What is business casual style? Can you wear jeans in a business casual office? What shoes should you wear? This in-depth guide has all the answers you need.
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Most modern day workplaces are loosening up their dress codes. Gone are the days where men are required to wear a suit and tie to work every day.
This is great news for most guys. After all, a full suit and tie isn't exactly the most comfortable outfit, especially during warmer seasons.
But this shift has also left many men scratching their heads and wondering:
What should I wear to work today?
Sure, a suit and tie might not be the most comfortable outfit. But at least it makes getting dressed relatively straightforward.
You just wear a suit. And a tie.
Business casual, on the other hand, is just…confusing.
What is business casual?
How do we actually define this dress code? Are there actual rules, or a list of DOs and DON'Ts that we should follow?
The answer is, yes. Kind of.
Unlike stricter dress codes like black tie, business casual is very loosely defined. It leaves a lot of room for interpretation, and different offices will interpret it differently.
It's like when the invitation to your cousin's wedding says the dress code is Summer Beach Semi-Formal Casual Cocktail Attire…
What in the hell does this mean, KAREN?
But fear not! If you read this guide to the end (or even just skim through it), you'll have a clear understanding of what to wear in business casual environments.
Too Long, Didn't Read
At a minimum, here's what you need to know:
- No suits
- No jeans (unless you manager gives the OK)
- No t-shirts
- No polos (usually)
- No sneakers
- No sandals or flip flops (obvi)
- No casual boots
- Dress boots are okay
- Ties are not required
- Tucked in shirts, always
- Blazers/sport coats are always okay
Stick with these rules, and you'll be good to go. If you want to really master the business casual look, read on…
A Brief History of the Business Casual Dress Code
If you look at the entire history of menswear in Western civilizations, business casual is a relatively new concept.
Up until the early 1960s, men didn't wear casual clothing to the office, even on Fridays. Casual wear was only worn at home during evenings and weekends.
If you were going to the office, you were most likely dressed in a full suit and tie.
Things began changing when the Hawaiian custom of Aloha Friday started to make its way across the Pacific, spreading east to California and winning over young working professionals who were tired of “dressing up” every single day of the week.
Like many holidays and social traditions, Aloha Friday was basically a marketing scheme.
It was invented by the Hawaiian Fashion Guild to sell more aloha clothing (i.e., Hawaiian shirts).
In short, a Hawaiian manufacturing association invented a novel custom of wearing casual clothing on Fridays, which paved the way for casual Fridays and business casual dress, in general.
Kinda random, huh?
The fact that it caught on so quickly and gained so much momentum, even though it started in the most remote American state – thousands of miles from most major U.S. cities – goes to show that men really just want to be comfortable, and most men aren't very comfortable wearing a suit and tie.
Fast forward to the 1990s. Offices are more casual than ever, and many men are wearing jeans, shorts or even t-shirts to work. The idea of “casual Friday” has started to spread to the rest of the week.
The denim behemoth, Levi's, notices a gap in the menswear market, and they decide to fill in the area between jeans and suits with their new line of khaki pants called Dockers.
They marketed these pants aggressively with hilariously “relatable” commercials like this one:
Even if Jerry hated these commercials, which at the time were very unique, they worked. Guys everywhere fell in love with relaxed fit cotton Dockers.
Levi's even created a visual pamphlet for its customers (department stores) called “A Guide to Business Casual” that showed younger professionals in more casual clothing, including plenty of Dockers khaki pants.
These preppy pants walked the line between dressy and casual, and brands like Ralph Lauren, Brooks Brothers and J. Crew took notice.
Men started wearing khakis, chinos, polos and casual button up shirts to work instead of full suits, and the business casual dress code quickly swept through corporate America, taking over men's closets for the next 3+ decades.
2020 Men's Business Casual Wardrobe
Even though the business casual dress code traditionally required a jacket, that's just not the case anymore.
These days, business casual offices typically expect you to wear a button up shirt tucked into chinos or slacks (any “dress pant” that's more formal than chinos).
Most business casual workplaces don't require jackets, and they're almost all okay with chinos, as opposed to dressier wool trousers.
Let's say you work in a standard 9-to-5 corporate office that requires business casual dress. You're somewhere between entry-level and top management. Here's what your outfits might look like:
Monday with a presentation to your boss's boss:
- Grey wool trousers
- White dress shirt (no tie)
- Navy sportcoat
- Black loafers or Oxfords
Tuesday – Thursday without any big meetings:
- Chinos or cotton trousers – tan, olive, navy
- OCBD or “sport shirt” (button up), tucked in – solid colors or patterns (no bold prints)
- Sweater optional for fall/winter
- Chelsea boots, loafers, bluchers or wingtips
- Slim, dark wash jeans (no distressing)
- OCBD, sport shirt or fitted polo, tucked in
- Sweater optional for fall/winter
- Chelsea boots, chukkas, loafers, bluchers or wingtips
Couple of things to keep in mind…
First, you can always wear a wool or cashmere sweater (or cardigan) over your button ups if weather permits. This is actually an excellent outfit for business casual offices during fall and winter.
