The New Smart Casual Dress Code For Men (How To Dress Business Casual In 2021)

by   |  in Smart Casual

Are you confused about what to wear in a business casual environment? Well, you’re not the only one, that’s for sure. And that’s because there are no well-defined rules for this specific dress code. So in this article, let’s go over exactly how to dress business casual for the ’20s, and beyond.

What exactly is business casual, nowadays? The definition of business casual has slowly been changing over the past 10-15 years, and then 2020 came along. Millions of us were working from home, and these rules and expectations for business casual dressing just went out the window.

Of course, when you’re working from home, what you wear doesn’t really matter… right? But if you’re reading this now, there’s a good chance you’re starting to go back to the office with some regularity, at least on a part-time basis.

And you need to know how to dress.

So this in-depth business casual guide—I also call this style “smart casual”—will help you dress your best (without going overboard) as you head back to the office.

flatlay of business casual clothing items
 

Your (New) Business Casual Dress Code Guidelines

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These guidelines are going to apply across the board, no matter how casual or dressy you are on the smart casual spectrum.

Forget what you thought about “business casual”

Drop your old ideas about “business casual” or “smart casual” for the office. These definitions change all the time.

You don’t have to wear slacks, a dress shirt with no tie, and a sport coat, just because that’s the classic business casual outfit. I mean, you can, but just know it isn’t the only definition of business casual or smart casual.

In the 2020s, smart casual or business casual is a sliding scale of formality, and it’ll take a bit of observation, intuition, and experimentation to figure out where you need to be on that spectrum.

More on how to do that in this article, so keep reading.

Go for understated instead of attention-grabbing

You want people to come back for a second or third glance, trying to pinpoint why / how you look so good… or just to admire the way you’re so put together without having to try too hard.

You don’t have to be showy or flashy to dress well. A classic, well-fitting outfit in a muted color palette and great shoes is often all you need, even if it’s an outfit as simple as chinos and a polo shirt.

It often comes down to fit, plus the quality of the materials, and maybe a bit of that “I’m a badass, but I don’t have to say it” attitude.

Dress like everyone else (but step it up two levels)

You don’t want to be wearing a sport coat if everyone’s in T-shirts. That’s the sartorial equivalent of “not reading the room”.

I was guilty of this at my first job. Actually, I was an intern. At a tech company. In San Francisco. And I wore sportcoats, ties, and V-neck sweaters.

If you’re not aware of Silicon Valley’s tech casual dress code, let me paint a picture: My boss, his boss, and his boss’ boss, all wore T-shirts, hoodies, faded jeans, and running shoes. Maybe a shirt with a collar came out once in a while.

It wasn’t necessarily wrong for me to dress this way. There’s something to be said about wearing what you like, and I just liked wearing these things. 

But that was in 2010. I’ve learned a lot since then. And if I could advise my younger self, I’d tell him to observe what everyone else wears and dress in a similar way, but better.

You may be wondering, “Dress similarly, but better? How do I do that?”

We’ll get there! Keep reading.

Memorize your menswear neutrals

When you have a closet full of what I call “menswear neutrals”, it makes it much easier to get dressed in the morning. But also, the colors I suggest are relatively more muted, understated.

Remember my suggestion above about dressing in a sharp yet understated way? In a way that makes others take a second and third glance at you, trying to pinpoint what it is about your outfit that makes you look so damn sharp?

Wearing menswear neutrals will help with that. See the graphic below.

So the menswear neutral colors are: black, white, grey, brown, tan / khaki, olive, navy, and light blue.

You’ll see these colors throughout my clothing and outfit examples below.

More understated & simple = more formal (and vice versa)

I like to look at outfits as a whole to determine if it’s a business casual / smart casual look, or if it leans more casual.

An easy rule of thumb: The more understated and simple a garment is, the more formal it is.

And vice versa, as well: When a garment has more details—drawstrings on pants, multiple pockets on jackets, fading on jeans, graphics on T-shirts—the more casual it leans.

