Today we’re going to tackle the ever-elusive topic: business casual dress code.

Sadly, the concept of business casual isn’t always understood. I say “sadly” because it happens to be one of the most common dress codes in the professional workplace.

By the end of this article, you’ll be able to confidently dress for any situation that calls for business casual attire. Lucky you!

Why so tough? There isn’t a clear-cut, widely-accepted definition of business casual attire. One person’s idea of the dress code might be too casual to some, but too formal to others. Soo…

Let’s settle this once and for all

But before we do, a few caveats to EG’s business casual solution:

1.) Let’s stick to ten

For illustrative purposes, I’m going to assume you have these ten individual pieces—and ONLY these pieces—in your closet (though the opposite may be true). This will keep things simple and straight-forward.

You may not have these exact items, but similar ones. Okay, fine. You may not have anything close to these items, and if that’s the case, it’s time you go shopping.

The idea of business casual is open to interpretation, and since there are no hard and fast rules, you may be inclined to ask, “What about (insert any random piece of clothing here)…?” There are situations where your random piece of clothing may work, and others where it may not.

I chose these ten individual items because I know if you stick with these (or items similar to these that are already in your closet), you’ll always be in the safe zone. You may be a tad overdressed, but never underdressed.

2.) You still have to use your best judgement

Even within these suggestions, there are varying levels of formality. Some combinations are slightly more casual than others. If you think you’ll be in a situation where business casual is accepted but most people are dressier, stick to the more formal suggestions (options one through three).

If you’re going to a frat party, well, the least formal business casual suggestion (option seven) will put you like 28 steps above the rest of the bros there, so I think you’re good.

3.) Realize you don’t need a lot to create a ton of outfit combos

Keep in mind the Lean Wardrobe philosophy. You don’t need a warehouse full of clothing to look fresh to death 24/7, yo.

You only need a handful of key classics that complement each other nicely, which makes it easy on both your brain and your wallet.

4.) Be prepared to be bored

And that’s the whole point. This is the EFFORTLESS Gent, after all. I want to make this as much of a no-brainer as possible.

If you find yourself getting bored, then consider yourself an advanced reader. And if you’re an advanced reader, you can probably take those random items in your wardrobe and figure out how to properly integrate them into your business casual outfit when appropriate.

Seven visual examples

What better way to illustrate the idea of “business casual” than with actual clothing, right? Here we go:

Option One: Two-piece suit, dress shirt, no tie, awesome socks, lace-ups

Simple, and also the most formal of the business casual options. Suit sans tie!

Option Two: Suiting trousers, dress shirt, sport coat, awesome socks, lace-ups

Here, you’re switching up the suit jacket with a sport coat. You’re keeping the suiting trousers, dress shirt, socks and shoes the same. This is practically the same as keeping your suit jacket on, but if you wanted to, you can go this route as well.

Option Three: Suiting trousers, dress shirt, sweater, awesome socks, lace-ups

A step down would be replacing the suit jacket or sport coat with a sweater.

Option Four: Dark chinos, dress shirt, sport coat, awesome socks, lace-ups

I feel like this is the most neutral of all the options. You have a pair of dark chinos paired with your sport coat, while the dress shirt, shoes, and socks stay the same. Are you seeing a trend here?

Option Five: Dark chinos, dress shirt, sweater, awesome socks, lace-ups

Again, replace the sport coat with a sweater. Because you’re wearing chinos in this option, you’re slightly less formal than you would be if you were wearing suiting trousers.

Option Six: Dark denim, dress shirt, sport coat, awesome socks, lace-ups

If your office allows you to wear denim, make sure it’s dark! This is my personal favorite, and I wear a similar outfit 80% of the time I step outside of my house.

Option Seven: Dark denim, dress shirt, sweater, awesome socks, lace-ups

Once again, forgo the sport coat and opt for a sweater instead.

