Reader Question Part II: Specifics of Business Casual Wardrobe

Words by: Andrew Williams


This post follows directly from the last in which we discussed how one could be classically dressed while being comfortable and unstuffy in a workplace with a casual dress code. Our reader is a recent graduate so cost is a factor. The wardrobe also needed to accommodate a large variety of social and work based scenarios.

In this part I will outline a core wardrobe of clothes that should achieve all of the above. It’s also important to bear in mind those general principles outlined last week: don’t get hung up on one mode of ‘classic’ dressing; the three F’s (Fit, Fit and Fit); don’t be too proud and the devil is in the detail.

Core Wardrobe Theory

If you’re on a budget then this is something you must practice. Abide by its general principles and you’ll have only those clothes you absolutely need, thereby getting the most out of your money.

At its most rudimentary the core wardrobe concept is about ensuring that all of the clothes in your wardrobe go with one another. It means that no one item stands out but together they form a harmonious aesthetic. The acid test is if you can get dressed in the dark and no matter what you put on it looks good.

To achieve this feat the items you choose must be classics which last season after season and above all fit perfectly. You also need to keep your colour pallet simple.  Simple clothes and colours always look more sophisticated even if the clothes you’re wearing aren’t in themselves terribly sophisticated. Simplicity imparts an air of quiet ease. To steal the Balliol college motto, ‘the conscious tranquillity of effortless superiority’ is our aim.

So here would be my core wardrobe, based on our reader’s criteria. Bear in mind I’m 35 years old and not a recent graduate, so this is a guide based on my tastes with general notions that should work.

1x Navy Suit

1x Brown Suede shoes

1x indigo jeans

1x Ecru Chino

5x Button down collar shirts assorted colours (2x white, 1x blue, 1x blue Bengal stripe, 1x pink)

1 x navy silk knit tie

Navy Suit

This probably seems an odd choice but think about it logically. The chances are you’ll need a suit on at least one occasion, whether that’s for a wedding, funeral, job interview or important business occasion. So it’s always useful to have one in the wardrobe. Beyond that, in terms of marginal cost, a suit is little more expensive than a navy blazer -that being the most versatile of jackets. However, if you split the component parts of the suit up you can wear the jacket with jeans or chinos and the trousers separately with one of your button down shirts. The one item effectively gives you a number of alternative looks and combinations suitable for a relaxed workplace environment. Provided you follow the rule about having your kit altered to fit, you’ll achieve a look which is sharp, classic, relaxed but smart. Navy will go with just about any colour of shirt, and if you change the navy buttons for brown, as a blazer a navy suit jacket works all the better.  Combined with the other items mentioned you’ll be covered for weddings, job interviews, semi-formal  evening occasions, business lunches, garden parties, meetings at the office with senior managers and those days when you just want to be a cut above and ditch the jeans in favour of trousers.

However, if you decide to go down this road you don’t need to spend a fortune. Consider opting for either a vintage or second hand suit; alternatively try one of the high street labels in your locality. You don’t need to spend a fortune just make it look like you did, so take your time and try all the retailers in your price range and pick the suit that fits best. Then take it to an alterations tailor to make it perfect. Finally, avoid shiny fabrics or overtly fashionable cuts and styles. A simple single breasted jacket with notch lapels should do. For those living in warmer climates –like our reader- I’d recommend cotton suit if you can source one.

Source: An Affordable Wardrobe.

So, a navy suit is not quite as odd a recommendation as it might at first appear, provided you also follow my next recommendation, brown shoes.

Brown Suede Shoes

If your colleagues are wearing trainers and deck shoes, as I suspect they will be, then you should wear shoes, and that being the case they should be brown.

In my view shoes set the tone for any ensemble. Your footwear choice will be critical for balancing that casual yet sophisticated look. Brown shoes are intrinsically more casual than black, and brown suede even more so. My own preference would be for dark brown tassel loafers. Loafers have a rakish, relaxed air whilst retaining enough formality that you can wear them for formal occasions. In this way they lower the formality of a suit and make a simple pairing of jeans and a shirt more formal.  On hot summer days you can even go sockless.

