For the past 4 years, I’ve helped professionals in companies like the NY Times to Dropbox, and Google revamp their wardrobes.

The most common style challenge they all had?

Understanding what the hell to wear in a business casual workplace.

Even among other “experts” out there, there seems to be a lot of confusion as to what business casual even means these days.

Today I want you to know you know you can relax.

Business casual doesn’t need to be confusing, or challenging.

Today I’m giving you the first real-world tested guide on business casual style.

With a few guiding principles and a wardrobe building template, I’ll show you how to be the best dressed guy in the room.

In this guide, you’re going to learn:

  • What EXACTLY business casual means in the real world TODAY (Part 1)
  • How to build the PERFECT minimalist business casual wardrobe for your job, Whether you work in a casual tech start-up or in Finance (Part 3)
  • How dressing better than your coworkers can mean more money in your future (and how to exactly do it) (Part 4)

Heads up!

I’ve put together a bonus guide for this post! It includes 3 sample business casual wardrobes and a shopping list showing where I recommend you shop for everything int his post! It’s completely free. Just let me know where to send it!


TABLE OF CONTENTS


PART 1: DECODING THE DRESS CODE: BUSINESS CASUAL

Step one: Throw everything you know about dress codes out the window.

75 years ago you wouldn’t be caught dead without a coat, tie, and a hat.

20 years ago you’d never wear chinos to the office.

And just last month, Wall St. stole a playbook from the tech companies poaching all the their top talent and relaxed their dress code. (sorta)

The only consistent thing is that dress codes rules are the fact that they’re always changing. Who knows, maybe in a few years I’ll update this guide to reflect another shift.

So you have my permission to throw your old business casual rules out the window. Let’s start fresh.

Did you do it?

Good.

STEP 1: FIGURE OUT IF YOUR JOB LEANS BUSINESS, OR LEANS CASUAL

Let’s begin!

Here’s the annoying part: Business casual means different things to different industries.

If you’re like many of my clients in tech, you can relax a lot more and enjoy more freedom with your wardrobe choices.

If you’re in a field like academia or finance, then you’d probably find yourself one step away from wearing a full-blown suit and tie.

Here are my tips for figuring out where your job falls on the formality spectrum:

Tip #1: Look around at what people are wearing

Simple, yet effective.

You might have one of those jobs where the owners dress in t-shirts and jeans and expect people to wear ties (or vice versa).

So consider your offices style as a whole, look around and get an average.

Are most people in sports coats and button-up shirts? Then your place probably leans on the business side.

Are there are a lot of guys in jeans, boots, and sweaters? Your place probably leans causal. Use the handy scale I put together above as a starting point.

Tip #2: Ask HR (and your higher ups!)

If your company has an HR department, they should be able to give you the rundown of what’s appropriate to wear at work. So pop in or shoot them an email.

I’d also recommend speaking to higher ups about what to wear. (Let them know you’re revamping your wardrobe to better represent the company. They’ll appreciate it.)

I found that it’s even more useful to ask them what’s absolutely not acceptable to wear along with what you’re expected to wear.

STEP 2: USE THE “MORE MEANS MORE CASUAL” RULE TO QUICKLY FIGURE OUT IF SOMETHING IS CASUAL OR FORMAL

“How the hell do I know if something’s too casual?”

You don’t need to study fashion for 15 years like I did to answer this question. All you need is to understand a few principles of design to quickly assess if a piece of clothing leans “casual” or “formal” (e.g., more business).

There are a few general rules we all might be familiar with. We know that dress pants and button-down shirts are more formal than t-shirt and jeans.

But what about when we have to decide between two very similar items, like a button-down shirt vs a button-up shirt?

We can gauge the formality using what I call “The More Means More Casual” Rule.

The MORE a piece of clothing has, the MORE it leans casual.

More details, more colors, and a more trendy design means more casual.

Let’s break it down.

Rule #1: The more details an item has, the more casual it is

Think about graphic t-shirt vs. a plain white t-shirt.

Or cargo pants with tons of pockets compared to a simple, clean pair of chinos. They might be made of the same fabric, but the excess pockets, stitching, and details make it more casual. You probably wouldn’t wear those to an important meeting.