Second, many offices allow for very casual Fridays, meaning you can wear your shirt untucked. For example, you might wear jeans or chinos with a casual button up shirt, untucked.
Just make sure it's the right length. You don't want to be that guy who just wears his dress shirt untucked like he's performing some sort of walk of shame.
Of course, when in doubt, just ask your manager what's appropriate.
Business Casual Shoes
In general, casual shoes aren't really appropriate for business casual settings. I'm talking about sneakers, sandals, flip flops, work boots, boat shoes, driving mocs, espadrilles, etc.
Almost any type of “dress shoe” is okay, barring velvet slippers or patent leather whole cuts, of course!
The sweet spot consists of:
- Dressy chukkas
- Chelsea boots
When in doubt, you really can't go wrong with a more casual lace up (like wingtips) or any kind of loafer.
The biggest mistake I see men make with business casual shoe choice is wearing shoes that are way too casual.
I've seen so many guys wearing boat shoes to the office with chinos or even wool dress pants. It just looks…wrong. The boat shoe is way too casual for that type of outfit.
Remember: it's always better to be slightly overdressed than underdressed, so when in doubt, choose the more formal shoe.
Are jeans business casual?
Technically, no. Menswear purists would never wear jeans in a business casual environment. But many modern offices are okay with jeans, even though this often backfires.
The problem is, most men don't understand the difference between casual and dressy jeans.
There's a huge difference between light wash, relaxed fit jeans with faded knees and frayed hems, and fitted dark wash jeans with no fades or distressing.
If you're going to wear jeans to a business casual office, make sure they're dark, fitted and free of any sort of distressing.
And please…please…make sure your jeans are hemmed to the proper length.
Common Business Casual Mistakes
Here are three easily avoidable mistakes men make with their business casual attire:
The first mistake is when guys wear suit jackets as sport coats.
It's okay to mix and match jackets and dress pants (e.g., charcoal suit pants w/ navy suit jacket), but suit jackets can look a bit off when worn casually (e.g., with jeans).
If you're going to wear a jacket with jeans or chinos, wear a blazer or sportcoat.
Go with something more casual (less structure, less shoulder padding, less lining, more textured fabric, casual details like patch pockets).
The second mistake I see a lot is guys wearing shoes that are too casual for the office.
As mentioned above, boat shoes are not the same as loafers and shouldn't be worn in business casual settings. If you wear chukkas, go with something formal, rather than a Clarks Desert Boot.
The third mistake I see all the time is guys pairing casual accessories with business casual outfits. The most obvious example of this is the backpack.
A backpack is a very casual bag, and it's usually not the best choice for the office. Instead, go for a canvas messenger bag or leather briefcase.
21 Business Casual Outfit Examples
If you've read this far, you now have a thorough understanding of the business casual dress code for men.
Keep all of these principles in mind as you look through these 21 business casual outfit ideas (note: all photos are from TMM or Reddit's r/malefashionadvice community):
Now we know what business casual attire looks like, but what about casual Friday?
What about casual Fridays?
Just like the business casual dress code, casual Fridays vary widely from one office to the next.
If you work in a formal environment (suit and tie Mon-Thurs), casual Friday usually means business casual Friday. Basically, you can ditch the suit and tie but may still need a jacket (or at least a tucked in shirt).
If you work in a business casual office where men rarely wear jackets or ties, it's probably okay to wear jeans – and maybe even sneakers – on casual Friday (ask your manager).
Even if you wear jeans, you should stick with a a polo or casual button up shirt, tucked in (don't assume untucked is appropriate unless you see other doing it, or your manager gives explicit permission).
T-shirt, shorts and sandals are almost never appropriate for the office unless permission is explicitly given by management.
The key here is to ask your hiring manager what's appropriate, and when in doubt, always aim to overdress rather than underdress.
Remember: you may feel a bit silly if you're overdressed, but you will look bad if you're underdressed!
You now have a solid understanding of what business casual means and how to dress in a modern business casual workplace.
Now that you don't have to worry about making any dumb style mistakes at the office, you can focus on what matters: crushing it at work, soaring up the corporate latter, and working up the courage to finally ask out that new cutie from human resources.
Questions? Comments? Leave them below!