According to Gallup polls, business casual is the most common dress code in workplaces.
Over time, it’s only becoming more popular.
But it’s also a really vague term.
If you’re not particularly fashion-inclined (like me), you likely have no clue what exactly is and isn’t considered business casual for your first job or two.
Never fear, I’m here to break down what business casual means in a way that anyone can easily understand.
Where Did Business Casual Come From & What Does it Mean?
Casual Fridays really took hold in the 1990s. It was an easy way to make employees happier, and cost the company nothing.
Since then, research has found that workers are more productive when the dress code is relaxed.
Over time, formal business dress codes have largely been dropped in favor of business casual dress codes. Still professional, but more relaxed.
This depends a lot by location and industry, you’re not going to see lawyers wearing slacks.
The classic way to think about business casual is dressing down business outfits, not dressing up casual outfits.
Below, I’ve created sections for both men and women. At a high level, there’s a lot of overlap. Many types of clothing are considered business casual for both men and women:
- Collared shirts
- Closed-toe shoes.
These types of clothes are acceptable in almost every business casual environment for either gender.
However, you’re not necessarily limited to just those, so read on for more specifics.
What Does Business Casual Mean for Men?
Let’s break down the main types of business casual clothing for men.
Shirts and Sweaters
When in doubt, go with a button-down long sleeve dress shirt. You’ll need one for just about every standard business casual outfit, so pick up a variety that you can rotate through.
Solid colors or stripes are both acceptable in most business casual environments. The most popular colors are light, neutral colors. White and light blue are the most common and go with most outfits.
Additionally, you can add a simple sweater over a dress shirt for a more “classy” look. Not only are they comfortable, but also warm if you live in a cold environment.
Here are a few examples of the types of shirts and sweaters that are business casual.
Finally, a tie is typically optional, but you should wear one if your workplace is on the formal side. If it’s your first day on the job, you can always take it off if you find out that it’s overkill.
You have quite a few options when it comes to pants, but the simplest options are dress slacks, chinos, and khakis.
Certain dark jeans can fit into a business casual wardrobe, but if you’re not sure, skip them.
Dark pants are the most versatile, but neutral colors like beige will also go with a variety of dress shirts you own.
Here is an example of what business casual pants should look like:
Belt and Shoes
Any simple, plain belt will do fine. It doesn’t matter if it’s canvas, rubber, or leather, as long as it isn’t overly thick or have a ridiculous belt buckle.
Any dark dress shoes will also do, along with dark socks. If you have a suit, you can likely just wear the shoes you already wear with it.
The safest choices are your standard tie-up dress shoes (pictured below). However, if your workplace is more on the casual side, you may also see the occasional pair of loafers as well.
Blazers and Light Jackets (Optional)
A light (weight, not color) blazer or jacket can also be a good idea if your workplace is on the formal side.
Again, pick neutral or dark colors to be on the safe side.
What Does Business Casual Mean for Women?
Business casual for women can get complicated, but I’ll stick to the basics that are acceptable no matter where you go.
Shirts and Sweaters
Like men, a simple button-down dress shirt is a great place to start for women.
However, you have other options like sweaters, blouses, and twinsets.
The key to keep in mind is to stick to solid colors that aren’t too flashy.
Alternatively, a solid-colored sheath dress also looks professional and is considered business casual.
Finally, a cardigan or blazer can be added on top of a dress shirt or sweater to look more professional.
Here are some examples of appropriate business casual tops for women:
The most conservative options here are dress pants or slacks. Khaki, twill, cotton, or corduroy are all fine. For the most part, stick to dark colors.
Simple, solid-colored skirts are also appropriate, as long as they aren’t too short. You may want to hold off until you see what other employees wear before buying any skirts for work.
Here is an example of an appropriate business casual skirt for women:
Belt and Shoes
A belt is more optional for women than men, but goes well with dress slacks.
For shoes, it’s safest to stick to closed toe shoes or ankle boots in a dark color (usually black or brown).
Here are a few examples of safe business casual shoes for women:
In workplaces that are more casual, peep-toe or open-toe shoes are common. But if you’re trying to ensure a good impression, stick with the basics.
