When it comes to dressing, how do you keep a business casual style without being too casual? Walk through any airport, shopping mall, urban downtown, college campus or office building and you’ll certainly have your answer. What used to be starched and pressed and buttoned-up is now fleeced and flannelled and all hangout. Largely thanks to trends like Casual Friday and eventually Business Casual, America in the last 100 years has undergone what The Atlantic called “the most radical shift in dress standards in human history.”
This is not to say that loosening our national dress code is entirely a bad thing, but we appreciate a more measured approach to casual comfort that doesn’t compromise our professionalism, good taste, individuality, and dignity. So to help all of you business casual men navigate this ever-evolving beast called “business casual,” we created a quick primer on what to wear at the office and anywhere afterwards without looking and feeling like a slob.
Where Business Casual Comes From
You can thank the Hawaiians and their love of floral shirts for this trend taking over modern workplace menswear. “Aloha Fridays” (now known to the rest of us as “Casual Fridays”) began in the 1960s as an effort by Hawaiians to get out of their normal business garb and celebrate their love of the islands. Of course, it was only a matter of time before an excuse to wear a suit one day less a week bled into the rest of the States, and soon Casual Fridays were welcome in professional settings all over.
It wasn’t too long until the desire to be more comfortable and uniquely stylish in the office started to sneak into the rest of the week. Khakis and Chino pants began selling out, polo shirts flew off the shelves and before we knew it, fashion brands and clothing companies started tailoring their lines to this new casual dress for men.
What Exactly Does Dressing Business Casual Mean for Men?
Here’s where things start to get hairy and lines get grayed. Moreover, a business casual style for men is usually specific to the culture and company that they work for. That being said, some general rules still apply in most scenarios and act as a good jumping off point for business casual men. Here are the best menswear items we could find to fit this style.
The Oxford Shirt: With its comfortable fabric, timeless style, and easy variety of colors, the Oxford Shirt replaces the stiff and thin dress shirts of regular business attire. It’s important to find the right color that suits your style, skin tone and other articles you’ll be pairing with it. White and blue are the most common and versatile colors; they’re a safe bet. Other pastel colors can be eye-catchers, too, such as pink, lavender or yellow, while a few designs like pin dots and pinstripes can make a cameo here and there.
Chinos & Khakis: As mentioned earlier, the chino or khaki pant is a staple for business casual men. The key here is to have a good level of contrast to your outfit – one of the reasons why they pair so nicely with a blue or navy blazer. Just make sure to skip the shiny buttons to avoid an overly naval look. Gray or light grey dress pants are another options that go great with nearly everything.
Sweaters & Cardigans: When it’s sweater weather, staying warm is a must. A sweater or sweater vest gives you the cozy and comfortable feeling while still maintaining a sharp style on the street or in the office. Be careful to avoid strong colors and patterns on this one – no one wants to see a scarlet red and white snowflake vest in the office, let’s be honest.
Shoes: Your choices are pretty simple when it comes to footwear: It’s black (for dressier) or brown (for more casual). Almost anything made of leather in the brown family – deep rust, coffee, dark chocolate, and maybe even tan – is versatile enough to fit many different styles. Go with a derby shoe, try a loafer, or even oxford shoes can work. For snowy days or heavy and cold weather, boots are just fine as well – just make sure they have a certain level of dress to them – no clodhoppers, steel-toed or Caterpillars allowed.
A Bag: A proper gentleman always carries a bag; don’t be caught with a backpack like a little schoolboy. Something leather, canvas or a mixture of the two will work quite well, as long as it shows good form and organization. (Save the knapsacks and hobo bags for weekend trails and train tracks.)
Blazers & Jackets: One rule: Mix it up. If you have a lot of interaction with clients in more professional settings, wear a blazer. When the weather is too chilly for the blazer, use a trench coat for the transition, or when things get really frigid, it’s time to shop for a pea coat or quilted jacket.
Knit Ties: The great thing about a business casual style for men is that the tie changes from a requirement to an accessory. Most men choose to unbutton their shirt a button or two (never more than two, Fabio), but if you must wear a tie or feel naked without one, the knit tie can be added to the aesthetic appeal. Just know that if you elect to avoid neckwear altogether, make sure your undershirt is never showing. It’s an awkward mistake that comes off as cheap or lazy and not sharp and on top of your game.
So now that we’re 30+ years deep in the business casual revolution, what have we learned? That the revolution will continue to be an evolution. The challenge with freedom in any society or workplace is that, eventually, the people will always want more freedom (ref: tattoos and piercings). But by maintaining higher standards of design, quality, comfort, and originality, you’ll stand out from the fleeced and flannelled crowd and feel better and more comfortable in your skin in the process.