The Modern Man’s 2023 Business Casual Dressing Guide
We show you how to inject some personality into menswear’s dullest (and confusing) dress code.
Imagine turning up to your office in a full lounge suit. Unless you work in corporate finance or on Savile Row itself, chances are you’re going to raise a few eyebrows. Why? Because here in the 21st century, the suit’s reign as the go-to workplace uniform for men is well and truly over.
Toppled by the rise of powerful tech billionaires who rock up to their Silicon Valley offices in T-shirts and jeans, along with the exponential growth of creative industries, tailoring has given way to casualwear. It’s good news in terms of comfort and wardrobe options, but what happens when you need to look presentable for an important meeting or an interview? That’s where business casual comes to the rescue.
Sartorially speaking, it’s hard to imagine a more self-contradictory concept than ‘business casual’. On one side, it’s pinstripe suits, Oxford wingtips and neckties, while on the other, it’s T-shirts, jeans and sneakers. How can these two wildly different ways of dressing merge to form a single dress code?
Traditionally, the answer to that question has been a boring one: blazer, chinos, shirt and leather shoes. But as menswear evolves and dress codes continue to diversify, there’s now more options than ever when it comes to approaching business casual attire.
What is the business casual dress code?
Much like its cousin, smart casual, business casual is notoriously ambiguous. There’s no clear-cut definition, and even those rules that do exist tend to vary from country to country. Broadly speaking, the term refers to sharp ‘casualwear’ (in the traditional sense of the term, i.e. sports coats and chinos as opposed to suits, etc), almost always incorporating a shirt, presentable leather shoes, and often without a necktie. The colour palette tends to be muted, consisting mainly of dark colours such as navy and various shades of grey.
In colder weather, knitwear, such as a fine-gauge crew-neck sweater or quarter-zip, could be worn as a mid-layer over a shirt and under a blazer, while smart outerwear, such as a mac, wool overcoat or trench coat, would be acceptable as a top layer.
Because business casual has no clear definition, it’s open to interpretation to an extent. This is particularly true as dress codes continue to loosen up across the board. As long as colours are conservative, garments are neat and smart, and the overall look is presentable and tidy, then there’s a degree of creative freedom when it comes to piecing outfits together.
The evolution of business casual
It’s not entirely clear when or where business casual first arose as a dress code, but the widespread acceptance of it in many workplaces began during the 90s. Casual Fridays, also known as ‘dress-down Fridays’, became a bit of a workplace trend, which helped office dress codes to loosen up from their former stuffiness.
As suits became less common in the workplace, business casual became the new standard for many companies. Strict rules about workplace attire were largely ditched and replaced with vague guidelines about the types of garments employees were expected to wear. This opened up a whole new world of workplace-wardrobe possibilities for men – there were now options outside of a suit, shirt and shoes.
Today, business casual is still evolving. Dress codes in general have loosened up a lot over the last decade or two, which means the scope of what counts as appropriate business casual attire is much broader now. See below for some of the key pieces.
Key business casual pieces for men
The blazer, or sports coat if we’re using the proper terminology, is one of the cornerstones of business casual, and encapsulates perfectly what the dress code is all about. It’s smart and professional, but without the formality of a razor-sharp suit jacket.
It’s extremely versatile within the context of a business casual wardrobe too, and can be used to dress up garments that lean more towards the casual end of the spectrum.
Whether you’re a fan of the preppy energy chinos bring to the business casual arena or not is beside the point. The fact of the matter is that these flat-fronted trousers are one of the most traditional components of the dress code.
They perfectly straddle the line between smart and casual, offering a step up in formality from denim, while providing a more laid-back alternative to a suit pant.
Cotton dress pants are our go-to legwear when it comes to business casual. They’re smarter than a chino, which gives you more leeway to stray into casual territory elsewhere in the outfit.
If you want to take the formality up another notch, go for worsted wool instead of cotton.
A good pair of leather Derbies is the most obvious choice when it comes to business casual footwear. They’re smart, but not formal like an Oxford, and are versatile enough to be dressed up or down depending on the situation.
The right pair of loafers can be a valuable addition to your business casual footwear lineup. They can lend smarter fits a louche, laid-back air, and are a great contemporary alternative to the tried-and-tested classics.
