As a dress code, ‘business casual’ is a moving target. In this fast-changing world, what is considered appropriate casual office attire today is different from what it was even just a year ago. Whether chinos, polos, capris, or jeans are business casual depends on where you work. Certain organizations and professions—especially, for example, in the legal or financial services industries, where face-to-face interactions with clients are the norm—demand a more formal office dress code than others. But what are current business casual rules for the rest of us? Explore some wardrobe options for the business casual workplace—and learn what definitely doesn’t qualify.
How to Create a Business Casual Wardrobe
What should you wear to work or to a function that specifies “business casual” on the invitation? Some companies make it easy by spelling it out in their employee handbook. Elsewhere, you’ll have to figure it out on your own. Here are some recommendations to get you started.
Broadly speaking, T-shirts aren’t advised, shorts generally aren’t considered suitable, leggings are too casual, and clothing that reveals too much skin (tank tops, crop tops, low-cut shirts, or short skirts) should be saved for other venues. Instead, creating a capsule wardrobe (a collection of essential pieces that never go out of style) is a smart solution to achieve a professional—but not stuffy—wardrobe. Choosing pieces that complement each other allows for plenty of variety within your wardrobe; mix and match the basics for weeks’ worth of work-ready options.
Start With These Business Casual Staples
Building your business casual wardrobe starts with the basics: Well-fitting pants, tops, and jackets, plus accessories and shoes to coordinate. For men, the business casual wardrobe usually includes a neutral blazer, button-down shirts in solid colors or prints, V-neck sweaters, polo shirts, chinos, and comfortable shoes. Women’s business casual wardrobes are often similar: Blazers, cardigans, chinos, cords, or ponte knit pants, skirts, and flats or heels.
Jeans seem to be widely accepted as appropriate business casual wear—especially paired with a nice top—as long as they fit well and they aren’t ripped, unduly faded, or frayed. Black jeans may be a more professional-looking option, as they more closely resemble dressier pants. Not all offices consider jeans as business casual, so check with your employer prior to stocking up on denim for the workplace.
If you want to play it safe, substitute khakis or chinos for jeans. The clean seams in a pair of chinos make them a conservative choice for a corporate casual environment.
For men and women, a sweater paired with a collared shirt is a classic option. Pullovers and quarter-zips are traditional, but a cardigan also counts as business casual. Subtle accessories offer an opportunity to bring color and pattern into the outfit.
Business Casual Examples for Men
- Collared shirts are still a business standard for men, at least on the East Coast.
- Ties aren’t often required under business casual dress codes.
- Corduroys are a classic look, perfectly okay for business casual.
- Polo shirts are accepted in many offices during summer, but not at other times of the year.
- Flannel or plaid shirts—especially fitted shirts that are tucked in and worn with a rich leather belt—are versatile options for the office.
Business Casual Examples for Women
- Women’s capris are acceptable.
- Ponte knit pants are dressy-casual and plenty comfortable.
- Knee-length or longer dresses and skirts are often considered business casual.
- Solid or patterned blouses, paired with either a structured blazer, sweater, or open cardigan, lend a bit of color to an outfit.
Business Casual-Appropriate Footwear
Though sandals, flip-flops, and sneakers are too laid-back for business casual wardrobes and open-toed shoes aren’t recommended, comfortable footwear isn’t entirely out of the question. There is wide latitude in what’s acceptable: Opt for style and comfort. Leather Oxfords are a handsome option, leather walking shoes are a dressed-up sneaker alternative, and smart chukka boots go with everything. Choose ballet flats, leather ankle booties, or a sensible heel over peep toes or strappy shoes. Some common styles and even brands are acceptable—for instance, many of the boat shoes and loafers from makers like Sperry count as business casual.
What Is Smart Business Casual?
Smart casual is a step up from business casual—professional, but not jacket-and-tie formal. Think sharp textured blazer paired with well-tailored pants, or a button-down shirt and cardigan with low-profile shoes. Smart casual leans to polished—no jeans or collarless shirts—without skipping the ‘casual’ label entirely.
Casual Fridays and the Business Casual Trend
Corporate casual was once reserved for Fridays—“casual Fridays”—and if your employer was truly enlightened, the summer months. Traditionally, business casual meant you could wear nice slacks, like chinos or khakis, paired with a crisp, collared shirt or blouse. Jeans, leggings, sneakers, and flip-flops were off-limits: You were supposed to look professional. But these days, the only widely acknowledged prohibitions include ripped jeans, grungy T-shirts, and tank tops. How did we get to this place where casual dress in the workplace is the new normal?
When Did Business Casual Become a Thing?
The genesis of today’s business casual can be traced to the 1980s nascent Silicon Valley tech world where young, talented upstarts began calling the shots, revolutionizing the workplace. In order to lure other coveted technical geniuses to their cutting-edge product development teams, companies in the tech industries began offering various office perks, starting with a relaxed dress code. Engineers, who often went on coding binges for days on end, were not expected to wear a suit and tie; they dressed for comfort.
Even well before the tech revolution and continuing through today, creative professionals have often eschewed any kind of corporate uniform—because they can—thus opening the door for the rest of us.
Millennials Don’t Wear Suits and Ties
Fast forward to the present where a similar office dynamic seems to be at work: In order to attract new talent in a tight labor market, companies cater to employees. As the economy hums along, workplace culture continues to be geared toward making employees happy to keep qualified people on the job. Moreover, modern lifestyles which embrace instant communication, flexible work hours, and virtual offices, blur the lines between home, leisure, and work, making mandatory office attire impractical. And many Millennials simply aren’t accustomed to dressing up, as formal dress codes were disappearing around the time they were born.
In general, as long as you’re wearing reasonably nice clothes that aren’t ripped, dirty, or excessively wrinkled, your attire will probably fall within what’s currently considered the norm for business casual wear. But at the end of the day, if you wish to be taken seriously as a professional, and don’t want to stand out for the wrong reasons, play it safe and err on the conservative side. Otherwise, ask the person who hired you.