Later on, this rule will be more apparent when you see me lay out items on the formality scale.

But for now, think about this rule another way: The simpler, more minimal the design, the more formal it will be.

Rule #2: The more colorful, the more casual

A pink shirt is more casual than a crisp white shirt. A light blue suit is more casual than a dark navy suit.

When it comes to formality, neutral colors (navy, white, black, grey, olive, camel), come off more professional and formal.

Rule #3 The trendier, the more casual

A more trendy design – like athleisure sweats, Hawaiian style print shirts, or “crossbody bags” you can place in the casual section. Items that rank higher in the formal scale tend to be more classic, timeless designs.

While this tool isn’t 100% foolproof, it’s a good starting point you can use when shopping and planning your outfits.

But don’t worry, in the next section I’ll walk you through just how casual or formal something is so you can plan you wardrobe. You’ll see just because something ranks more casual or more formal doesn’t mean you can’t incorporate it into your business casual wardrobe.

Like any good wardrobe, it’s not about a single individual piece, but how your pieces work together as part of a versatile wardrobe.


PART 2: BUILDING YOUR PERFECT BUSINESS CASUAL WARDROBE

So you’ve figured out what direction you want to take your business casual wardrobe.

You’ve learned how to identify if something leans casual or formal fast.

Let’s use what we’ve learned to build your perfect starting business casual wardrobe.

THE PERFECT BUSINESS CASUAL WARDROBE TEMPLATE

As I mentioned in my post on building a minimalist wardrobe, I like to start with a 1.5 week’s worth of outfits.

Why?

Because once a week is how often most people do laundry. We want enough clothes for each day of the week, plus a few extra days just in case.

If you do laundry less often, or want more variety, simply add more pieces to this template. But this is where I recommend everyone should start.

Assuming you do laundry once a week, here’s what I recommend for a starting minimalist wardrobe:

20 pieces (not counting the socks and underwear)

  • 1 coat
  • 2 Jackets (1 business, 1 casual)
  • 10 tops
  • 1 sweater
  • 3 pants
  • 10 pairs of underwear
  • 10 pairs of socks
  • 2 pair of leather shoes
  • 1 pair of sneakers

Here’s a breakdown of the wardrobe:

We want multiples of items we shouldn’t wear twice in a row
You know, the stuff that gets funky fast, like shirts, underwear, and socks. 1 for each day, plus 2-3 more as a buffer.

Plan for our laziness
In a perfect world, we do laundry every 7 days on schedule. But some weeks I get lazy, and I’m sure I’m not alone. That’s why instead of 7 days worth of clothes (6 days + what you wear on laundry day), we’re stocking 10 days as a “laziness buffer.”

Not counting accessories
Accessories, like ties, bags, pocket squares, and sunglasses, are purely optional but offer an easy way to add an exciting element to your outfit without taking a lot of closet space.

Let’s take a look at this wardrobe in action. Here’s what a week’s worth of business casual outfits might look like with just 20 pieces.

BUILD YOUR CUSTOM WARDROBE

To make this business casual wardrobe building process painless, I’ve ranked the styles I’ve used in the past to build business casual wardrobes for my clients by formality.

Just go through the charts below and pick what you like.

Some notes before you start:

How these items were ranked
I used several criteria to rank the formality of the items below.

I first started with long standing men’s rules of formality that we’re all familiar with (a t-shirt is more casual than a button-up. A leather jacket is more casual than a blazer).

I then made adjustments based on real world experience styling men who work in business casual industries over the past 4 years. I didn’t rank ever possible imaginable style out there, just the most common styles I’ve used to build my clients business casual wardrobes.

There will always be exceptions in certain jobs as whether or not something is appropriate. That’s why I highly highly recommend you take the steps in part 1 and speak to HR about dress codes.

This wardrobe guide is all season
I recommend planning your wardrobe with this guide, then making seasons specific swaps using my Spring/Summer guide and Fall/Winter guides when needed.

Start with neutral colors
At the bottom of each item, you’ll notice I recommend specific colors.