I check three things: colors, details, and silhouettes.

  • Colors: If the outfit is mostly menswear neutrals, or dark / muted shades, it leans more professional and formal.
  • Details: Are there clean lines? Are there minimal details that stand out (i.e. a cargo pocket, patches, or thick, color contrast stitching)? The fewer details you have, and the more simple the design of the garment is, the more formal it is, or can appear.
  • Silhouettes: Is it a classic shape? Think straight leg pants, standard fit polo shirt, fitted sweater. If so, it’s more formal. 
two flatlay clothing groups compared
Practically the same types of clothing. One set (Left) happens to be more casual and best suited for the weekend, while the other is much more office-appropriate.

If you’re determining whether or not an outfit is smart casual, looking at one of these things may not tell the entire story. But if you evaluate all three while looking at the outfit as a whole, it’s much more clear.

Easy Substitutions For A Smart Casual Dress Code

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Going back to my earlier example about Young Barron wearing ties and sport coats to his tech industry internship… if I could time travel back to 2010, I’d tell him:

It’s great you want to dress well, but you also want to be aware of how everyone else is dressed. It’s a bit weird being an intern that’s dressed better than his boss’ boss’ boss.

If I took the general tech casual uniform at the time and made a few smart substitutions, I could’ve easily looked sharp as h*ck without overdressing or sticking out like a sore thumb.

This section will show you a few common casual options and the more formal or “smart casual” counterparts. So to bring your style up from casual to smart casual or business casual, you just have to swap these items

Casual-Looking Jeans → Dressier Denim

Light colored denim from Uniqlo

Jeans (and pants in general) are undergoing a silhouette change the past few years. Pants are getting baggier, billowier, and more relaxed. It’s like the styles I wore when I was in my teens during the late 90s / early 2000s are back in fashion.

What’s casual-looking? Something like what you see above. If your denim is somewhat baggy, longer, a lighter wash, and / or not fitted. This is fine for fashion-forward and casual outings, not so much for a smart casual office.

And what’s dressier? A darker wash, straight leg or tapered fit (not tight, but fitted) and a clean hem with no break. Here’s an example from my Instagram.

For a modern, smart casual dress code, it’s best to stick to traditional silhouettes. A well-fitting 5-pocket pant with a straight leg or slightly tapered leg and little to no break will always look sharp.

T-shirt → Polo Shirt

flatlay of t shirt vs knit polo
T-Shirt from Bonobos

If you love the comfort of a T-shirt, but need to go more business casual, swap it out for a polo. There are different polo styles, and the details are minimal, but they make a big difference. I prefer a softer knit polo with a ribbed hem. They look much sharper.

The standard pique polo (like the ones popularized early on by Ralph Lauren) are fine, too. If you keep them ironed and tuck them in, you’ll have a more polished look.

Hoodie → Quarter Zip Sweater

flatlay of bad hoodie vs quarter zip sweater
Grey Hoodie from Flint and Tinder

The hoodie is quintessential early aughts tech casual dress code, isn’t it? Pair that up with some faded jeans, running shoes, and a T-shirt, and you fit right in any tech startup office.

But you’re stepping up your game, a notch or two above the crowd, so let’s skip the jersey hoodie. Swap that out for a quarter zip mock neck sweater or a shawl cardigan. And if you simply cannot let go of your zip hoodie, there are well-fitting, luxe cashmere hoodies I’ve seen that can work.

Running Shoes → Clean Leather Sneakers

flatlay of running shoes vs whites sneakers
Asics running shoes from Zappos

For the business casual office, you can’t beat a simple, unadorned leather sneaker in a neutral color. I prefer white, but you can also go with grey, black, tan, brown, etc. Luckily, many brands now make this minimalist tennis style silhouette.

Whatever you do, leave the Allbirds or colorful Asics you wear on your runs at home. Everyday beater or fashion-forward sneakers are fine, just not at the office.