What Does Business Casual NOT Mean?
Business casual is somewhere in between a formal business dress code, and a casual dress code.
It does not include a full formal suit. However, you also wouldn’t get in trouble for that at more companies, which is why it’s better to lean to the side of formality when unsure.
The more important types of clothes to avoid are:
- Long boots
- Boat shoes
- Jeans (other than dark high-end pairs)
- Any clothing with unnecessary holes
- Inappropriate or flashy patterns (Hawaiian shirts)
- Polos (in most cases)
Most of it is common sense, but it never hurts to get a second opinion. If you’re not sure if a piece of clothing is appropriate, ask a friend (or social media) what they think.
Business Casual Brands
So now you have a good idea of what you should buy. The question becomes where can you buy it?
I’ve compiled a list of popular stores and brands that should make it relatively easy to find new business casual outfits to add to your wardrobe. This is by no means a complete list, but can help you if you’re feeling overwhelmed or hate shopping around.
Business Casual Brands for Men
Here are 3 brands that mostly focus on business casual clothing, and you can buy them online.
- UNTUCKit: Most of their clothing is on the casual side of business casual. You can find a wide range of dress shirts, pants, and accessories.
- Frank And Oak: Sells both casual and business casual clothing, so you’ll need to sort through and keep everything from the above sections in mind.
- Mizzen+Main: Specializes in dress shirts with a large business casual collection. Pretty much anything from this collection is a good choice.
Business Casual Brands for Women
I’m not going to pretend to be an expert in women’s clothing brands, but after some research, certain brands kept coming up over and over:
- Argent: Work-specific clothing for women. A decent collection of business casual clothes.
- Citizen’s Mark: Socially conscious business clothing for women, with plenty of business casual choices.
- MM.LaFleur: Plenty of business casual appropriate dresses and accessories.
- Senza Tempo: A relatively small line of minimal business casual clothing.
I’m sure there’s many more good brands, so mention them in the comments at the bottom of the page if you’d like to help out others.
The Best Business Casual Stores
Ideally, you go to a large department store which will have tons of business casual clothing to choose from.
Here are a few widely available stores that you could visit in person or online:
- Macys: Mostly borders on the business side, but good if you have a more formal workplace. They sell everything you need for outfits.
- Nordstrom: Have an entire section on their site devoted to men’s business casual clothing.
- Banana Republic: Selection is a bit limited, but still some good business casual options. Overall, they focus more on the casual side.
- Everlane (mostly for women): A wide variety of minimal clothing, but more on the casual side.
- Sumissura (women): Specific business collections for women. Mostly minimal, professional clothing.
- Bonobos (men): Very popular site for men with a huge selection of clothes. They sell non-business casual clothing as well, so you’ll have to do some searching on the site.
- Bombfell (men): If you hate shopping, you can get hand-picked outfits sent to you, just specify that you need business casual clothing for work.
Business Casual Guidelines and Tips
I’d like to wrap this up by offering a few tidbits of advice to keep in mind while choosing your business casual outfits:
- Pay attention to your industry: Tech companies are notoriously casual, and you might even be able to get away with a polo.
- Be conservative with first impressions: If you’re new to a company or office, dress more formally to be on the safe side. You can also take off a jacket and tie if you feel ridiculously overdressed.
- Keep your schedule in mind: If you’re meeting with clients or an executive of the company, dress more formal than usual for the day.
- Clothing is just a part of business casual: Your hair and any accessories should also be somewhat professional. Don’t keep an unkempt beer or wear tacky jewelry.
- Don’t forget about wrinkles: Wrinkles instantly make you look unprofessional, even in casual environments. Learn to iron or buy wrinkle-resistant clothing.
- Pets are cute, but pet hair isn’t for the workplace: With 2 cats, I have cat hair on everything. Invest in a good pet hair roller for both the home and office.
Want to Learn More?
You should have a great grasp on what business casual means, and what types of clothes you should look for.
But I more than anyone understand that it’s hard going from that to picking out entire outfits.
GQ has a blog category for articles specifically about business casual style where you can learn more.
Alternatively, if you have any questions or need a second opinion, leave a comment below.