We’re sticking with the neutral color rule, as they’re the most versatile. Neutral colors by definition don’t overpower each other, so you can mix and match them infinitely. That means you won’t have to worry about color mixing and matching. If you still need ideas, don’t worry, we’ll be discussing outfit ideas in Part 4.

Once you get the minimum recommendations, feel free to expand
This is optional, but once you get the minimal amount recommended in neutral colors, feel free to add more styles and colors for variety sake.


THE BUSINESS CASUAL FORMALITY SCALE RANKINGS

Click image to enlarge

COATS (PICK 1)

Feel free to skip this rec if you live in particularly warm climates, where even a trench or Mac coat might be unnecessary.

Click to enlarge

JACKETS (PICK 2. RECOMMENDED: 1 CASUAL, 1 MORE BUSINESS)
Even if you don’t find yourself in a lot of client facing situations, I still recommend a sports coat. It can be styled casually, and be paired with a smart pair of tailored pants and leather shoes for an important meeting in a pinch.

Click image to enlarge

TOPS (PICK A MIX OF 10)
I recommend throwing in a few button-down shirts in the chance you have an important meeting (or fancy date!) on the calendar.


JUST WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A BUTTON-UP AND BUTTON-DOWN SHIRT?

Click image to enlarge

You might have seen shirts labeled “Button-ups” and “Button-downs” and paid no mind, but they’re actually two different styles of shirts.

The term “button-down” is used to describe the collar – which buttons down to the body.

Button-down shirts are generally considered the casual option now, often cut shorter to be styled untucked and made with more casual fabrics.

Button-ups will be made with crisper fabrics to maintain a professional look, with longer cuts designed to be tucked in.

While you can wear button-downs with suits and button-ups with, say, a Harrington jacket, I generally recommend pairing button-ups with formal looks like suits, and button-downs with your casual outfits.

In short, a button-down shirt is more casual than a button-up shirt.


Click image to enlarge

KNITS/SWEATERS (PICK 1)
A fine, merino wool sweater is great for layering during chilly days. Throw it over a button-down shirt as a smart looking option if you want to go without a jacket. For a more casual leaning wardrobe, cotton will get the job done. And for something a bit more luxe, cashmere is king (and my personal choice!)

Click image to enlarge

PANTS (PICK 3)
For a perfectly balanced business casual wardrobe, I’d recommend 1 casual pant like jeans, 1 tailored wool trousers, and something in the middle, like a pair of chinos. It’s going to depend on your job, of course, as some of my clients in the past aren’t allowed to wear denim. In this case, double or triple up on chinos or wool trousers.

Click image to enlarge

SHOES (PICK 3. RECOMMENDED 1 CASUAL SNEAKER, 2 DRESS SHOES)
Ok, this section is a bit of a lie. You can’t really pick any 2 dress shoes, because I think the first shoe you should get are loafers. They’re going to be the most versatile shoe you can own. You can wear them with a suit, or dress them down the Italian way by pairing them with denim.

For your second leather pair, I’d go with some type of boot, either lace up or Chelsea. If a chelsea is too formal looking for you, another popular option with my clients are desert boots.

The most versatile sneaker option you can make will be a pair of minimal white sneakers.

Not sure what to pick?
I’ve put together 3 sample wardrobes in a bonus guide to get you started. It also includes a shopping list with specific links on where to get all the items for your closet. Just let me know where to send it!


THE FINISHING TOUCHES

Need a rec for a work bag? Check out my post on the best work bags for men
Not sure what’s the difference between a casual belt and dress belt? Read my guide on the 2 new rules for belts (and 2 classic rules you can ignore)

All ties by Drakes

TO TIE OR TO NOT

There is some debate whether business casual should includes ties. My answer? It doesn’t hurt, especially if you’re going to be doing a lot of client face work.

You’ll notice in this guide, a lot of the looks will work with our without a tie. And if you want an instant style hack to show you mean business, throwing on a tie is the easiest way.

When it comes to the world of tie patterns and mixing and matching them with your shirt, the combinations are endless.

4 ties are a great place to start and will really cover most of your bases. I recommend a solid neutral tie, like a navy or dark grey. (Avoid black as it’s too harsh).

Next I recommend a striped tie and a pattern, like a dot or jacquard.