Where to buy these exact items

Don’t feel like you have to, but in case you were curious, here are the links to the above products: Suit jacket and trouserssport coatdark chinosdark denimdress shirtV-neck sweaterawesome sockslace-upstie.

Just remember, it’s not important to buy these exact items. What matters most is you find similar items that fit well.

Some things to keep in mind

Choose a dressier shoe, always. You can’t go wrong with a brown leather wingtip. Experiment with lighter shades like Walnut or Tan. Try colors other than brown, too.

Adding a tie brings your business casual outfit up a notch. Since it’s optional with all these variations, try it out when you feel like getting a bit dressier.

White and light blue dress shirts go with everything. Other color options? Lavender, pink, mint green.

You can also choose a pattern but keep it subtle for maximum versatility (read: the ability to wear a shirt over and over without being known as The Guy Who Wears The Same Shirt Over And Over).

How to dress appropriately for every situation despite the different variations of business casual

In a word: Ask.

Let’s say you’re interviewing at a new company. Ask your contact person (usually a hiring manager or someone else in the HR department) what the company’s dress code is. If you’re so inclined, ask what her male coworkers typically wear.

Again, business casual means different things to different people, so knowing what your future colleagues wear on a daily basis will give you a more accurate idea of what you should wear to the interview.

If it’s a laid back internet company, you don’t want to wear a suit. If you’re interviewing at an investment firm, you should probably wear a suit.

If you’re starting a new job, I’d also give HR or your contact person a call and ask what people are wearing to the office. That’s assuming you didn’t figure this out during the interview process.

There you have it!

Pretty much every single thing you might need to know about dressing for a business casual atmosphere.

Any further questions? Let’s hear em in the comments below.

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48 Responses

  1. David Xiaoxi Li on

    Great guide! I’d like to emphasize that the key to looking good in anything, especially when there’s a dress code, is fit. You’ll look way more stylish in a “boring” but perfectly fitting white OCBD and grey flannels than in any combination of poorly fitting flashy items. It doesn’t even take much! Get some darts in the shirt and get your trousers hemmed to quarter or no break. All set.

    IMO, when it comes to business casual:
    1) V-necks when the collar’s open; crew necks when it’s closed. Only close it when you’re wearing a tie.
    2) Don’t roll up your sleeves with a tie on. When you do roll them up, do it neatly, and ideally not past the elbow.
    3) Don’t unbutton your collar, loosen your tie, and then leave it there. What are you, a Dilbert character? Take the tie off!
    4) Shirt collars stay inside outer layers (sweaters, blazers, etc).
    5) If you wear a tie, be careful around shredders. No joke: you’ll choke.
    6) A lot of shirt waist bunching is caused by unruly undershirts. If you tuck your undershirt into your undies, your shirt will be less likely to bunch around the waist. However, DO NOT extrapolate this to tucking your shirt into your undies as well.
    7) Stay away from jewelry except for watches and rings.

    • Barron on

      Thanks David; I do agree w/ most of those, thanks for posting. I do roll up my sleeves, unbutton my collar and loosen my tie a bit when it’s necessary. I don’t see anything wrong with it.

      I especially agree w/ #4, always.

      • Rohan on

        I never thought about it but #1 is a pretty good rule. I don’t think any rule is written in stone, but it makes a ton of sense.

        Agree with Barron – depending on your office atmosphere, undone collar and loose tie with rolled sleeves can give you that frazzled-but-still-stylish-40s-era-newspaper-editor look. Probably works best with school/club stripe ties and cloth /wool ties.

    • Jon Helmkamp on

      In regards to #4, every once in a while my collars tend to go rogue and pop out from under the sweater. Any advice to fix this? Thanks!

      • David X L on

        First, check to make sure that the sweater’s collar fits properly. There shouldn’t be much gap between the two collars in the back. If there is, you might want to consider switching brands/fits. If you have consistent trouble with the gap, consider shawl-neck sweaters (especially with ties).

        If your sweater fits properly, then I’d recommend magnetic collar stays. Wurkin Stiffs are the gold standard at the moment, but I personally just use off-brand steel collar stays with tiny Seattle Mighties magnets.

