Business Casual vs. Business Professional Attire for Men
In a world where fashion trends come and go, interpreting dress codes for the modern market can be tricky indeed. And when it’s your livelihood on the line, you want to get it right. While it would be nice if we were only judged on our skills alone, first impressions count as much in the business world as anywhere else- and you want to make yours a good one. They say most interviewers have made their judgment within the first 90 seconds of meeting you, so you have to make them count. Today Team Oliver Wicks is here to help you better differentiate the nebulous ‘business casual’ and ‘business professional’ dress codes so you always know you look great and fit in perfectly, no matter what.
Today business casual is the go-to dress code for most offices. While some traditional fields, like law and accounting, still expect a more formal dress style, we’re even seeing true casual wear like jeans and sneakers creeping into the workplace as defaults (we’re not huge fans!). But that air of casualness can easily trip you up if you’re not careful. Just because you can get away with something doesn’t mean it’s a great way to further your career.
So what even is ‘business casual’? It’s a very nebulous concept to try and define, but very roughly comparable to the wider idea of ‘smart-casual.’ If you had to drop your workday schedule and meet with the CEO, you’d still look smart enough to project confidence and knowledge, but you’re able to do more than just sit at a desk looking good and wouldn’t die inside if you had to venture onto the factory floor. You are still dressed for business but not wearing your most formal attire.
So, while business casual is tough to define, let’s dig into some specifics.
Can you wear a suit for business casual? Yes, indeed, and probably still should. In this dress code, the ‘business’ is still more important than the ‘casual’. But it won’t be your most conservative or formal suit, and pinstripe suits are likely going a little too far. And you can play around a little with color, as long as you keep it within reasonable parameters. Make sure the suit fits well!
While a well-structured polo shirt might make the grade, you’re still best served by looking at a button-up shirt. You can be a little more liberal with colors than in business casual, but stick to whites, pastels, and simple prints. Save the dark shirts for social occasions.
However, the business casual dress code lends itself perfectly to well-chosen suit separates. So now is the time to crack out your blazers and smart pants. A great blazer walks the line between casual and business perfectly, giving you a jacket to smarten up your look as needed but allowing you the freedom to shed it, too. And rather than slipping into the ‘jean trap,’ we suggest sticking with well-fitted slacks and chinos for added casual elegance.
As we mentioned above, you can expand your color collection away from the standards in the business casual dress code. We don’t suggest abandoning them entirely- navy and charcoal, particularly, should be in regular rotation, even in business casual. They’re smart, hard-wearing, and always appropriate. But a lighter mid-grey, a smart beige or camel, snappy tweeds, and other somber, but not funerary, colors can take their turn too. You might even want to consider elegant but unusual choices like a deep maroon or forest green for some variety. Steer away from bright and garish colors, however, and stick to one focal piece and solid neutrals otherwise.
You can get a little more experimental with patterns, but remember that they bring a jazzy vibe that isn’t always workplace appropriate. Likewise, while strong and accepted fabrics like a robust cotton or even tight linen will be acceptable as business casual in hotter months, stay away from flashy and attention-calling fabrics.
Can you wear slim fit in business casual? Unless you are in a very creative or ‘arty’ industry, it’s still a no. Most people will be best served with a modern fit, even in business casual. Slim, or skinny, suits have a bit of a bad rep among professional/traditional crowds - They’re often viewed as a “young man’s trend”, which indirectly links you to being inexperienced, and possibly even a little immature..
Sure, Joe from IT is wearing sneakers, but is that the vibe you want to bring to your workplace? For the business casual dress code, we’d always advise sticking to simple, more relaxed leather shoes- think loafers like Oxfords, Derbies, Brogues, and Monk Straps. You can show a little personality, but steer away from garish. With the right suit, brown leather will be fine, and black is always a go-to. You could also introduce a man’s boot, like the Chelsea boot, to your wardrobe. Match your socks to your pants.
If business casual is ‘smart, but not over the top,’ then what is business professional? This is the sort of dress code you’ll find in top-end legal firms, boardrooms, and interviews everywhere. It’s looking and dressing your absolute best but without the flair and added personal trimmings you’d wear to a social event. You will stick to the basics and wear them well.
The bolder souls among you likely won’t like this, but business professional means somber and serious. When in doubt, stick to the classics- navy, and charcoal, with a little black if you feel like the extra work of making it look good. Patterns are off the table, with the exception of subtle options like a narrow herringbone, or for a real “power suit”, chalk stripe options (as favoured by old-school bankers!).
It’s a no on this one. If the standard is business professional, then a two-piece suit is an entry requirement as a minimum.
In the same vein, you want to stay very conservative with your dress shirts- and yes, a collared dress shirt is going to be your standard. White and a pinstripe with pale blue are the two most accepted colors. Today you might be able to sneak another soft pastel into the mix, but when in doubt, stay away. And no bold or dark colors at all. Stay equally conservative with your ties, and stick to tried-and-trusted colors like deep red and navy. Stripes are fine but consider other patterns carefully.
For business professional, you will want a proper leather dress shoe like an Oxford. Skip the loafers and ornamentation and keep it dressy. When in doubt, black should be your go-to option, though a cool dark brown can make the grade with the right suit.
The so-called modern fit will be the most appropriate cut if you’re not sure what you prefer. While some older gents will carry a more relaxed fit well enough to make the grade, it can look dated and age you. Needless to say, ‘spray on’ and slim fits are off the table for this level of professionality.
Now you know more about the expected standards for each type of business dress code, let’s unpack a few extra details to help. And remember, if you find our tips and tricks helpful, the Oliver Wicks newsletter is packed to the brim with them- you can sign up in seconds from any page on our website.
- Tailor Well: Regardless of office dress code, your clothing, be it a suit or blazer separates, should be well fitted to your body and properly tailored. Remember the Oliver Wicks motto- the fit that suits you! Casual doesn’t mean sloppy and ill-fitting, just easy to wear. Rather one well-made and classic piece than several that fit poorly.
- The Details: While we were focused on the fashion of business casual and business professional, both will still need you to put your best foot forward. Keep your hands and hair manicured, and make sure everything you wear to the office is clean, neat, well-pressed, and in good condition, regardless of the dress code. Shoes should be clean and well-cared for, so polish them up. And don’t forget the little things. Use a deodorant or cologne, but keep it subtle and ‘adult,’ and never skip your morning shower.
- Casual, not Sloppy: While business casual is more relaxed, don’t fall into the trap of taking that too far. Fit and cleanliness matter, and you want to look well-dressed no matter what you’re wearing.
- When in Doubt: Dress up, not down! If you’re not sure which business standard is right for your office, err on the side of formality. Especially at key points like meetings and interviews. You never want to be the most casual person in the room.
Navigating workplace standards in an area where it seems like anything goes can be tricky- but with Oliver Wicks on your side, you’ll always get it right! If you need any specific advice on dressing for an interview or the boardroom, you’re also welcome to reach out to the team at email@example.com for more personalized advice or to find the perfect suit for your job.