Hybrid “Dress Shoes” → Classic Brown Loafer

flatlay of hybrid shoes vs loafers
Cole Haan Hybrid dress shoes from Nordstrom… but please don’t buy them

First off, if you’re still wearing these hybrid dress shoes from 2006, it’s time you retire them. Same with boat shoes (if you’re wearing them as dress shoes… because they aren’t that).

Instead, go for a simple leather loafer in brown. It’s the perfect all-around smart casual shoe. Want to step it up just a bit more? A plain toe derby or cap toe lace-up shoe. (Check out our guide to brown dress shoes for more.)

Clean and easy.

15 Items For A Hip Business Casual / Smart Casual Capsule Wardrobe

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These 15 items cover the core essentials of your business casual or smart casual wardrobe. Think bottoms, tops, mid layers, shoes.

Stuff like accessories (ties, socks), jewelry (rings, necklaces, watches), and outerwear (parkas, overcoats) aren’t covered, but this will largely depend on your location and preferences.

If you have questions about this, hit me on Instagram DMs.

So here is your 15-item business casual capsule wardrobe, perfect for the overly casual to smart casual office environment, when you want to look good, but not stand out too much.

The Knit Polo

This isn’t your grandpa’s oversized golf polo. The perfect smart casual polo is a soft knit (like your favorite sweater) in a trim-but-not-tight fit, and ideally a ribbed hem.

flatlay of polo shirt
Spier & Mackay Polos
Starting at $30

An updated take on the classic cotton pique is softer and smoother than ever before, creating a cool, comfortable piece that is perfect for a sunny day.

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This ribbing is a vintage style detail and looks really sharp, as well as helps keep the hem at your hip, where it belongs. If you prefer the non-ribbed hem, pique polo style, just make sure to tuck it in, which looks much sharper.

The Oxford Cloth Button Down (OCBD)

The Oxford cloth button down is a classic, easily worn in casual outfits as well as smart casual outfits.

flatlay of stripe ocbd
Uniqlo OCBDs
$29.90

An affordable, yet well-made version of the classic Oxford cloth button down in 100% cotton.

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Keep in mind that if you have a more traditionally designed one, the shirt tails will be long (past your butt) and are meant to be tucked in. Having an OCBD in white, pale blue, and a pale blue or pale grey stripe are my default choices.

The Sport Shirt

Sport shirts come in a variety of fabrics and weaves, from cotton poplin to wool flannel, as well as in a multitude of patterns, from checks to stripes to plaids, and so on.

flatlay of chambray
Bonobos Chambray Shirts
Starting at $58

A washed-soft, all-season shirt from Bonobos. Tap the button to see all their chambray options.

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For this capsule, I’m actually suggesting the humble chambray shirt. A chambray in a medium wash with a button-down collar is the perfect version for a smart casual wardrobe.

The heavier cotton twills and flannels are perfect for the winter months and colder areas, while the lighter weight cotton and linen sport shirts are great for warm locales and summer months.

The Dark Wash Denim

We’ve written about dark wash denim many, many times on EG.

A fitted straight leg or tapered pair of denim jeans in a dark, inky wash with minimal details, no distressing, and a hem that ends right where your shoe begins, fits right in with your business casual wardrobe.

flatlay of dark denim jeans
EG'S TOP PICK
Bonobos Jeans
$98

Bonobos has jeans for any body type, with a variety of different washes and types of denim fabric (stretch, premium selvedge, etc.)

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This can be worn with a polo and a sweater, chambray and a quilted vest, OCBD and a sport coat… the combos are endless.

The Chino Pants

Chinos are a great alternative to dark denim, especially if you find a pair with more dressy details.

flatlay of khaki chinos
Uniqlo Chinos
$39.90

Classic chino pants available in a few colors and fits.

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What kind of details? Things like an extended tab waist, side adjusters, slant or vertical pockets, pleats, center crease, and cuffs. Even the more casual versions of chinos without these details can give your outfits a nice break from jeans.

