For almost 20 years, business casual has remained the most common dress code in American offices. As you can tell from the name, business casual strives to be that perfect mix of professional and approachable.
Even from polling our clients on Instagram, we know it’s number one across industries. So why is it that so many people continue to ask themselves, “What is business casual, exactly?”
If you ask us, it’s because all dress policies are incredibly vague. Unless your employer gives you explicit instructions in a handbook (which most don’t), you’re on your own. You’re left to guessing, asking friends (who also don’t know what they’re talking about), or scrolling online.
We figure that’s what brought you here.
Luckily, unlike a lot of the other advice out there, ours comes from REAL experience. We work with clients in corporate settings in major cities all over the world.
We work with our clients one-on-one to help them understand how they should dress not just for their dress code, but for their own goals and lifestyle.
Keep reading to finally learn what business casual looks like for women and men, complete with styling and outfit tips.
Table of Contents
What is Business Casual for Women
Business casual attire for women means clothing that’s less formal than a suit, but not as casual as jeans and a t-shirt.
Think wide-leg trousers with a high-waisted fit and a tucked-in blouse with a pop of color. Or a boyfriend-style blazer layered over a shift dress and paired with boots.
Women’s business casual should always feel polished and put together without “trying too hard”.
The key is to balance out formal, more classic elements with modern and relaxed elements.
A lot of people struggle to do this because they don’t know how to build a cohesive outfit. This has gotten even harder post-COVID. Across the board, dress codes shifted more casual, with some jobs dropping them altogether.
This further blurred the lines between what’s too casual and what’s too dressed up.
Because of the confusion around this dress code, we call it power casual instead. It’s not about just slapping a blazer over a pair of jeans and calling it quits.
It’s about refining your choices, being intentional with clothing, and finding your power through style.
Must-Have Attire for Women with a Business Casual Dress Code
For a successful closet of business casual clothes, buy well-fitting and well-made items that make you feel good about yourself.
That means you need to try on everything. For each item you want, try on different sizes, brands, silhouettes, and colors until you find that one piece that you never want to take off.
We know this is time-consuming, but doing your homework now saves you time down the line. That way you avoid ending up with clothes you hate or that don’t actually fit you.
Some of the must-have items to include on your shopping list are:
- A women’s blazer.
- A lightweight sweater
- Sneakers (slip-ons or low-profile, non-sporty trainers)
Obviously, you can have more items than just what’s listed here. But think of these as your wardrobe foundation. These are business casual basics that you can combine endlessly together to create stylish ensembles.
(For that reason, we also recommend buying these items in core colors: black, navy, grey, and white. These colors always go with each other and go with just about every other hue out there.)
Once you’ve got these, you can fill in the gaps and incorporate more of your personality through prints, colors, and accessories.
Women’s Business Casual Outfits
Got the basics? Good. Now it’s time for some outfit inspiration.
Outfit 1: How To Do Denim
Okay, obviously, the guy in this pic isn’t dressed business casual. But Laura Dern’s outfit is right on the money.
This outfit works for a few reasons:
- Balancing casual and formal.
She’s got a well-tailored blazer that looks made for her. The structure contrasts nicely with the cool, relaxed feel of her jeans (which again, fit perfectly) and sneakers. This is what we call a harmonious outfit. All the different elements are working together.
If you notice, this isn’t a one-trick pony. This outfit has plenty of opportunities to get dressed up. Say she wanted to wear this to dinner after an event. She could throw on boots or pumps to easily elevate this ensemble.
Outfit 2: Going Classic
As we mentioned earlier, not everyone can get away with denim at their workplace. If you need a true business casual outfit, look no further than this sweater and trousers combo.
Notice that the fabrics are elevated. Like the cozy wool of the trousers and the sleek, glossy leather of the boots.
We’ve also got a little extra personality with the textured knit of the blouse. (Pro tip: textures are an A+ way to add visual interest to a look instead of a print or pattern.)
Finally, we love the color palette. The core colors work together seamlessly and look chic enough for corporate offices in any major city.
Outfit 3: No Pants? No Problem.
For those of you who can’t resist a splash of color and print, this one’s for you. (In fact, if you’re looking for a style role model, Kerry Washington is a must. She’s an expert at picking out pops of personality that make sense for her brand and always look stylish.)
Business casual doesn’t have to mean you only ever wear pants. If you love dresses and skirts, you can incorporate them into your wardrobe. (Especially for spring and summer business casual style.)
Just be mindful of hem lengths so you can keep your look office-appropriate and professional.
