It’s the official dress code of corporate America, and there’s a good chance you’re actually wearing it right now — so why is it so hard to define ‘business casual’? Now that even Wall Street is embracing flexible dressing, here’s what every guy needs to know.
What we love about business casual — the freedom to dress like an individual — is the very thing that makes it so tricky. In many ways, it was easier in the Mad Men era, when everyone just wore a suit and tie according to the rules. Business casual — not as formal as traditional business wear but not quite as relaxed as ‘smart casual’ — comes with an increased risk of getting it wrong. Are jeans OK? Can I wear sneakers? If I wear a fleece vest, will everyone assume I work in financial services?
Every workplace has its own variations on the dress code, but the original Dockers guide, mailed out to HR teams in 1992, is a pretty good place to start. “Keep wrinkled, stained, or dirty clothing out of the workplace,” it advised — a strategy that still holds true. It might be more relaxed, but it’s still about looking professional.
The business casual aesthetic is built around a couple of key elements, and you’ll always want a great pair of khakis and a classic button-down in your rotation. You’ll never regret having a blazer to call on when you need to. Smart shoes are pretty important, too: It’s amazing what a good loafer can do to add professional polish to your look.
Once you’ve nailed the basics, you can start playing around: GQ recommends swapping out your button-down for a camp collar shirt this summer; or try a turtleneck sweater under a jacket in the fall (also handy when your office air-con is a bit too strong). Sneakers? Sure, if you opt for glossy leather, like the Dockers Gilmore. As for denim, that really depends on your company policy, but a denim shirt under a smart jacket, or dark wash jeans with loafers, can work great.
Whatever you add to the mix, here’s what to remember. First, stick to a neutral color palette — olive, tan, navy will work with everything — and save loud prints for the weekend. And always balance out the ‘smart’ with the ‘casual’: a pair of sneaks with more formal pants, say, or a blazer over an open collar shirt. Master these two golden rules of business casual and you can’t go wrong.
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