The Cotton Dress Pants

Cotton dress pants are a nice go-between when you want to kick the formality up a notch from denim / chinos, but don’t want to go full-on wool dress trousers.

flatlay of grey dress pants
Bonobos Men's Dress Pants
$99

Wrinkle-resistant, easy-care cotton that simplifies your work day.

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These dress pants from Bonobos have the look and design of dress trousers, but feel comfortable like chinos, and often have a bit of stretch in them, too.

The Dress Trouser

You can also dress these down with a more casual top and mid layer (like the chambray and a quilted vest), or go full-on cozy mode with the knit polo and a shawl cardigan.

flatlay of dress trousers
EG's TOP PICK
Spier & Mackay Trousers
$58+

Spier & Mackay makes high-quality and well-fitted modern menswear at a wallet-friendly price.

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For the days you need to dress on the more formal side of “business casual”, you’ll be thankful you have a pair of sharp wool trousers handy. If you’re shopping for a do-it-all workhorse for your smart casual wardrobe, go with a medium grey color.

The Leather Loafer

A leather loafer, specifically in a rich medium brown color with an almond-shaped, apron style toe, is the perfect mix of elegant and casual.

flatlay of loafers
Beckett Simonon Roy Loafers
$199, Made To Order

"When you want to go classic, but not as formal as an Oxford, the Roy Loafer is the shoe for you.... The Roys play it cool with cuffed jeans and shorts. They also get down to business when paired with a suit or dress pants." –Beckett Simonon

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This is the type of dress shoe that can hold its own when worn with casual pants like jeans, or more formal suit trousers.

I personally love a lighter tan, walnut, or cognac color, but if you’re unsure about going with a light brown hue, these Roy loafers from Beckett Simonon in Oak (above) or Dark Brown would be perfect.

The Leather Boot

The lace-up military boot in a polished dark brown leather is another great addition to your smart casual capsule wardrobe. Not only does it go with everything I’m mentioning here, it’s a fun way to dial down the formality of a pair of dress pants or trousers.

flatlay of brown leather boots
Thursday Captain Lace-Up Boots
$199

A well-made, rugged lace-up boot in a classic silhouette. Available in a variety of colorways and either a slim rubber or chunkier lug outsole.

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If you’re looking for a more refined boot, a sleek suede or leather chukka with a leather sole is a sharp looking option and matches just as easily as a lace-up boot.

The Leather Sneaker

For your more casual days, or when you want to hit the high/low style hard, a clean, minimalist sneaker in a classic tennis silhouette is the way to go. 

flatlay of white sneakers
EG's TOP PICK
Koio Capri
$268

In buttery full-grain calf leather, the Capri Triple White from Koio is the ultimate wardrobe cornerstone.

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These shoes will pair nicely with 99.9% of the outfits you put together, so you can never really go wrong finishing your look off with these. Considering how casual most office places are, a simple white leather sneaker is more than appropriate.

And if you want something slightly more formal, you can often find similar pairs in brown and black leather.

The Quarter Zip Sweater

The quarter zip sweater is one of two options I’m giving you as a replacement for your favorite hoodie, at least for a smart casual or business casual capsule wardrobe.

flatlay of quarter zip sweatshirt
Nordstrom Half Zip Cotton & Cashmere Pullover
$145

"A luxuriously soft quarter-zip pullover is cut from pure cashmere for a soft, cozy finish that's hard to beat."

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It’s a more refined mid layer that you can actually wear to the office and will look great with other smart casual elements (like a sport shirt and dress pants, for instance).

The hoodie can’t do that, so let’s just wear that in the evenings at home, or on weekends, or to the gym.

The Shawl Cardigan

My personal favorite, and your second hoodie replacement option, is the shawl cardigan. The best shawl cardigans exude all kinds of cozy, while still being formal enough on the casual-formal spectrum to hold its own within the business casual or smart casual capsule wardrobe.

flatlay of navy shawl cardigan
Spier & Mackay Shawl Cardigan
$198

This chunky cardigan is made from soft Australian merino wool featuring a beefy double shawl collar and rib knit weave. The result is a cozy yet elegant look that exudes Steve McQueen cool.

