What Does Business Casual Mean For a Man? - Ideas and Tips
Molly Hitchens studied business for years before launching her career as a journalist and analyst specializing in original and innovative business planning. She shares her expertise through her work with The Idea Trader as well as through in-person speaking engagements at universities around the country.
Is Business Casual Still a Thing?
Short answer? Yes. Very much so. In fact, business casual might be more relevant right now more than ever before.
It has a lot to do with how the American workplace has changed over the last 20 years or so. Both large corporations and smaller businesses are getting younger, on the whole.
And with that generational shift comes differing ideas on workplace etiquette.
Apart from all that, the definition of business casual style has changed as well. For a frame of reference, business casual for men generally means khakis or a similar mid-tier dress pant, along with a button-down shirt, leather dress shoes, and an optional neck tie. Sweater vests? Sure.
And while that basic outfit is still a viable option for a typical business casual environment, each of those pieces can be tweaked to up your fashion game, impressing your co-workers and, hopefully, your boss, while also letting you express your personal style.
So let’s go through that basic outfit and update it for the new you.
Reviewing Your Current Wardrobe
We all have those clothes that we just don’t wear anymore, but we keep them around for some reason, waiting for some fancy occasion when our black wingtip shoes will be needed once again.
Those are exactly the kinds of pieces you should consider donating to a clothing drive or local charity of your choice.
Old sweaters with small holes and tears? You could try your hand and stitching them up, or you could save them for the weekend, when the dress code is decidedly more lax.
This is also a good chance to take note of your current style. If a lot of your old clothes feel outdated to you, it may be time to head in a new direction. If you’d still wear a lot of them to a first date, then you’re already on the right track.
Khakis (also called chinos and slacks) are still a good bet for the workplace, that is, if you even like them in the first place. They look good, they’re usually inexpensive, and they’re more comfortable than wool dress pants.
But more casual pants can still work in an office setting. A five-pocket pant (that’s how jeans are typically constructed) can work for many different occasions. Brands like Uniqlo and J. Crew now make a whole range of five-pocket pants that aren’t actually denim, but instead stretch fabric blends that fit and look better.
As for jeans at work, the general recommendation is to avoid them. However, well-maintained jeans in dark colors like black and navy blue can actually be a great fit for a business casual environment. They also look great with a tailored blazer.
And don’t be afraid of actual dress pants, either. Gap, J. Crew, Banana Republic, Zara and many other retailers sell dress pants in modern cuts that elevate an entire outfit. Consider these for days with big meetings or upscale company parties.
Shoes that live somewhere between the realms of casual and professional are having a bit of a heyday right now.
A good example is the chukka boot (of which the Clarks Desert Boot series is a good reference point). It works well in an office setting but can still be used for plenty of after-hours events and even just downtime fun stuff.
On the cheap, brands like Penguin offer some very nice work-specific styles that tend to be a little more exciting than their very expensive counterparts from higher-end brands.
And if you’re not too squeamish about second-hand goods, then checking out some curated thrift stores like Crossroads and Buffalo Exchange would be a very good idea.
Before you know it, you’ll be strutting around in some Italian loafers for less than half the sticker price. Just make sure to spray the insides with disinfectant first.
Button Up, Down, and All Around
For many men, the type of button-down shirts he wears says a lot about his sense of style. It’s the biggest opportunity in the outfit for color, patterns, and a range of materials.
If you want to be the guy who can rock a semi-formal flannel, check out L.L.Bean and Lucky Brand for a start.
Overstock stores like Nordstrom Rack can also be a great source for high-end styles that will be much more friendly toward your wallet.
If you’re big into fun patterns, see brands like Publish, Club Monaco, and Topman. Since patterns are no longer new to the mainstream fashion scene, they won’t draw as much negative attention in more formal spaces as they did back in 2005.
Don’t Sweat Sweaters
Depending on where you live, sweaters can be a great year-round addition to your wardrobe. Wear them with a button-down underneath or with just an undershirt.
Our disclaimer for this section is to try sweaters on in-person, if at all possible. You’ll be thanking yourself later, believe me.
Sweaters hang differently on different people, and also sweater cuts and fits vary widely from brand to brand and year to year. This is also why thrift shopping for sweaters may be more difficult than thrift shopping for other pieces.
A Polo sweater from the 1990s, for example, is going to fit big, and it probably won’t look terribly professional, either.
So for this part of the journey, take the effort to embark on some real brick-and-mortar shopping. Start in department stores then move more toward boutique shops with only one brand under each roof.
Once you find just a single sweater you like, you’ll start to get a better sense of which labels make the stuff you really want, and that give you the confidence to make your presence known.
Keep It Classy
I think we’re all capable of knowing what will fly in our individual workplaces and what won’t, meaning you will ultimately have to be the judge and jury for any new outfits.
But the point we’d like to hammer home here is that there’s a lot more wiggle room to the business casual dress code than you think. Explore the styles and clothes that make you feel your best, that allow you to do your best work, all while gaining attention in the process.