A stylish business casual wardrobe can do wonders for a gentleman’s confidence and success. Below are five tips that will help you improve your business casual look and be more comfortable in the office and after hours too.
Dressing for work used to be simple. Guys typically donned a formal two or three-piece suit, and there were rules to dressing that were passed on from father to son. Time and tradition set the tone for men’s business wear, and society and informative publications that educated men on dressing well-reinforced fashion rules for the office.
Times Have Changed
Things began to change when men stopped wearing hats. Watching the entire Mad Men series will give you a short lesson on the transition of men’s fashion from the early 1960’s through the early 70’s – the latter being an era we will hopefully never recycle. Gentlemen left jackets at home, and men’s magazines started focusing on fleeting fashion and designer clothing such as Ralph Lauren. Casual Fridays slowed introduced a more relaxed office dress code and somewhere along the way men forgot how to dress appropriately.
Fortunately, times have changed and you don’t have to wear a two or three-piece suit to look great and conduct business. If you worked at a company like Patagonia, Google, or a Silicon Valley startup, this type of clothing could work against you. No particular set of clothing does justice to what it truly means to dress sharp. Being a well-dressed man goes beyond any article of clothing. Dressing sharp is about taking pride in what you wear and controlling what your image says to those with whom you’ve never spoken.
Light, pleated khakis a size too big paired with a dress or polo shirt that is baggy and doesn’t fit properly is, unfortunately, the norm in too many offices today. It passes for business casual but looks tacky. What you wear to the office doesn’t have to be boring, frumpy, or make you look dead.
Let’s dive into the five guidelines that can take your business casual look to the next level. Whether you are working at a cryptocurrency startup or selling commercial space in a retail center–you want others to view you as competent and trustworthy. And although the right clothing doesn’t guarantee you or your potential clients a great deal, it speaks to your confidence and sense of style.
Step 1: Get the Right Fit
A well-conceived outfit that doesn’t appear “put together” can be okay regarding color and style. The issue is usually how the clothes fit your body, and it’s the most overlooked way to improve a man’s wardrobe–and often the cheapest.
A garment that fits properly is revealed by how the material lays as it drapes over your body. Even if you’re a bigger guy, you want clothes that don’t billow and sag. It is a common misconception that loose clothing makes a large man look better or provides a higher degree of comfort. The opposite is true. Clothing that is too loose is made to fit a different body type and will restrict movement.
Proper clothing length is the starting point of a good fit. Trousers should fall just far enough to “break” on your shoes: the cuff should rest slightly on the top of the shoe but not bundle up with excess cloth there. Jeans can be worn slightly longer as the bunching on a narrower cut spreads out better over the leg–but don’t be afraid to have them shortened and ask before purchasing if this is a service the store provides for free.
The waistband should rest comfortably right above your hips, around the natural waist (the narrowest point on your torso, usually). Jeans will fit lower at the trouser waist, as will many modern cut chinos and dress slacks. The lower cut is easy to pull off when your waist is smaller than your chest–once the reverse is true, you need to seriously consider moving away from low-cut trousers as they will never stay up properly. Start thinking braces (remember, suspenders snap on, braces button)–they are a lot more practical and stylish than pulling up your pants every few minutes.
Shirt sleeves should extend far enough to cover your wrist bone when standing with your arms hanging down. Take a look at where the sleeve joins the shoulder too–that seam should fall neatly on the end of your body’s shoulder, not hanging down on your bicep. Jacket sleeves, if you wear one, should start in the same place and be just a touch shorter, so that a half-inch or so of shirt sleeve is visible beyond the cuff. Shirt length should be enough that you can tuck at least 2 inches in all around–less than that and your shirt will come un-tucked every time you stretch to grab something.
If the length of your clothing is sufficient, the next step is to ensure the clothing fits well circumference-wise or at least close enough so that a tailor can adjust it. A man’s clothing should fit close to the body with just enough slack to let you move comfortably.
Understand that the vast majority of men in the United States are accustomed to wearing their clothing too large, so when they wear clothing that fits, it may initially feel restrictive. Proceed towards closer fitting clothing with caution and ask a trusted friend to give you straight advice and feedback. You’ll find that you can adjust to the new fit and improved appearance quickly.
Pay extra attention to the “rise” in the trousers–the distance between the waistband and the crotch seam. If the seam that joins the legs is hanging a few inches below your actual crotch, you’re going to get a saggy look that translates straight to your thighs and your butt.
When buying a shirt, make sure it fits you in the shoulders–this isn’t something you want to adjust, as the needed tailoring will often cost more than the shirt itself. Next look at the fabric in the torso–most of us will find that if the neck and sleeve length is right, the torso looks like a balloon. The easiest way to avoid swimming in the fabric is to buy either a slim cut dress shirt or go custom. Another option, if the problem isn’t too bad (3 inches or less) is to have a seamstress dart the dress shirt–basically tucking in the fabric semi-permanently with
Adjusting Your Clothing
It’s nearly impossible to find off-the-rack menswear that fits perfectly. Take the time to find a reputable tailor and get to know him or her. Like your doctor, they will touch, or come close to your private parts if they do their job well. Small adjustments to clothing (shortening sleeves, taking the waist of a shirt in some, etc.) are relatively inexpensive and will make all the difference in how you look. Getting rid of eye-grabbing extra fabric and saggy clothing is the best way a man can update his business casual style.