The knit tie should be your last option. It’s the traditional choice for a casual tie look (if there’s really such a thing nowadays).

My favorite ties are from Drake’s, you really can’t go wrong with them.

As for shirt and tie combo ideas, I still haven’t found a better place for this than Pinterest.


PART 3: PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER

HOW BEING (SLIGHTLY) OVERDRESSED CAN EARN YOU MORE MONEY

The biggest mistake my private clients make when working with me is wanting to look exactly like their coworkers.

Why is this a bad idea?

Because my job is to make you look really fucking good, and there’s a high likelihood your coworkers have pretty average style.

Dressing well is one of the few career advantages people overlook because it’s a little bit politically incorrect. But there have been countless studies that show that dressing well can make you more money.

The easiest way to do that is to avoid some business casual cliches I’ve seen over the years.

STYLE SWAPS: AVOID THESE BUSINESS CASUAL CLICHES

DON’T: T-SHIRTS  DO: POLO SHIRT

The polo shirt gets a bad rap, and that’s because men tend to pick polos that belong on the golf course, not the office.

The right polo shirt is your business casual secret weapon. The polo occupies that sweet spot on the formality scale: it’s “dressier” than a t-shirt but more comfortable than a button-up. It works equally well under a denim jacket as it does under a sports coat.

The secret is to avoid polos made of pique cotton with huge logos, go for a more luxe t-shirt feel with Supima cotton.

Buy: Bonobos Superfine Polo, $68

DON’T: HOODIES DO: HALF ZIP SWEATER

Ah, the hoodie. The official uniform of the nonchalant employee.

You’d be happy to know that even my clients in tech hate this style cliche.

You have several smart options to replace the hoodie, like the cardigan. Or try a favorite with my clients lately has been the quarter zip sweater. It’s not as stuffy as a pullover and allows you to show off a collared shirt underneath, making this a great jacketless option.

Buy: Bonobos Cotton Cashmere Half Zip Sweater, $148

DON’T: FLEECE VEST  DO: YOUR JACKET

You know your style cliche is bad when it has it’s own Instagram.

While I understand the comradery in rocking your companies goodie bag fleece vest to grab lunch, a smarter, stylish option that will help you stay off mocking Instagram accounts is literally right behind you, draped over your office chair.

Buy: Bonobos Harrington Jacket, $168

DON’T: THE GINGHAM SHIRT  DO: STRIPED SHIRT

Speaking of style cliches with their own Instagrams, you can consider the gingham shirt to be the original.

Thanks to its push by J.Crew in the 2000s, the gingham shirt is probably a more popular basic office bro style cliche than the hoodie or vest.

To be honest, I don’t think gingham shirts are bad. They’re great options for casual Spring weddings. But wearing it to the office is like a bad guy giving a speech to a hero, giving him time to escape. It’s expected.

The great thing is, your style alternative is something that’s probably already in your closet: A fine striped shirt.

It’s a great option if you want a break from solids as it’s the best of both worlds. A proper fine striped shirt from a distance looks solid and professional. Up close, the stripes are apparent. Helping you subtly stand out without going overboard or, worst, looking like every other dude.

Buy: Drake’s Striped Button-down Oxford, $205

DON’T: KHAKI CHINOS  DO: COTTON DRESS PANTS

I love a good chino, but there was always something that felt off when I wanted to look sharp and professional.

The casualness of chinos cotton – the way it moves and folds – always made me feel a bit underdressed.

Thankfully, brands like Bonobos have been crafting a slightly new category of pants – wrinkle resistant cotton blend that has the sharpness of wool trousers but is as comfortable to wear as a chino.

There’s a reason that it’s my current favorite pants of all time (in fact, I’m wearing it right now!).

Buy: Bonobos Weekday Warrior Pants, $98

DON’T: ALL BIRDS DO: ANY OTHER COOLER SNEAKER

All Birds are like that meme your dad texts you 6 months too late. They’re uncool versions of Nike Frees and Adidas Boosts. Just get some Nike Frees or Adidas Boosts and call it a day.

Buy: Nike Frees, $120

DON’T: BACKPACKS  DO: CONVERTABLE LEATHER BRIEF

Two things I hate about backpacks.

