The definitive guide to business casual clothes for men who aren’t casual about business
Clothes are tools. Choosing the right piece of men’s clothing ensures you get the job done. Whether you’re interviewing for a job, meeting with your boss or pitching a potential client, what you wear is as important as what you say.
And just as using a hammer to tighten a screw won’t work, wearing workout clothes in the conference room will leave you looking like you have a screw loose.
Frankly, it used to be easier to know how to dress in a business setting. Just a few decades ago, guys all wore dark suits, ties that were neither too wide nor too loud, and well-shined shoes. But over time, the idea of the office uniform was replaced by the hard-to-define concept of business casual attire.
That’s led to the often embarrassing sight of young, ambitious men wearing clothing at work that is better suited to their slacker roommates from college. Or, equally problematic, guys in business professional attire so formal or so fashionable as to elicit snickers.
We can help.
In this article, we’ll share the wisdom of style experts who know what business casual for men is, and isn’t, in 2023. And we’ll offer guidelines to help you choose business attire looks that convey competence and professionalism. When you’ve finished reading it, you’ll understand the nature of business-casual dressing and be able to choose work clothing that works for you.
What is business casual?
Business casual is an ambiguous, nebulous term. If you’re unsure of what it means, you are not alone.
Unlike terms such as “formal wear” (that’s a tuxedo or dark suit) or “semi-formal attire” (a two-piece suit or matching pants and suit jacket, usually worn with a button-up shirt and tie), business casual means different things to different people.
Perhaps most importantly, the nature of business casual changes. And there have been a great many such changes in recent years.
“Business casual has definitely become more relaxed since workers came back to offices after COVID,” according to Melissa Slavick, a Taelor stylist. “It’s even more on the casual side now. It used to be when you were going into the office you had to wear a long-sleeve button-up shirt. In 2023 it’s more like short-sleeve button ups with fun colors or different prints. Guys are wanting to try new things and have their wardrobe be more fun.”
Change in the nature of office attire can be challenging for men to navigate. But it doesn’t need to be. Dressing in business casual can be a straightforward proposition for men who don’t want to spend an enormous amount of time thinking about their clothes.
The key is to embrace the use of a few simple concepts and clothing items, while shunning a few others.
Examples of business casual: what to wear
- The unstructured blazer – These clean-looking, just-short-of-elegant jackets put the “business” in business casual. An unstructured jacket doesn't have a lining or much (if any) padding. Think of them as somewhere in between an overshirt and a traditional blazer. Take it off and roll up your sleeves for that hands-on-and-ready-to-work look. Put it back on over a button-up shirt and you’re ready for the sit-down with your boss or client. Unstructured blazers have long been a staple of business casual. But here too things are changing. Textured fabrics like jacquard and corduroy have become acceptable. “Corduroy blazers are going to be huge this fall,” Slavick said.
(Left) Taelor/EVERLANE SAND CASUAL BLAZER (Right) Taelor/MINISTRY OF SUPPLY KNIT PERFORMANCE HEATHER CHARCOAL BLAZER
- Chinos – Call them “khakis” if you like, but stick with darker colors. Tan-colored chinos are fine for weekends, but they’re not suitable for the office. And in today’s market, there’s a wide variety of colors available to mix with blazers. But avoid wearing the same color for each piece.
(left) Taelor/BONOBOS OAK MILK STRETCH WASHED CHINO SLIM (mid) Taelor/DONATO NAVY TAPERED CUT LIGHTWEIGHT CHINO (right) Taelor/DONATO OLIVE GREEN TAPERED CUT LIGHTWEIGHT CHINO
- Socks – No one wants to see your ankles at work. No one. Nor does anyone want to see your juvenile weekend socks (the ones with cartoon characters, sports logos or pictures of beer bottles.) “Put on a nice pair of socks,” Slavick says, “because that elevates the look."
- Moderately casual footwear – There are loads of good-looking but comfortable business-casual shoes on the market today. And yes, you can get away with sneakers (as long as they are not the same sneakers you wore running through the mud over the weekend.) But avoid high-top sneakers. Brogues are a good choice, too. But if everyone in your office is wearing brown brogues with dark slacks, try something else.
- Oxford shirts – You’re hard-pressed to go wrong with a button-up shirt. These shirts are suitable in any business-casual environment. Choose solid colors or muted patterns. Pro tip: Keep an extra one in your desk drawer. You’ll be glad you did on the day you spill coffee all over yourself minutes before the big meeting. Similarly, keep a tie or two in the drawer too. Nothing spruces up an Oxford faster than a tie. Put it on before meeting with very important people – especially if they are older men who tend to wear ties often.
(Left) Taelor/&COLLAR SEAFOAM GREEN GINGHAM PRINT LONG SLEEVE BUTTON UP SHIRT (Right) The Nines/Green striped Oxford shirt with pin collar
Examples of business casual: what to avoid (most of the time)
- Polo shirts – Sure, there are some classy polo shirts on the market in 2023. And you have probably seen some of your coworkers looking great in them. But while polo shirts are always suitable for the weekend, you need to ask yourself one simple but difficult question before wearing one to work: am I in shape? If you’re something other than svelte, wearing a polo shirt will accentuate your belly and make you look like a Dad who has had too many beers since the kids became teenagers. That’s why Slavick urges caution with polo shirts. “Definitely look at yourself before you leave. Make sure that you feel confident and presentable,” she said
- Military style clothing – Camouflage patterns, wrap-around mirror sunglasses, tactical pants, etc. look silly on people who are not in the military or law enforcement. Dressing for combat makes your coworkers uneasy and makes you look insecure.