Step 2: Improve Your Color Scheme
The “corporate drone” look can be easy to spot: a two or three-piece suit and a white or blue dress shirt. Because this type of dress combination is so common, it’s a relatively safe option. If you’re reading this, you’re likely not interested in looking like everyone else. Let’s discuss how small changes in color and pattern can separate you from the “losers” at your office and help you slay a tremendous looking wardrobe.
Begin with your dress shirts. White and various shades of blue are the safe standbys we see 95 percent of men wear. Instead, try pastel colors in lavender, yellow, ecru, tan, or pink. These light canvases are easy to match with a wide variety of trousers, ties, and jackets and instantly set you apart in a crowd. And don’t stop there. Change the solid single-color look for a patterned shirt–stripes are fine for any business casual environment and checks are acceptable in many situations. Even large corporations, finance, and stalwarts of the legal profession have adopted a more relaxed dress code when clients aren’t in the office.
If you only have light khakis in your wardrobe, try a deeper brown, olive, or even summer white cotton. Switch it up with a charcoal gray wool for a dressier look–lightweight wool for the warmer months and flannel in the fall and winter. For the more adventurous man, patterned trousers in a check or small pattern will add a punch of interest to a solid white or blue shirt. Lightweight corduroy pants by Vineyard Vine and Peter Millar are excellent choices for a business casual wardrobe.
Dark jeans, un-faded indigo–are acceptable in many workplaces. If so, they’re an excellent addition to your wardrobe as they match almost anything. Keep your denim dark, free of distress, and well-fitted. Custom fitted jeans from Blue Delta Jeans in Oxford, Mississippi are an outstanding addition to any wardrobe.
You shouldn’t limit your day-to-day office wear to plain black dress shoes and belts. Consider a light, buttery brown pair of slip-ons to wear with lighter trousers, and reddish oxblood leather bluchers to wear with your charcoal grey flannel trousers.
Step 3: Avoid Cheap Looking Clothing
There is a vast difference between “cheap” and “inexpensive.” Notice There are many bargains to be had in clothing land. You want to avoid cheap clothing–clothing that contains poor quality fabrics that are uncomfortable, function poorly and make you look like a time traveler from 1973.
Fabric and Texture
A glance at the composition of the clothing is a good starting point. Anything that has a substantial amount of artificial fibers like polyester or rayon–more than 15 percent or so–is going to develop a slick, plastic-looking sheen over time. It’s also a good sign that the manufacturer was cutting corners. A bit of man-made fiber in the blend, done correctly, can strengthen a garment and help with wrinkle and stain-resistance. Large percentages–over 40 percent–point toward cost-saving measures.
Know the basic “feel” of the fabric that you are purchasing. Wool garments can range from the coarse, hairy texture of rough tweed to a very smooth worsted finish or a soft, fluffy flannel. Cotton varies depending on thickness, and the quality of cotton used–it can be fragile and flimsy-feeling or quite heavy. Changing the textures of your fabrics can help keep your outfits unique from day to day. And, of course, you’ll want thicker, coarser clothing for winter and very light, smooth fabric for summer clothes.
If you can, try the clothing on and see how it “drapes”–how the fabric hangs and moves where it doesn’t fit well around your body. Walk back and forth in front of a mirror and watch the trouser cuffs, or swing your arms around some to see how the shirt sleeves move. A very billowy, blousy fabric that shifts around at every movement is the sign of a thin, cheaply-made cloth. They tear easily, look saggy, and can even be so see-through that your undershirt will be visible in the right lighting.
Buttons and other fasteners are worth a quick look as well. If the buttons are plastic and stitched on so loosely you can wiggle it up and down in the store, you’re not buying an excellent piece of clothing. Look at the stitching–is it a single line with 12+ stitches per inch or is it double stitched loosely at 8? Worse is a weak single loose stitch placed under stress. It’s doubtful these garments will make it through one washing. You want business casual clothing that looks better six months after being purchased. Then you may feel comfortable and confident when wearing.
It’s worth taking this opportunity to draw your attention to shirt collars. The button-down collar is a solid, no-hassle choice, although a more sophisticated choice is the hidden button-down collar or medium spread with removable collar stays. Both of these provide a more crisply-defined shape and look great without a necktie.
French cuffs are typically reserved for more formal occasions. They show an attention to quality as the double cuff requires more fabric and is a feature not generally found on cheap shirts.
Step 4: Layer Your Clothing
Layering your clothing is a learned skill. It requires an ability to combine colors, patterns, and fabric textures. The key to doing this right is to build an interchangeable men’s wardrobe. The goal is to select core clothing pieces that work with each other in various combinations.
A jacket is the ultimate flexible outer layer as it can be dressy or casual, and even occasionally rumpled depending on the fabric and build. The classic men’s sports coat gives you the flattering shape of a suit (tucked at the waist, broad at the shoulders) without the formality. Unstructured and unlined jackets give you a more refined look without trapping in the heat.
