Business casual for men: The complete dress guide (and other essential tips)

Life ain’t just cozy sweaters and skin-tight t-shirts, fellas. It’s not all suits either, contrary to what Harvey Specter and the crew would have you believe. Between these two poles lies a dress code that almost every man will need to know about at some point in his life: business casual. Is it more business, or predominantly casual? Can you pull off sneakers, or are dress shoes the right choice? Where are the boundaries?

It’s maddening stuff, especially if you’re not much of a fashion fiend and only care about this topic because you don’t want to get weird looks at the office. Thankfully, as a fellow guy, I can assure you: I’ve been in your boat. Heck, you could argue I still am, because I’m not a metrosexual—I’m just a dude who likes what he likes and knows a thing or two about business casual clothing. Let’s dive into what does, and doesn’t, work when it comes to dressing business casual for your latest and greatest job.

Don’t get licked for your kicks

Shoes are the first order of business if we want to start from the bottom and work our way up. According to The Modest Man, here are the shoes you should feel comfortable wearing to a job that describes its dress code as business casual:

  • Bluchers
  • Oxfords
  • Brogues
  • Loafers
  • “Dressy” chukkas
  • Chelsea boots

If any of that sounds foreign, don’t worry—I didn’t know what the heck a “chukka” was until I hit up Google a few minutes ago. And here’s an additional bit of good news for you: these aren’t necessary.

While they’re definitely good suggestions and will keep you looking crisp, if you’re headed for a job that’s on the lower end of the corporate spectrum and isn’t just pretending to be “business casual” for sake of looking hip and cool with the kids, then you can get away with lesser options. Ever heard of Vans? Or Converse? Yeah, those will do. I’ve done it. And you can, too. Because, while slick shoes are nice, it’s not so much about what you’re wearing on your feet, but rather, how you’re wearing it. When accompanied by a pinch of confidence, some subtle sneakers will go the distance.

At the higher end of business casual, though, consider dress shoes to be the norm.
Let’s talk (sock) shop

As its name might allude to, our source for premium sock tips is… Ties.com. Ties does a good job breaking down many different types of socks and their purposes via their quintessential guide on the matter. The fact that it’s quintessential makes it required reading, gents.

To give a brief summary of Ties’ major talking points, here they are: no white ankle (athletic) socks, and preferably no ankle socks period for anything outside of sports and recreation. No-show socks work if you want your ankle skin to blend seamlessly into your shoes—just don’t mind the chafing sensation.

Ties recommend trying out socks with some ribbing or texture to them for a little bit of flavor. The site also suggests giving patterns like polka dots, stripes, and argyle a shot. Just make sure whichever socks you select are color-coordinated with the rest of your outfit. No black socks with white shoes, or vice versa.

I’m inclined to agree with (mostly) all of this. Socks, thankfully, are a relatively small deal as long as you’re wearing smart shoes and long enough pants. Crew, executive, and even the sworn-off ankle socks—these can all work as long as they’re color coordinated and don’t unnecessarily stand out.

Plain, pedestrian pants

Here’s the deal: pants don’t need to be complicated. For business casual purposes, just roll with khakis, corduroys, slacks, or jeans. Jeans can be hit-or-miss depending on your office, but they’re definitely becoming widely accepted, so you’ll probably be fine. Any color of jeans works, too (within reason—no neon green).

Though some sites and clothing connoisseurs will say blue jeans are a no-go, I disagree, based on my experiences. Just make sure they’re not jeans with tears in them or sport any other indications you’d rather look “punk rock” than professional.

The quirks with shirts

In many, many business casual environments, you can’t go wrong with a nice polo or a dress shirt. It’s nearly impossible for these to fail. If you live in a colder climate, you can likely get away with a good sweater, too.

T-shirts are a much stickier prospect—if you know the environment and you’ve seen employees rocking a tee around the office, then you’re in luck. Otherwise, if you don’t see them, don’t wear them (unless you just don’t care about dress codes, in which case, kudos to you—but also, why are you reading this?).

The Essential Man has a spectacular guide to business casual clothing that even covers the classic question “how many times can I re-wear the same article of clothing before I have to do a wash?” But, more pertinently, the guide has a good section on shirts.

One particularly neat bit of advice given by the guide’s author, Peter Nguyen, is that the more personality-filled your shirt is, the more casual it is. Graphic tee? Casual, compared to a plain white tee. Flamin’ pink button-down? Casual—perhaps too casual—compared to a standard blue-collar dress shirt. So don’t forget that minimalism is a key component of pulling off the “business” part of business casual. There’s a reason that the higher up you go on the professional food chain, the more stuffy and full of boring black suits conference rooms tend to become.

I write all this as someone who’s had the audacity to wear sea-foam cyan t-shirts into offices, so take the minimalism comment with a pinch of salt.

Another good bit of advice The Essential Man gives is to ask HR about dress codes. If you’re really torn about what constitutes “business casual” at your office, just ask them. They’ll know and give you pointers, either in person or via email.

Business casual for men, summed up

Casual clothing in corporate settings is on the rise, so don’t be too afraid to experiment and see what fits best with your environment. Try out different belts, ties, and aviators. Enjoy yourself. If you feel out of place based on what you’re wearing, that’s a sign you might want to conform more with the pack.

Before you go, here’s one last business casual tip all men can benefit from: I have a longstanding theory that ties are the modern-day equivalent of the Tudor ruff and in a few decades, perhaps centuries, people will laugh at photographs of anyone caught wearing such silly neck ribbons. So get ahead of the times and ditch those, if you can get away with it.