A selection of knitwear is a must when it comes to crafting a solid business casual wardrobe. Crew necks and V-necks are great for wearing over shirts, and cardigans and quarter-zips are perfect for layering up in the colder months.
Always opt for a light, fine-gauge knit over anything too textured or heavy. Think merino wool or cashmere over chunky wool cable knits.
T-shirts might be off the table, but that doesn’t mean you’re confined solely to shirts. A polo shirt is a great summer alternative that can look very smart when worn tucked into dress pants with a blazer or knitted sweater.
A classic Oxford shirt, with its button-down collar and lightly textured fabric, is just the right balance of smart and relaxed to work perfectly for business casual.
It’s a less formal alternative to a poplin dress shirt, and looks great when layered with knitwear, blazers and smart outerwear.
The advent of premium, minimalist sneakers has granted athletic footwear access to all sorts of environments from which it was previously banished. The office is one such place, and while the most conservative of workplaces might not quite have caught up yet, we firmly believe that, for most settings, smart leather sneakers are very much a part of the modern business casual uniform.
Business casual dressing tips
Keep colours muted
Generally speaking, the office is not a place for neon hues, statement prints and wild patterns. To keep things professional, the best course is to keep the colour palette simple and subdued.
Neutrals are the best bet, and remember: the darker the colour, the smarter the garment.
Give both words equal attention
Don’t get too bogged down in either the business or the casual side of things. Instead, look at the dress code as a whole. You want to focus on achieving a good balance between the two, which means selecting pieces that don’t lean too far in either direction.
Take the rough with the smooth
Working with a restricted colour palette doesn’t have to mean putting together boring outfits. Colour isn’t your only weapon in the fight against drabness. In fact, utilising different textures can be every bit as effective when it comes to adding a bit of personality to your business casual looks.
Fabrics like wool, corduroy and pique cotton can really bring outfits to life, helping to create depth and focal points, even when the colours are conservative.
Fit is everything
This is a rule every man should live by, but it goes double in professional settings. You can spend as much as you like crafting the perfect workplace wardrobe, but if the fits are sloppy, it’ll all have been for nothing.
Find pieces that fit you perfectly and stick to them. Know your body type, what works and what doesn’t, and if you’re unsure, find a good local tailor and let them do the hard work for you.
Think about the smart casual spectrum
Imagine a spectrum with casual at one end and smart at the other. Business casual is effectively right of centre, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to stick religiously to garments from that exact spot on the spectrum too.
The key word here is balance. It’s fine to mix in smarter pieces and more casual pieces as long as they balance one another out. Want to wear a pair of leather sneakers? That’s all good, but offset the casualness of the footwear by opting for a smarter trouser or a blazer.
Don’t let something as simple as a bag or a watch ruin your carefully crafted outfit. Pick accessories that complement the business casual aesthetic. That means a big no to sporty backpacks, but a resounding yes to luxury leather luggage.
Err on the side of smart where these extra bits and pieces are concerned and you can’t go far wrong.
Don’t rely on chinos
It’s an easy trap to fall into, but there’s more to business casual legwear than khaki pants. We’d encourage you to experiment with either darker colours or a different style of trouser entirely. Again, cotton or wool dress pants are a great alternative.
Key business casual looks
Struggling for business casual outfit inspiration? We’ve pulled five easy-to-nail looks together below to give you a head start. From winter textures to elevated sneakers, these are the failsafe fits you can keep going back to again and again.
Clean and classic
This simple look is business casual stripped down to its core components: sport jacket, shirt, contrast dress pants and leather or suede shoes (depending on season). It’s simple, effective and will work in every workplace environment, from the most relaxed to those still doing their best to cling to tradition.
The garments are always the same, but you can tweak fabrics, colours and styles to make the look work for you. We’d suggest a navy jacket with grey trousers and a white or pale-blue shirt. This way you can wear either brown or black shoes and it’ll still work.
To up the formality, go for black leather Derby shoes and a poplin shirt. Or, for a more relaxed preppy feel, match loafers with an Oxford shirt instead. Feel free to throw a nice knitted tie in for good measure.
Dressed-up polo shirt
Polo shirts can work nicely as part of business casual outfits, but they have to be styled just so. A classic pique-cotton polo in a dark colour and slim fit will work best, and should be tucked neatly into the waistband of your trousers.