The reasons for recommending suede are two fold. Firstly, suede is less formal than leather but adds contrast and luxuriance. This works wonders for dressing up the most casual and simple of outfits while dressing down more formal attire. It will enable you to pitch your look more closely to that of your work colleagues while still looking a cut above. Secondly, suede ages more rapidly than leather. Some people get a bit prissy about this, but personally the more beaten up my suede loafers get the more I love them and the more useful they become with regards altering the pitch of an ensemble.

You may decide that brown suede loafers aren’t for you. That’s fine. Go with whatever best suits your own personal style. As long as they’re brown suede the above advice holds true.

Herring Shoes (Classic, Graduate and Sale ranges)

When shopping on a budget the shoes should be the most expensive items in your wardrobe. As a rule the more you spend on shoes the better the value for money. Cheap shoes will always look cheap and they’ll cheapen your look. Well made quality footwear has the opposite effect even in relation to our next items.

Indigo Jeans and Ecru Chinos

This really is first principles stuff. I can think of few items of clothing more relaxed and yet more classic than jeans and chinos. Provided they are well tailored, clean and in good nic you can look both smart and casual. For example, jeans combined with a crisp white shirt, nicely tailored jacket and suede tassel loafers is a look which is both relaxed and done right looks smarter than most men manage even in a suit.

Ecru or off white chinos come right out of the Steve McQueen playbook. One of his favourite and most effective tricks was to wear tops which were darker than his trousers and then combine those with dark brown suede footwear (playboy chukka boots mostly).

Now, the reader that posed the question lives in a sunny environment year round, hence I went for Ecru chinos. However, for those of us who have both a summer and proper winter I’d simply use ecru for summer and switch to Tan chinos in winter.  But in either case the suit jacket, the shirts and the brown loafers will go with our chinos. Just be sure to avoid extreme fashion cuts.

Sources: Gap (slimfit), Levis

Five Button Down Shirts (2x white, 1x blue, 1x blue Bengal stripe, 1x pink)

I don’t think I need to say too much here. I’ve discussed shirt colours in a previous article. The reason for choosing button down shirts over a regular collar is simply that they’re less formal. If you stick to the colours suggested then each will go with all the other items so far covered. In my view few looks are quite so simple or quite so effective as blue jeans and a white button down shirt. The loafers (worn with or without socks) will add the finishing touch.  In fact even the white shirt and ecru chinos works for the hottest days of high summer -add in the dark brown shoes and we have yet another classic McQueenism.

This is tricky because I don’t know what’s available to our questioner out there in Silicon Valley. But as I said in part one, take the time to find a source that provides what you need, to an acceptable standard and at the price you can afford –don’t be too proud.

Navy Knit Tie

Accessories are where you really make a look, particularly when the core items in your wardrobe are pretty simple. I’ve chosen a silk knit tie because that suits my own personal style and fits with the other items in our core wardrobe. Ties are in vogue at the moment and a silk knit tie worn with navy jeans a button down shirt won’t look the least bit out of place. To make the look more relaxed simply loosen the tie, unbutton the top button of the shirt and role the sleeve cuffs up two turns.

Now, this is just one option, and going back to our first rule in part one, the accessories you choose must reflect your own style influences. You could, for example, decide that your style cue is patterned and brightly coloured socks, or braces with your chinos, wrist bands, scarves or even a waistcoat. The options are nearly limitless.


While views may differ on the kit chosen the basic principles and pairings behind them are sound. They are there to be applied in a way that suits your own style and tastes. The aim was not to provide the definitive list or clothes. The casual work environment is a tricky one to master but over the course of these two posts I hope I’ve shown it’s not impossible to look sharp whilst remaining comfortable and casual.

Photos: Obsessed with Tweed, Getty Images, The Sartorialist, Preppystyle, Randomitus, How to Talk To Girls At Parties.