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My pick is this version from Spier & Mackay, but they tend to sell out all the time, so if you find one in your size, grab one (or three)!

Specifically with these S&M shawls, you want to size down for a fitted look, or buy your typical size if you want more room. They run large. Kent Wang also makes a great chunky shawl cardigan worth your consideration.

The Chore Coat

The chore jacket has workwear roots, so they’re designed for utility and definitely give off a more rugged vibe.

flatlay of navy chore coat
Everlane Flannel Chore Jacket
$88

Equal parts warm and elevated, the Flannel Chore Jacket is a classic workwear style with added warmth.

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When you pair this up with other elements in your smart casual wardrobe, you get that high/low look that always looks so damn cool and always appropriate (never too dressed up, never dressed down).

Navy is the obvious choice here, and will pair easily with any of the pants you decide to pick up, from dark denim, to olive or khaki chinos, to grey wool trousers.

The Quilted Vest

The quilted vest provides plenty of body warmth and can easily layer over a shirt or sweater, and under a coat, making it arguably the most versatile mid layer on this list.

flatlay of quilted vest
J.Crew Sussex Quilted Vest
$98

The Sussex is a lightweight layer you'll wear pretty much all year, a lightweight quilted vest that features button adjusters at the back waist so you can dial in your perfect fit, and a leather pull tab on the main zipper.

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There are plenty of different styles of vests available, from casual to formal, but I feel a quilted version with design details like this one fit in nicely with a smart casual capsule.

The Sport Coat

Finally, the most formal piece in your business casual wardrobe would be this sport coat. Ideally a single-breasted two-button version in navy, made from a cotton (more casual) or wool (more formal) cloth.

If you find one with patch pockets and contrasting brown horn buttons, that helps to tone down the formality a bit more.

flatlay of sport coat
Spier & Mackay Sport Coat
starting at $249

Sport coats come in a wide variety of materials, patterns, and colors and are meant to be worn without matching pants

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You can wear a sport coat with jeans, obviously, which means chinos, dress pants, and your odd trousers are an easy match.

One piece of advice if you worry about feeling “too dressed up” when wearing a sport coat: Don’t think of it as wearing half a suit (which feels like you have to dress it down)… treat it like wearing a jacket that you can dress up. 

You wouldn’t feel weird about wearing the chore jacket I mentioned a few paragraphs above, would you? If you’re wearing a polo or chambray shirt, throw this on instead of the chore coat. It’s a much more approachable garment than you think, so don’t be afraid 😉

flatlay of all business casual capsule wardrobe items in this article

A Few Business Casual Outfit Examples

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In this section, let’s put together some actual outfits from the pieces I suggested above. That way, you won’t get stuck being unsure what to wear. In reality, all these items go together, but I know sometimes it’s hard to tell if what you’re doing is correct.

So let’s start with a pretty standard business casual / smart casual outfit: Dark denim, an Oxford cloth button down shirt, navy sport coat, and brown loafers. This will be the baseline outfit we’re adding or subtracting items from in the examples blow.

flat lay of standard business casual outfit
We’re starting with this smart casual outfit, and I’ll show you how to dress it up or down.

In my opinion, this is the perfect business casual getup. It’s not overly dressy, it’s not too casual. At the same time, there are ways to amp up the dressiness, as well as ways to tone it down, so the overall look is more casual.

In case you need to see this outfit on a real live human being, here’s what it could look like:

navy sport coat with white shirt and jeans
An example of what this base level business casual outfit could look like. More about it here.

OK!

  • So if we want to make this baseline outfit more casual… how do we do it?
  • If we want to dress it up a bit more, how do we do that?

Take a look at the graphic below.

Tap here for the full size version of this image (opens in new tab)

These are just five variations of the baseline outfit I put together above.