- Working man clothes – Leave the Carhartt coat and John Deere cap at home. Do the same with the work boots and tool bag (even if you use it to carry your laptop.) Don’t wear a cowboy hat unless you work in Texas. And are older than 50. And even then you should think twice.
- Baggy clothes – Nothing is quite as comfortable as a pair of pants so big they could fit two of you. But they are neither flattering nor office-appropriate. “Some guys like to wear their clothes too baggy because they're afraid to try a slimmer cut,” Slavick said, “but actually the slimmer cuts are going to make them look better and more presentable.”
How to think about casual office attire
Clothes are tools, as we said earlier. And if you want to succeed in the business world in 2023, you must choose your tools wisely.
The rules we listed above will help with that. But dressing for success in today’s casual office environment takes more than just hanging some appropriate ensembles in your closet. That’s the beginner level.
To become a master of business casual you need to learn to wield those tools as proficiently as any master craftsman.
So how can you do that?
Here are three guidelines to take you to the next level of successful dressing.
Avoid affectation, particularly someone else’s affectation
The Elements of Style by E.B. White and William Strunk Jr. is a writing guide beloved by journalism students. Its concise and powerful advice teaches young people how to develop a writing style of their own.
It also, perhaps unexpectedly, has something to teach young men about developing their own style of dressing. Consider this key sentence: “The first piece of advice is this: to achieve style, begin by affecting none.”
Affectation is the enemy of both good writing and of style in general. Affectation – the distasteful act of pretending to be someone you are not in order to impress others – prevents the emergence of personal style.
One notable example of this involves the artist Andy Warhol, arguably one of the most stylish men of modern times. Andy had a number of “looks” – including black collarless shirts worn with jeans and vintage leather jackets.
That happened to be what he was wearing when he met a young Steve Jobs in 1984. At that time, Jobs dressed in the popular preppy fashion of that era. But sometime after meeting Warhol, Jobs donned a never-changing uniform of black mock turtlenecks and blue jeans.
That’s not an awful or unusual thing. Young men often mimic the looks of older men they admire.
The problem is that affectation has a way of multiplying. Soon it seemed that half of the tech industry was wearing some version of Jobs’ uniform. Suddenly everyone was dressing to be Steve Jobs, just as Jobs had dressed to be Warhol.
There’s a word for when affectation in clothing spreads: fashion.
Read the room, not the fashion magazine
Fashion, by nature, is ephemeral. What’s in today is out tomorrow. Things come and go and then come back again.
Keeping up with fashion is a time-consuming endeavor. Don’t do it. The effort required to remain “fashionable” is best spent on pursuing other goals: landing a job, getting a promotion, finding the love of your life, raising children, etc.
There are, of course, a few exceptions to this. First and foremost is that if you work in the fashion industry, you really do need to keep up with fashions. Fortunately, fashion for men seems to change more slowly than it does for women. So do what you must to stay up-to-date with trends, and show some sympathy for the women in your office who must work much harder to be fashionable than you ever will.
Another exception is if you’re already fashionable. If, somehow, you have become a fashionable man, feel free to embrace that. But be honest with yourself. If you were truly fashionable, would you be reading a comprehensive guide to business casual?
If you are not fashionable and have no compelling reason to be so, that is good news.
“If a guy is chasing fashion and fashion is not what they usually wear, they're not going to be comfortable. It's just going to feel like wearing somebody else's clothes,” Slavick said. “That's why I say stick to your style. Don't chase what the fashion world likes.”
Given this, the task for most men is simple: learn what works for you and what works in your industry. If your place of business is exceedingly casual (a company that provides technology services is a common example), then you can err on the side of casual. Re-read the suggestions earlier in this guide and act accordingly. Perhaps no one in your office wears anything other than sneakers. If so, you can probably skip the brogues.
On the other hand, if you work in finance or banking, err on the side of business. Learn to love button shirts and the occasional tie. Invest in quality accessories, like a higher-end watch and something other than a backpack to carry your stuff to work.
To summarize – look around your office and your industry and decide where you can best fit on the spectrum of business casual and still be yourself.
Wear what’s handsome, not what’s handy
Finally, and most importantly, look at yourself.
You don’t need to spend a lot of time in the mirror. But you do need to spend some time there every day.
It’s also a wise move to get in the habit of deciding what you will wear to work before you go to sleep, not after you wake up.
In the evening, lay out some shirts, pants and jackets. Mix and match them until you have an ensemble that will serve you the next day.
If you don’t prepare your clothes in advance, you run the risk of having to run out the door dressed in whatever is at hand. That’s not wise. Choose your outfits. Don’t let them choose you. Aim for a look that is clean, professional, and doesn’t generate excessive attention.
Because your goal, always, is to look like the best possible version of you.
Want some help finding and choosing clothes that will make you the best possible version of you (without having to do laundry or spend a fortune), let Taelor help. Taelor is a menswear rental subscription service dedicated to helping men look their best when it matters most. Our styling service, powered by a human stylist and assisted by artificial intelligence, finds the clothes that help you win – at work, on a date, at a party, or wherever you spend your time.
By Paul Conley