Not even Wikipedia, with its thousands of contributors and millions of entries, can provide a definition of the ever-slippery term business casual. It mashes a hodgepodge of potential definitions together in the hopes that some part of it sticks, quoting everything from Forbes to the University of Toronto guide to dressing. Nailing business casual is a lot harder than it seems, as anyone who has shown up embarrassingly over or under dressed can attest to.
Give us your trust as we steer you through the minefield. What’s to follow is your compass for the tricky zone of “casual” dress for not-so-casual (ahem, business) circumstances.
Even your well-aged Japanese denim won’t fly
The first thing that pops to mind when you hear “business casual” is denim – or, are you allowed to wear jeans? The answer is: no. Save them for the weekend. Some of the more fashion-forward or creative environments like ad agencies and tech startups might permit it, but at most finance jobs, denim isn’t likely to be smiled upon.
If your office started having casual Fridays and you’re looking for the proper pants, try a pair of 100% cotton chinos. They are easy to find in a variety of colors and styles. Originally they were made for the military, so consider nodding to their roots by keeping your shirt of choice good and structured: a crisp button down, a well cut blazer, or a collared shirt underneath a thin crew neck sweater are all perfect combinations for when the weather starts to cool down in Fall. A bonus cheat for the travelling businessman: wrinkle-free chinos are easy to find and perfect for your suitcase!
Left: Banana Republic Aiden Slip Fit Chino. Right: Naked & Famous “Weird Guy” Straight Leg Chino, available at Nordstron.
Keep the blazer, lose the tie
The next pointer for achieving an effortless business casual look is to leave the tie at home, and play with blazers, jackets, etc., in styles that stray from your typical 9-5 office suit look. Again, materials are the key to your creative self-expression here. A tweed sport coat or a cord blazer add a hip twist to what you’d wear day-to-day without straying too far from what your colleagues are comfortable with seeing you in. Try turning up the cuff on the arm of your jacket to reveal the sleeves of your button down (plan complimentary colors here) or your favorite watch underneath.
Is the blazer what you were most excited about leaving behind for your business casual rendez-vous? Well it can be done. In this instance, find a well-fitting crew neck sweater and pair it with a button down in a smart pattern or bold hue underneath. This is a lean further into the casual side than the business one, but the collared shirt should keep you out of the deep end.
Left: INC International Concepts Kohan Blazer. Right: J. Crew Slim Italian Cashmere V-Neck Sweater.
Kick off your sneakers
Sadly, no, you cannot wear sneakers. Even if they’re fancy, even if they’re black, even if the business casual occasion happens to be outside of business hours. Boat shoes are another style that are strictly for your personal weekend time. When you’re looking for business casual footwear stick with something that’s fairly close to what you would wear in the office normally.
Stylish shoes are easy way to punch up an otherwise not so dressy outfit, so keep them more business and less casual to keep your outfit tight. Oxford shoes with laces, loafers made out of good quality leather, suede buck shoes, and if you’re bold maybe a boot cut shoe are all fair game. Invest in any of these styles in classic colors like black or tan so that you can get the most out of them. Save the colors experimentation for pieces of your outfit that are easier to rotate like pants and shirts. When in doubt, keep it classic with your shoe choice.
With a little extra attention to cut, layering, and fun with colour, business casual is not as difficult to achieve as the lack of definition would lead us to believe. When in doubt, remember that it is always ebtter to be overdressed than too casual and opt for the fancier version of your outfit of choice until you’ve got the rhythm of what is and isn’t OK with the vibe of your workplace.