The key to a good jacket is proper fit and timeless style. Avoid anything with a very specialized design or that is too fashion forward–a brightly-colored blazer in your alma mater’s colors is great at alumni events, but it’s going to stand out too much at work. Stick to earth tones or dark colors for business casual jackets.
Having a jacket lets you dress up or down very quickly when needed. You can add a tie and give your shoes a quick rub with your handkerchief to be ready for an important meeting on short notice, or you can leave the jacket on a chair and roll your sleeves up for an informal look. It’s not a bad idea to have a basic, conservatively-styled jacket hanging in a closet at work. Finally, remember that a jacket does not always require a collared dress shirt. You can wear the same jacket over a sweater or even a dark-colored T-shirt.
Good quality and sweaters that fit properly will make the cold infinitely easier to dress for and are one of the most versatile layering assets in a business casual wardrobe. Men should seek out a mix of materials, thicknesses, and styles to make his sweater collection versatile. A thin cashmere crew-neck in a plain dark color is a reliable staple that works on its own or under jackets. Something thicker with a corded pattern makes for a comfortable layer of warmth in the coldest weather, and a V-neck in thin wool can be worn in both the spring and fall.
Sweaters can be worn over dress shirts (with or without a tie), over sports shirts and polos, under jackets, or on top of a comfortable long-sleeved T-shirt. If you’re wearing the sweater with a collared shirt, you’ll need a V-neck cut to keep from forcing the collar beneath your chin unnaturally.
When it’s too hot to wear a jacket, but you want to be a bit more dressed up than just a dress shirt and trousers, wearing a lightweight men’s vest is a perfect compromise. The advantage of a vest is that it that it helps create a more streamlined look from a man’s shoes to his head by eliminating the contrast point at the buckle (usually between a light shirt and dark trouser). Vests also allow extreme freedom of movement and are a favorite of men who need to dress sharp while working at a quick pace.
Step 5: Pay Attention to the Details
An otherwise perfect business casual outfit can be ruined by being careless when it comes to the details. Keep your accessories simple and clean, and never underestimate the effect–both positive and negative–the small details can have on an otherwise strong personal presentation.
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- The right shoe for the right outfit is essential. A pair of balmoral oxfords are great for formal occasions but look to bluchers, slip-on’s, and boots for a business casual wardrobe.
- Know your men’s footwear options–lace-ups are only one option, as depending on your situation you may find tassel loafers or Italian moccasins are an easy way to change the look of the same old dress shirt and pants. Leather slip-on double monk straps are not only comfortable but dressy enough to wear with a light colored suit–they are a European classic few men ever discover.
- Black and dark brown are your classic shoe colors–they are flexible and relatively easy to match. If you’re dressing up your day-to-day business casual look, however, look to add lighter browns, reddish oxblood, and suede/white bucks/two-tone shoes. Leather tooling or “broguing” is perfect for business casual footwear.
- Have enough pairs of shoes that you can let each one rest a few days between wears. This keeps the leather strong and supple by giving it time to expel excess moisture.
- Dust your shoes off when you remove them for the day. Smooth leather will need reasonably regular polishing, and occasional conditioning with leather creams or oils is suitable for any leather product. Make sure you use a cream appropriate to the specific type of leather, however, and test it discreetly on the underside of the tongue or uppers to make sure it won’t alter the coloring!
Neckties and Pocket Squares
- In a business casual environment, neckties and pocket squares should be used to add variety, not uniformity, to your look.
- Consider tie materials beyond silk; woven ties and knit wools have a more substantial presence and send a more relaxed signal. Always avoid neckties made from synthetic materials. They tend to look artificially slick and shiny and don’t age well.
- Wear a knot style that works with your collar. Wider collar spreads will need a thicker knot (the Windsor adds a good bit of bulk), the half-Windsor a bit less, while narrower collars do best with a smaller knot like the four-in-hand. Ensure you create a “dimple” just below the knot.
- Consider a bow-tie if you’re confident; they more often than not draw smiles and positive feelings from people. But only if you learn how to tie one properly. Never, never, never, never, wear a pre-tied bow tie. Never. Have I made my point!
- Learn to match your tie with your dress shirt–this alone will prevent you from being the subject of more than a few office jokes.
- Pocket squares can be worn anytime you wear a jacket with a breast pocket–I love to wear them when I am not wearing a necktie as it adds a splash of color and signals that I have the confidence to dress as I please.
- Dirty, wrinkled, or stained clothing should never be worn in a business casual environment. Period. Dress shirts, suits, jackets, and trousers should all be hung up and make sure wool jackets hang on wide suit hangers, not on thin wire ones.
- Iron out the wrinkles in cotton; steam out bad wrinkling in wool. And only iron clean clothing–hot irons can press dirt into place permanently.
- Finally, wool suits and sweaters do not need to be dry cleaned after casual wear. Brush your wool clothing after every wear and hang it neatly in an area where it can breathe for 24 hours.
Keep yourself as clean as your clothes. A good haircut, use of the proper hair product, and a clean shave make a world of difference. Trim your nails and excess body hair if it extends beyond your nostrils or undershirt.