One, most men tend to grab backpacks they used to backpack across Europe during a gap year. It makes you look sloppy and unprofessional.

Two, backpack straps can be harsh on nice tailoring, like your coat or sports jacket.

And let’s not forget if you ride public transportation, you’ll be that annoying guy with a backpack.

Opt for a smart looking leather briefcase. Many are designed with protective slots and padding of a laptop bag, with a professional leather exterior of a classic briefcase.

Buy: Coach Metropolitan Slim Briend, $590


BUSINESS CASUAL OUTFIT IDEAS:
7 BUSINESS CASUAL OUTFIT FORMULAS

So you’ve crafted your perfect business casual wardrobe and need some ideas on how to wear it.

No matter what level of business casual your job has, I got you covered with these 7 essential business casual outfit formulas.

Inspiration via He Spoke Style

THE CLASSIC

Sports Coat + Button-up shirt + Chinos/Dress Pants + Tie

If you could sum up a classic business casual outfit, it would be this. Sports coat, non-matching trousers, button-up shirt, tie.

The inspiration image takes it a step further pairing a button-down shirt in place of a button-up (a very non-traditional move, especially with a tie). Classic menswear enthusiasts might lose their shit, but I wouldn’t stress about it too much. In the real world, this is perfectly acceptable.

I love the shot of color the chambray shirt gives, this look can still work with a more traditional white or pale blue top.

Inspiration via The Sartorialist

THE T-SHIRT

Sports coat + T-shirt + Chinos

You might have to save this move for casual Fridays. The key to pulling off the t-shirt under your sports coat look is making sure you don’t go overboard with the casual pieces. If you went with denim or sneakers, you’ll treading thin ice. Best to stick to the business side of the spectrum like I did with a pair of chinos and desert boots.

Inspiration via Articles of Style

THE POLO

Sports Coat + Polo + Dress Pants

The dressier older brother of the t-shirt look, notice how the polo’s collar dresses up the look a bit, while still maintaining that effortless casual vibe of a tee. If you decide to pull of that sockless look this season, make sure you’re doing it via a pair of invisible socks to avoid blisters.

Inspiration via Crazy Stupid Love

THE NO JACKET LOOK

Button-up shirt + Dress pants + Belt + Cool watch

Leave the fleece vest in the office. Do this simple style hack of rolling up your sleeves when you’re popping out for lunch. The key to this look is all in the accessories – belt is a must, sunglasses are optional, but a nice watch is highly encouraged.

Inspiration via Hugo Boss

SNEAKERS

Sports Coat + Dress Pants + Clean Minimal Sneakers

Some guys just can’t get with the suit and sneakers look and that’s ok. Swap in loafers and you have a clean, classic, casual polo suit look. But just know that a clean, minimal sneaker is totally acceptable in most of today’s workplaces. Keep it professional by making sure the rest of your outfit leans business.

THE CASUAL JACKET

Casual jacket + Button-up shirt + Chinos or Dress Pants

Isn’t it amazing that a simple switch of your sports coat to, say, a harrington or leather can help you effortlessly transition from office to happy hour drinks?

Inspiration via He Spoke Style

KNIT IN PLACE OF JACKET

Knit (such as a pullover sweater, cardigan, or half-zip) + Button-up shirt + Any pant

The knit over a collared shirt is another business casual staple, sometimes worth with a sports coat. Lately, I’ve been seeing a lot of men in the workplace wearing it as is, and I think it’s a smart look for the workplace. You might notice I snuck in another casual piece in this look – denim.

Like I mentioned earlier, dark denim like a unwashed indigo or black can totally fly under the radar in the office. For offices with a no-denim policy, simply substitute chinos or dress pants in this look.

STILL NEED A BIT MORE HELP? GET MY FREE BONUS GUIDE

I’ve put together a bonus guide for this post. It includes 3 samples business casual wardrobes and a shopping list with exact links to shops and brands I shopped at for my past clients. Just click below to get the free guide.

peter@theessentialman.com'
Author

Hi, I'm Peter. I spent 11 years as a menswear designer here in NYC. Now, I help some of the most successful men look really good as a Private Personal Stylist and writer of The Essential Man. You can learn more about what I do by clicking here