You hear the phrase all the time. “Oh, it’s business casual.” You go along with it, you nod your head. You’ve got a general idea, right? Maybe? Let’s be honest — you don’t entirely know what business casual is (and isn’t), and at this point, you’re too afraid to ask. Luckily, we’re here to help.
What Is Business Casual?
It’s actually pretty simple. Think of business casual as the halfway point between a suit and what you’d wear to a Taco Bell. Makes sense, right? No? Okay, fair. Think of it in terms of black wedding bands – yeah, it’s still the same idea as the classic band, but with a casual twist and a bit of extra personality in there. So, the general idea behind business casual involves dress pants and dress shirts, but in casual versions.
Instead of proper dress pants, you’ll probably be in lighter-colored chinos. Instead of a dress shirt, you’ll probably wear an Oxford or a patterned button-down with a smaller and less structured color. You’ll also swap out formal dress shoes for loafers, monk straps or maybe something lighter colored and with a brogue pattern. If you’re short on time, that’s really all you need to know.
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How Long Has Business Casual Existed?
Actually, not all that long. Business casual didn’t really come into vogue until the 1970s. That said, mainstream adoption of the idea of business casual didn’t happen until the ’90s. Up until the ’70s, dudes just wore suits. Like, in and out of the office. Rumor has it anyone born before 1940 entered the world in a full suit and tie. Sort of just spawned in, ready to be an accountant.
Anyway, the idea of business casual is an incredibly modern one. Of course, with the era of remote work we’re in, business casual is actually pretty formal for a lot of us. The new business casual might be trading in your jeans for shorts at best. Still, the moniker remains how it is.
Are Business Casual and Smart Casual the Same Thing?
They sure aren’t. There are a bunch of different terms that sound vaguely like business casual, but they’re all different. Smart casual, business casual and semi-formal all mean different things. You probably won’t confuse business casual with semi-formal, but business casual and smart casual are rampantly (and erroneously) used interchangeably.
Smart casual is basically a half-step down from business casual. Smart casual allows for brighter colors and dark denim, whereas business casual, while still casual in nature, is a bit more conservative. Can you wear dark denim in a business casual setting? Some people say yes, but we’re inclined towards no. It’s going to be on a case-by-case basis, but you’re always better off erring on the side of no denim until you hear otherwise.
Still, you don’t want to mix the two up. Think of smart casual as date night and business casual as Fridays at the office. Unless you’re bringing your laptop on the date (or just going somewhere vaguely fancy), leave the business casual at the office and err on the side of smart casual. You’ll still look put together.
How Do I Dress in Business Casual?
It’s the great question on every office worker’s mind, right after “Why am I here?” and “What’s the meaning of life?” The questions become less existential very quickly. Luckily, Richard Dawkins isn’t going to show up and tell you that business casual is an illusion, so you’ve got that going for you.
Shirt: Pretty much anything with buttons that isn’t too out there. Steer towards a more conservative dress code, though patterns (especially classics) are usually fine. Short sleeve shirts are usually acceptable, especially during summer.
Pants: Chinos or lighter-colored dress pants. Dark dress pants tend to be a bit more toward business semi-formal than business casual. Dark denim is okay on a case-by-case basis, but that really just depends on your office. Increasingly, dark denim is becoming acceptable but still feel out the vibe of your office before trying it.
Shoes: On the more casual end, you’ve got things like loafers, monk straps and brogues. If you’re going more towards formal dress shoes, pick ones in brown with a pattern to stay in the business casual range.
Accessories: Go simple on these, but they are allowed. Your classic gold wedding band is always going to be allowed in the office but take the opportunity to pair it with a casual watch or bracelet with metal accents.
Socks: Still required.
Business casual is one of those nebulous ideas that tends to be overcomplicated. It really isn’t that hard. If it’s your first Casual Friday in the office, dress towards the formal end of business casual until you get the vibe for the office. If you work in tech, though, a hoodie without any stains is probably fine.