    • Sebastian Carroll on

      Whats the rationale behind #1? I usually do the opposite as I find that crew necks cover the tie knot and give a strangled look and its hard to stop bunching with open collar shirts + v-necks.

  2. Sigtweed & Corduroy on

    For absolute basics, this is a really great guide. You could easily work this type of scenario into a “How To Pack For a Business Trip” as well. Everything is versatile and can be worn with each different piece.

    • Barron on

      Agreed, and when you boil it down to the basics, these ten items are really all you need. (This post was focusing on the absolute minimum one might need.)

  3. Adil on

    Good post. I like the idea of using one’s own judgement. This definitely provides a confidence to whatever style you adopt.

  4. victor newman on

    love the simple and never outdated pieces of clothing
    the only thing i would change is the socks – too loud and would attract too much unnecessary attention, even in a business casual setting.
    I would advise matching the socks to your trousers..
    the only other thing i would recommend is to make sure the shirt is a slim fit cut
    Ive seen so many men look like a parachute in their “relaxed fit ” shirts.
    otherwise, excellent article..
    keep up the great work.

    • Barron on

      I always advise to never match your socks to your trousers. I like going as loud as possible with my accessories; unlike the ladies, we men only have so many places where we can express uniqueness and personality (socks, ties, pocket squares, maybe blazers and pants if we’re daring). Nothing wrong with grabbing a pair of bright socks, at least in my book… but to each his own 🙂

    • TJ on

      I agree to a point about the socks. I like loud socks in some situations but in others it is best to go with ones that match your trousers. I would say to definitely not match them to your shoes like I see so many men do.

      • Barron on

        Sure, it really is one’s personal preference. I almost always colorful socks, but if that’s not your (or anyone else’s) style, that’s fine. “Awesome socks” = whatever you decide awesome to be.

  5. Doug on

    In my experience there can be a huge difference in business casual between different businesses. In the two internships I’ve done putting on chinos is considered really dressing up. It’s good to take things in to context, the places I’ve worked have been industrial settings were there are lots of craft workers that show up in a suit would probably put you out of place. One of the supervisors looks like he could be reading EG or Primer and then there are those that show up in a screen printed t shirts and light blue, faded jeans.

    • Barron on

      Yeah, definitely. I think I alluded to that in the above article. That’s why I have so many options listed… “business casual” is a term that’s used plenty but not precisely defined. That’s why it’s important to first assess where you’re working, see what the expected dress code is, and go from there.

  6. Mike on

    Great post, Barron. This is exactly what I’ve been looking for. One question I have though, is about rotation. Unlike your casual or dating wardrobe, your coworkers see you in your office clothes 8+ hours a day, 5 days a week, so you would need a number of your essentials to get you through at least a week, if not more. What quantities do you recommend for these essential items in order to get that optimum rotation, keep a lean wardrobe, and still be well dressed?

    • Barron on

      Great question. So this is my personal answer, it may depend and differ based on your unique situation.

      Let’s say you have to dress business casual 5 days a week. If it were me, I’d probably stock 8-10 dress shirts in various colors (white, blue, lavender, mint, some stripes, some check). That way, you won’t have to wash clothes as often, and you can still have some sort of variety.

      If I liked sweaters, I’d have 5-6 (v-necks, lightweight merino wool are my favorite… if not cashmere).

      Chinos, I’d probably have 1-2 of each color, but since it’s not as noticeable when you repeat pants, 1 of each color can suffice if you’re trying to stay really lean in your closet. 1 pair of dark denim, of course.

      Sportcoats / blazers, you can get away with one navy single-breasted, double-vented (preferably) two button sport coat. One in charcoal would be a bonus.
      Suits, I’d have one navy and one charcoal at the most.

