sweater is an excellent way to add some personality to the look. Save the chunky knits and crazy patterns, however. It should be slim and easy to put under a jacket but also stand-alone when the jacket is removed. 

Block colors and styles that finish at the beltline are the best bet. Cardigans can make a nice stand-in for your blazer if you want some variety. 

The Accessories

Close Up on Watch

If you’re a daring fashion-forward man, business casual for men will disappoint you. While the modern workspace is a much more casual place than it once was, there’s still very little room for personal expression. Less is very much more in this case. 

That doesn’t mean you can’t look good in the office, however simply that you should stay subtle and understated rather than peacocking. 

Ties are generally out for men’s business casual clothing. The second you strap on a tie, you’re moving the look into formal wear and probably need a full suit unless you’re very experienced at styling yourself, in which case go right ahead. 

While there’s some debate on the matter, and some business casual outfit looks for men can squeeze in a tie, this is the one men’s formalwear arena where it’s ok just to forget it. 

Just to mention again, this means that the collars of your shirts need to stand up without the tie, or they’re not appropriate. You can add a pocket square to a blazer, but you can also skip them without affecting your look. Scarves can be a (seasonally appropriate) alternative to both.

Cufflinks can be difficult to pass off in business casual for men. It can be done, but they do have a more formal perception that's difficult to overcome. A subtle, understated cufflink on the right casual shirt in a high-quality fabric with a suitably casual collar may just be acceptable, but don’t let other aspects of the look drift too close to formal if you want to add this personal touch. 

Alternatively, you can consider a collar pin, but that would have to be gauged with the office’s culture. 

Office Worker Walking

A classic wristwatch makes the perfect accompaniment to men’s business casual. Make sure it isn’t an apparent sports watch, however. A slim leather folio is a nice way to add fashionability and stay casual if you’re up for it. Suspenders are a little quirky, and it’s a fashion element you’ll want to work your way up to unless there’s someone else already using them in the office. It would be acceptable in some situations, especially creative workplaces, but probably best avoided for the majority.

A belt is going to be needed. Keep it matched to your shoes or overall outfit, and simple. While patterns are best kept for casual looks, you can experiment with textured leather for a bit of interest. And, once again, leave the hats at home. Especially the fedoras.

This should go without saying, but always remember that underwear rules are not just for women. No one in the office should ever see what you’re wearing under your stylish business casual pants. Ever. Nor should those pants be tight enough to show the edges of your undies, either. Slim fit looks professional, but it doesn’t mean so tight we all abandon our imaginations, either!

The Colors

When you start out building the basics of your business casual men’s wardrobe, think neutrals. Remember that beige/tan and navy both offer a stylish versatility but give room for some personality and steer away from black in general. It’s too formal for a business casual setting unless you are very experienced at building your looks.

Eventually, you can get a little more adventurous with your shirts and even introduce some business-appropriate patterns, but start with a core wardrobe of basics first. 

The Suit

Navy Blue Suit

Let’s round this off with a reminder that every professional man needs a few suits to hand. We’ve mentioned some occasions where a suit is simply more appropriate. They’re also a powerful statement of masculinity. You can leverage some more modern, less formal suit styles in a business casual wardrobe if you have the right blend of fashion confidence and daring. 

If you consider yourself a fashion “Joe Average,” stick with our guidelines above. Still, if you have more confidence, it’s worth considering a more casual outfit (think ‘millionaire on a yacht’ casual, not ‘the defendant’ casual) as a fun way to shake up your business style. 

Styling Men’s Business Casual

And there you have it! You have gone from asking, “What is business casual?” to knowing exactly how to style it and build a core wardrobe that will leave you looking stylish, appropriate, and at the top of your profession no matter what you do.

Remember that a crucial part of the nebulous ‘business casual’ concept is maintaining consistency. If your boss or client thinks you’re a new man every day, you’re doing it wrong. As a rule of thumb, keep your outfits formal enough that, should an unexpected client or boss meeting occur, you would feel comfortable presenting yourself that way to them. 

While a business casual outfit can be a little frustrating to define, with these basics under your belt, you’ll be well set up to conquer the office space without worrying about your looks. Focus on the ‘business,’ not the ‘casual,’ make sure everything is high-quality and fits you well, and you can’t go wrong. 

It might be a jungle out there, but with the proper grasp of business casual etiquette, you’ll soon be its king!