Admittedly, for today’s business casual environment, the baseline outfit is already on the dressier end of the spectrum. You can only go so far to make it even dressier using the items I laid out in the previous section (without adding formal elements like a dress shirt and tie, or a lace-up dress shoe, or a suit).

But that’s fine! We’re focused on more casual yet office-appropriate looks anyway. So let’s go through outfits 1 through 5.

Outfit 1: More Casual

We’re doing two things here: 1.) Swapping out the dark denim for grey dress pants, and 2.) swapping the sport coat for a chore coat.

You may be thinking, “Swap denim out for dress pants… why? Doesn’t that make it dressier?” Maybe, but also maybe not. It’s entirely subjective.

I look at the outfit as a whole, and to me, the addition of the chore coat tips the scale towards more casual. You may disagree. But then again, it’s your outfit, so you can wear whatever you’d like 😉 I’m just giving you ideas here.

Outfit 2: More Casual

For outfit number 2, we kept the dark denim, but swapped out the OCBD for a chambray shirt instead. You could also substitute with another sport shirt you may have in your closet. Finally, adding a quilted vest and boots solidify that more casual-leaning vibe.

Remember, if you nail the fit and tuck in your shirt, this outfit can look smart, sharp, and totally appropriate for a casual / business casual office environment.

Outfit 3: More Casual

Finally, for casual option number 3, we’ve swapped every single item in the baseline outfit.

Chinos and a polo are a classic smart casual pairing. The cozy shawl cardigan is a great mid layer and manages to fit in well with the smart sharp aesthetic. And finally, the white sneakers top it all off.

A few things to remember: Your minimalist leather sneakers don’t have to be white. They can be brown leather, black leather, etc. And overall, this would be on the more casual end of the spectrum.

If you go any more casual—e.g. wearing a T-shirt instead of a polo, or a denim jacket instead of the shawl cardigan—you’d be in straight-up casual territory. Which might be fine for your office? Gotta observe what everyone else around you is wearing and make the decision for yourself.

Outfit 4: More Formal

OK, switching gears to the more formal end. This is pretty straight forward, but we swapped the denim for the dress pants, and kept everything else the same.

The OCBD is arguably the most dressy shirt in your business casual capsule wardrobe, so tuck that into your dress pants, throw on your sport coat, slide into your loafers, and call it a day.

Outfit 5: More Formal

For outfit 5, we went with the wool dress trousers. This is definitely more dressy than denim, and a notch or two above the cotton dress pants. I swapped the OCBD here for a chambray.

You’ll have to use your best judgment here. If the chambray shirt you have looks similar to this one in a medium blue and has a button down collar, I’d say it could be considered more formal-looking than an OCBD.

Again, you have to make a few considerations, which is why I can’t definitively say one outfit is for sure more formal than another!

You have to use your big brain and look at the outfit as a whole: Does it look more formal when I wear a blue chambray shirt tucked in, or is my OCBD more formal-looking?

After a while, you’ll get better at noticing the little details and can instinctively tell which outfit looks more dressy or more casual. You’ll also realize, on most days, it doesn’t really matter, and there is no 100% right or wrong answer.

Even more business casual outfits?

These aren’t the only smart casual or business casual outfits you can put together! There are at least a dozen more combos to try, just from the 15 or so individual items I laid out in the previous section.

This graphic above is just to get you started, but hopefully you get the idea and can put together a few other looks on your own. I believe in you!

Now You Know How to Dress Business Casual

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The rules of business casual have definitely shifted over the past decade or two, and the events of 2020 further blurred those lines. So hopefully this in-depth guide on how to dress in a business casual environment helps!

Of course, this will be dependent on your industry and office; for example, traditional white collar careers (law, finance, industry executives) will have stricter rules and skew more heavily towards office formal.

So use this article as a guideline, but make your own educated decisions about what’s appropriate or not for your specific situation.

If you do work in a business casual / casual office environment, this guide will be easy to implement and you’ll be sharply dressed (without standing out like a sore thumb) in no time.

Questions? Hit me up on Instagram or Twitter.