Skip to main content

What is the business casual dress code for men? The dos and don’ts you should know

Here are some tips and tricks to master business casual

stitch fix business casual outfit with blazer, sweater, collared shirt, trousers, and dress shoes.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Dressing for the office used to be pretty straightforward. If you worked in an office, you wore a suit and a tie. There was no real reason to deviate, as many businesses that had offices were also client-facing. You only get one chance to make a first impression, and dressing for the occasion is the way to do that.

In the late 1970s and early ’80s, Silicon Valley became a place that prioritized results over everything else. While many businesses lived on processes, some of them antiquated, the tech field started to focus on processes in their product and letting their employees be comfortable in their wardrobes. Thus, the idea of business casual was born, and the suit became a whole other elevated level of office wear.

A man putting on his blazer. - Yuri A/Shutterstock

What is business casual?

Ah, the decades-old question: What do employers mean when they say “business casual”? Here’s the rub: There isn’t a straightforward answer. Every company has a different idea of what the phrase means and what’s appropriate for their workspaces. The one thing that is for certain is that the dress code is more elevated than streetwear but not quite formal enough for a suit. Where your company falls on that spectrum is going to depend on the company’s mission.

Let’s start with the basics. If you work in a place that has a vague business casual dress code, here’s a good starting point to get you going in the right direction and help you figure out how to actually dress business casual.

Shirts: Replace your typical dress shirt with a more casual version with a button-down collar. Patterns work better in this level of dress because you can ditch the tie.

Pants: Ditch the dress pants. Your dry-clean-only pants can go in the closet, and you should invest in a few pairs of elevated chinos.

Shoes: Dress shoes are a sure way to upgrade almost any outfit. However, dress shoes could be a little too elevated with a business casual outfit. If you want a pair of shoes that can elevate some outfits and tone down others, opt for some Chelsea boots.

A man in a plaid blazer and tan chinos
Image used with permission by copyright holder

What should you not wear for business casual?

While there’s a wider variety of garments that you can wear while dressing in business casual, there are some garments that you should avoid wearing, either because they’re too formal or too casual. Business casual takes the spectrum of clothing levels from streetwear to formal wear and cuts off the extreme ends to focus on the middle.

Shirts: Obviously, you shouldn’t be wearing your formal tuxedo shirts, and almost no one will try to find ways to work them into their wardrobe. However, you will start to see people work a T-shirt into their office wardrobe. Even an elevated luxury T-shirt falls too far toward the casual end of the spectrum.

Pants: Dress pants are going to be a little closer to the formal side of the business casual spectrum. However, while they can be acceptable to wear with an open-collar dress shirt, they are typically more expensive than chinos and should be reserved for more formal environments.

Shoes: There are essentially only two kinds of shoes that we would recommend not wearing with your business casual attire. Your athletic sneakers and your steel-toed work boots won’t work in the office. Sure, if you’re a construction worker and have some office time, you may be wearing these, but you probably aren’t wearing business casual attire. More likely, you’re simply putting a polo on over your workwear.

A man in jeans posing on a railing of an old mansion
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Can you wear jeans as business casual?

The short answer is yes, but there are some caveats if you want to wear jeans to work. The first rule for wearing jeans in an environment where jeans are not typically considered your go-to is to wear upgraded jeans. Dark dress denim is what you’re looking for. You absolutely shouldn’t be wearing the same jeans you wear when you bum around the house on the weekend. These should be a dark wash and in a slim silhouette.

The second rule is to elevate them. Jeans are the ultimate in casual attire, which means they’re built for streetwear or more rugged outdoor work. They were never designed for the office, but after years of expanding the uses of denim, they can now be worn to work as long as they’re the most casual item you wear. Pair them with a sport coat and dressier shoes or Chelsea boots, and you can absolutely pull off jeans in the office.

Man wearing sneakers and sports coat
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Can I wear sneakers for business casual?

The rules for sneakers in business casual are similar to the jeans rules above. One, they should be upgraded, and they should be what many shoe companies call dress sneakers: Slim silhouette, leather tops, and soft-soled. Two, they should be the most casual garment in your outfit. Pair these with chinos and a sport coat to take these sneakers to a higher level of the dress code spectrum.

When it comes down to it, business casual is a tough and vague statement that can be highly confusing. Some businesses will lean more toward the formal side and want to see sports coats daily without requiring a tie. Other companies will lean more on the casual end and ask you to simply wear chinos and a polo.

Either way, the best way to approach a business casual environment is to lean more formal until you learn what others around you are wearing, then find your place on the spectrum. Just remember that the higher up you go in most companies, the higher on the dress spectrum you will go. In other words, dress for the job you want, not the job you have.

Editors' Recommendations

Mark McKee
Mark is a full-time freelance writer and men's coach. He spent time as a style consultant and bespoke suit salesman before…
How pants should fit: A must-read guide for men
Make sure your pants always fit properly with these tips
Man standing on the beach

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, polyester pants started fitting pretty tight and showed off the physique of the man wearing them. Then in the 1980s, denim followed suit. The jeans of the era of the hair bands were tight and cuffed. The 1990s ushered in a new era of baggier fits and a more relaxed feel throughout the entire outfit, particularly the pants.

Then, around the turn of the century, they got slimmer and slimmer until they were seemingly painted on in the last few years. Now, we are seeing a resurgence of the relaxed fit. It can get confusing to follow the trends of how pants should fit if you're not in the know, but we have you covered. 

Read more
What are the best shoes for your suit? The only style guide you need
A guide to completing your suit outfits
A man in a suit lacing his shoes

Shoes connect you to the earth. They are your base, your ground. You can make or break your suit with the men's dress shoes you choose to pair with the sharp look. There are rules and guidelines for every man to follow when pairing shoes with a suit, and those can get a little overwhelming if you're just now getting started with wearing suits.

But like everything menswear, we at The Manual will break it down simply so you have a great starting point when you start choosing your suits and shoes. Remember that this is a baseline, a starting point for you to look great while, if you excuse the pun, get your footing. As you start to find your style, you can branch out to other colors, styles, and even break a few of these guidelines.

Read more
Men’s style tips: The 16 essential rules every well-dressed man should know
Tips every man should know to ensure he is always the best dressed in the room
Bearded man

Some of us are mavericks, shirking the rules and subverting expectations at every turn, simply because we don't like to be put in boxes. Other groups of us like rules; we want the comfort that order and uniformity bring us. Then, even more of us are somewhere in the middle, craving order and uniformity to allow us to find our boundaries, only to shirk them later when we want to feel free. Men's style offers us all of the above. While some rules are made to be broken, others are tried-and-true staples to live on.

These tips will help you define your style, find your archetype in men's fashion, and even help you navigate men's clothing without losing your mind at the ever-changing landscape that is men's apparel. Once you learn these, you will have a framework to start branching out and breaking the rules, becoming a maverick of style all your own.

Read more