The flowy skirt makes this look not only feminine but also comfortable. At the same time, she balances that out with a cinched waist and a well-fitting top. That way she’s balancing out flowy with fitted.
Lastly, we love her shoe choice here. Going with boots is a little unexpected for this ensemble, but it still seems cohesive. Don’t forget that shoes and accessories are easy ways to switch up a look and experiment.
If you wanted to go more traditional, you could swap the boots for leather flats or closed-toe heels.
What is Business Casual for Men
Business casual for men follows the same rubric as that for women. You’re striking the balance between dressed up and casual. You want to be taken seriously at work but you also want to look effortless and style-aware.
That means finding formal elements that you like and make sense for your job and workplace, and combining them with modern or relaxed elements that work for your lifestyle and personality.
For example, let’s say you’re very forward-facing in your company, or you have to engage a lot of high-level executives.
An outfit for giving presentations might be a blazer or jacket over a sweater and trousers. Depending on your industry, you could possibly spruce this look up with sneakers for a Tech CEO vibe. Or, keep it classic with chukkas or oxfords.
On the other hand, let’s say you mostly work at your desk. Or you’re one-on-one with clients in a creative field. Then you might prefer to go for a pair of dressy joggers with a cardigan over a T-shirt.
Again, nothing’s one-size-fits-all. But there are plenty of ways to find what is right for you.
Must-Have Attire for Men with a Business Casual Dress Code
With that, let’s get into your shopping list. Similar to our advice for women, if you’re wondering, “What is business casual?” there are a few pieces that can give you a headstart.
Business casual attire for men (or men’s power casual, as we call it) should include:
- Lightweight sweaters
- Blazers and Cardigans
- Sneakers (slip-ons or low-profile, non-sporty trainers)
- Chukkas or boots
Remember, these are your essentials. You can have a successful wardrobe just with these items. As long as they fit you well, are made from top-notch materials, and lean into core colors (black, white, navy, and grey).
Because you’re not going to enjoy wearing something that doesn’t fit.
And if you only buy low-quality items, they’re not going to last and they’ll likely look low-quality as well.
Third, we always recommend starting with core colors because they seamlessly pair with each other and most other hues.
Once you master the basics, you can add pops of color and print to show off your personal brand.
Men’s Business Casual Outfits
Style is super visual, so we’ve picked out three outfits to get your gears turning. We’ll break down why each works and how you can use these as outfit formulas for your wardrobe.
Outfit 1: Monochrome Done Right
At Next Level Wardrobe, we’re all about the art of monochromatic dressing. This is our one-and-done outfit formula.
The idea is simple: pack a color and wear it from head to toe. Seriously. That’s it.
Don’t worry about matching the tone of the color perfectly. Embracing variations in shade makes this look even better!
Want to make this look more business-appropriate? Opt for loafers or sneakers instead of the shoes shown.
Outfit 2: Make It Your Own
For the guy who wants to make men’s business casual their own, this is the look for you. This is Ramit Sethi.
He’s an entrepreneur, financial guru, writer, and the husband of NLW founder, Cassandra Sethi. This is how he does business casual.
The idea is that you can take just about any silhouette from a man’s closet and make it business casual.
Take for example, the hoodie. Most people think of this as pretty casual. A lot of people only wear one at the gym or if they’re lounging at home.
But because it’s paired here with more tailored trousers and high-end sneakers, the outfit reads as polished.
If your job doesn’t let you wear sneakers, you can always wear a leather loafer or a lace-up boot instead.
If you work in tech or creative fields, this is a field-appropriate, modern spin on a classic dress code.
Outfit 3: Outerwear for the Win
Are you a big and tall guy in need of a style role model? Then check out Tyler Perry for a masterclass in balancing contemporary with classic, all while dressing for his frame.
No matter what, he always looks polished in his outfits.
The reason why we chose this outfit in particular is because of the suede jacket. This is an excellent example of how to play with your outerwear. It doesn’t just have to be boring or basic.
There are so many great cold-weather options for men and they’re worth exploring.
This jacket also works as a cool alternative to a blazer. It still frames his outfit but he doesn’t look stuffy. Instead, the brown suede feels luxurious and suave.
We hope this guide helped you find out what business casual is and what it might look like for you.
Looking for expert help creating the business casual wardrobe of your dreams? Apply for NLW’s styling services for men and women.
Our stylists are ready to listen to your fashion challenges and style goals. We’ll create a custom plan just for you and build out your closet with clothing that elevates your personal brand.