Speaking of which, it’s best to stick with a nice smart dress pant to offset the informalness of the polo and keep the outfit looking sharp as a whole. This can be further achieved by layering with a sport jacket in a complementary colour.
Footwear wise, suede desert boots or loafers in dark colourways are an excellent option, but stick to leather Derbies in black or brown if you’re concerned about looking too casual.
Suit separates and sneakers
Forget what the dinosaurs say, the simple fact of the matter is that sneakers are totally acceptable footwear in the vast majority of workplaces today. Plus, if you pick a good pair with minimalist styling and high-quality materials, and wear them with dressier pieces, there’s no reason they can’t look every bit as smart as a pair of loafers or brogues.
The trick here is using the rest of the outfit to dress the sneakers up. Use suit separates (i.e. tailored pants and a blazer) in contrasting shades, and either a button-up shirt or fine-gauge roll neck depending on the temperature.
Stick to dark coloured sneakers to play it safe, and make sure they’re clean and well looked after, with little to no visible branding.
Winter knitwear layers
One of the upsides of a drop in temperature is that wardrobe choices multiply and layering becomes an option. Knitwear is a great tool when it comes to creating layered business casual looks, particularly pieces like cardigans, turtlenecks, quarter-zips and just plain-old crew-neck sweaters.
Use these types of garments to layer over shirts or even just plain tees, and make sure the knit is light enough to slot under a jacket comfortably. Finish off with a nice wool overcoat and you’re ready to face that frosty commute in style.
Textured suit separates are a good option during the colder months of the year. A bit of texture makes traditionally dressy garments feel a touch more relaxed, particularly if you go for an unstructured jacket with soft lines and no padding.
Seasonally-appropriate wool, tweed, flannel and cord blazers/dress pants can be used create depth within your look, especially when contrasted against smoother fabrics elsewhere to balance things out.
Business casual FAQs
Hopefully the information in this guide has already answered your burning business casual questions. But just in case, here are the answers to some of the most common queries men have about the dress code.
Are sneakers business casual?
Ten or 20 years ago, the answer to this question would have been a firm no, but things have changed a lot since then. These days, there aren’t many places sneakers can’t go, but it’s still important to buy the right ones.
If you’re brave enough to mix some sneakers into your business casual looks, keep detail and branding to to the bare minimum, materials high quality and the shape and style simple. We’d encourage you to stick to leather in dark colours too.
Are T-shirts business casual?
It’s best to avoid T-shirts for business casual, unless you’re layering it underneath a sweater or a shirt as a base layer. There’s an argument to be made for wearing one under a blazer and tucked into your trousers, but it’s best left alone if you’re in any way unsure.
Does business casual require tailoring?
It’s usually a good idea to have at least one tailored piece per business casual outfit, whether that be a pair of dress pants or a blazer.
Are suits business casual?
The whole point of the business casual dress code is that it doesn’t require a suit. So no, technically speaking, a full suit is not really considered business casual.
When should I wear business casual?
Wear business casual for work if your office requires you to be well turned out and smart, but doesn’t make full suits compulsory. It’s a more comfortable alternative to tailoring, but more office appropriate than smart casual.
Are chinos business casual?
Chinos are one of the cornerstones of business casual attire, but wear them with dressier pieces to avoid looking overly casual.
Should I wear a blazer for business casual?
You can, but you don’t have to. Not every business casual outfit calls for a blazer, but it can sometimes help to elevate less formal garments and bring a look together. On the whole, the blazer is one of the key components of the business casual dress code.
What shirt is best for business casual?
An Oxford button-down shirt or a poplin button-up shirt are two of the best options for business casual shirting. Stick to plain, neutral tones, or subtle pastels if you want to add a dash of colour.
Is knitwear business casual?
It really depends on the knitwear. Stay away from anything overly textured, heavyweight, patterned or colourful and you should be good. Fine-gauge knits are usually best as they’ll often need to fit underneath a blazer.
Some key styles include cardigans, roll necks, crew-neck sweaters and quarter-zips.
Are loafers business casual?
A leather loafer is an excellent alternative to a traditional Derby shoe that offers a slightly more relaxed feel. It can work nicely when dressed up with smarter pieces, like tailored pants and a blazer, and has the added benefit of being rather comfortable too.