      Outerwear / coats, I’d have one heavy coat (mine’s a navy peacoat), and two lighter outerwear pieces for the milder days. This all depends on where you live, of course. SF is chilly to mild like 85% of the year.
      Shoes, at least one pair of brown leather brogues, but you should have some casual options as well (like driving mocs, boat shoes, sneakers, etc).

      Accessories (socks, ties, pocket squares) have no limit 🙂

      Hope that helps at least get you started!

  7. DB on

    Thanks for the info Barron – Also, thanks to you I am sure, Johnston and Murphy now has those shoes on backorder – I just got my email from them telling me!

  8. TJ on

    you can also now get those awesome socks (happy sock brand) at JC Penney in a variety of patterns and colors, including the ones baove for $8 each or 2+ for $6 each

  9. Sunil on

    The business casual ambiguity ended here. Ready to leave for Walmart 🙂 Thanks to Barron. Would try to refer others about this article.

  10. cori on

    Hey Barron, this is a great article; perfect for the gent who, like me, has never worked anywhere that required anything more than casual (except teenage fast food jobs) to a place where business casual is the norm. So thanks a ton for that!

    My only issue is the assumption that your HR contact is going to be a woman, which seems to relegate those jobs to women (and likewise, women to those jobs).

    • Barron on

      Nice catch. Totally unintentional; at my last job, my HR contact was a woman, and that was the only job I ever had, so must’ve been a subconscious thing.

      In any case I didn’t mean anything by it 🙂

      • cori on

        Heh, yeah I find in myself at least that these sort of unconscious biases creep up seemingly out of nowhere. It takes constant vigilance for me!

  11. james on

    Is it acceptable for dark denim and a dress shirt sans jacket/sweater. I live in a warmer climate and layering with a jacket or sweater, while really adding dimension to the outfit, seems to be impractical. I’ve heard some people say button ups tucked into jeans can be kind of odd looking. I would like to know your opinion. Thanks.

    • Barron on

      I don’t think it’s odd at all. It’s a pretty standard getup. If it’s too hot to layer but you still want to look casual + polished, dark denim + button-down shirt works just fine.

  12. Franspace50 on

    Thanks for the article. I always check these blogs since I help my husband choose his wardrobe. His tech office is probably a bit more formal than many. They stress the business in business casual and denim is not allowed nor any shirt without a collar.
    I think the problem with business casual is that when people hear the word casual they are tempted to go with more casual rather than more business, instead of somewhere in the middle. Some offices have been more lenient while others still want the people representing them to look sharp.
    Anyway Barron I have been following your posts and appreciate your tips. They help the women who are advising their men on how to dress.

  13. TE on

    Would brown leather wingtips also work with jeans? I’m a university student beginning in the journey of improving my clothing choices, and I’m wondering what non-athletic footwear would look okay with jeans and a polo or casual button-up. The wingtips would work for my business casual purposes, but for times outside of work (like class) I was wondering whether they’d still be acceptable, or if you had other suggestions for leather footwear that can be paired with jeans. Thank you so much!

    • Nickel Rye on

      Wingtips look great with a pair of nice dark jeans, just remember to keep the theme going with what you wear on top. Wing tips and a tee shirt, eh… not my cup of tea.

  14. Elect Exile on

    I’m reading through all of your articles. Very helpful and eye opening. I notice that dark denim is often paired with a navy sport coat. I own a pair of the dark, unwashed Levi 514 jeans. A couple of questions about the navy sport coat – 1) Is there a concern that the dark denim and the navy will clash or should there be some contrast? 2) For the sport coat fabric – should it be a standard dressy wool fabric or a more casual weave?

  15. John J on

    I find most discussions of “business casual” to be lacking. In my office, we are expected to wear a shirt and tie, but not necessarily a suit. And definitely no jeans. I get stuck wearing khakis, a blue button down shirt, and a grey tie most days. Would love some ideas on how to mix it up in a setting that is more casual than jeans, but less casual than a suit. Note–I realize I could add a tie to options 1 – 3, but in many ways, those are the same outfit–same pants, same shirt. Thoughts?