Business Casual is Not That Hard

law-firm-business-casual

Over the Christmas holiday, Jordan and I had a bit of a discussion about our office’s dress code. I’d been fighting him for months, trying to get him to show up every day in a suit and tie.

Fat chance.

At my wit’s end, I decided that my New Year’s Resolution was to let this go, and we discussed a relaxation of the office dress code to “business casual.” Jordan gladly agreed,

Imagine my surprise when, on January 2, 2013, Jordan walks in wearing an untucked polo shirt, pleated khakis, and black sneakers.

“What the hell are you wearing?” I blurted.

“Dude, you said we were business casual! I’m biz cas!”

I shook my head. “I’ve made a huge mistake. Listen, Jordan, has anyone ever explained to you what ‘business casual’ means?”

The blank stare told me all I needed to know.

“Business casual.”

These two words strike fear into my heart, and make fools out of wise men.

I understand that there are some days that you just don’t feel like getting into the full suit rig for a day on the job. Hell, I was with you this week, and wore my L.L. Bean chamois flannel shirts to the office on the coldest of days this week.

Unfortunately, these days “business casual” has devolved into a nightmare — over-sized polo shirts with visible white t-shirts underneath. Poly/cotton blend pleated khakis. Backpacks. White athletic socks with black sneakers. It makes me shudder to think about it. Here’s a quick tip: there’s nothing “business” about sneakers.

You know, I can’t really blame men today for being clueless. In our increasingly casual American society — remember that we’re the country that invented Pajama Jeans — the line between casual and business wear has become too blurred, and there’s simply too little guidance for too many men today.

Today, I hope to be a beacon of guiding light.

What does business casual mean, Mister Fancypants?

To pass business casual muster, you should aim for “not quite a suit, but dammed near close.” This is an outfit that will make you look sufficiently professional to impress a client who drops in for a surprise meeting, but not quite enough to appear in court.

I am going to bold this because it is important: business casual is not simply wearing a suit without a tie. That is called “wearing a suit without a tie.” Business casual is also not wearing a shirt, tie, and pants. You don’t look professional when you do this, you just look like Mr. Mackey, m’kay? Would you hire Mr. Mackey to be your lawyer?

No, true business casual is better than that. It’s more creative and lets you get some variation in your wardrobe.

There are several elements to the true business casual outfit:

  1. Blazer or sport jacket;
  2. Collared shirt;
  3. Wool trousers;
  4. Leather shoes;
  5. Tie (optional); and
  6. Pocket Square (optional).

Let’s run though these elements.

1) You should have odd jackets in your professional wardrobe

No, I don’t mean “strange” jacket. Rather, I mean a jacket that isn’t part of a suit. There are generally two categories of odd jackets, both of which are essential to your business casual wardrobe  — blazers and sports coats. You might not know that there’s a difference between the two.

Blazer

The term “blazer” originates with brightly colored English rowing club jackets. The original blazer was red. These days, you’re more likely to see them in navy, in either a worsted wool or a flannel. Most traditionally found with brass or silver-colored buttons, the navy blazer is classic “Ivy Style” wear.

You ought to own one, preferably in flannel. The great thing about a navy blazer? Even if you are dressed in a schlubby polo shirt, throw on a navy blazer and you’ll class yourself up by an order of magnitude. If you feel that the brass buttons make you look too much like an English schoolboy, try switching them out for horn.

Sport Coat

A sport coat, traditionally, was one worn during “sport” — like hunting — hence its name. These days, a sport coat generally refers to an odd coat that’s not made of a suiting material. You can usually get away with sport coats in slightly louder fabrics that might not be appropriate for a full suit.

Common materials for sport coats include tweeds, tan camel hair, birdseye/nailhead, and some more colorful plaids and checks.

Why have these?

Simple — they add diversity to your wardrobe and allow you to take the formality down a notch from the standard navy or charcoal suit. Or, in a pinch, you can throw on a jacket to spruce up an outfit that’s a bit less formal.

Moreover, there are literally thousands of different materials you can use to make a sport coat. Take a look around and find a fun pattern to wear every once in a while. You think it sounds boring? — take look at a local attorney pal of mine who looks better in business casual than most people look in a tuxedo.

That’s business casual done right.

2) Collared Shirt

I’ve written many, many words about shirts before , so I will keep this to a minimum. Your business casual shirt should follow four rules:

  1. It should be blue, or white, or both (stripes and checks are ok);
  2. It should be ironed;
  3. It should have button cuffs; and
  4. Polo shirts don’t count.

Seriously guys, polo shirts aren’t formal clothing, they’re glorified t-shirts meant for playing golf or tennis. Stop wearing them in professional settings.

3) Wool Trousers

Just as you should own several odd jackets, you should own several pair of trousers that aren’t part of a suit. Why? Versatility, and appropriate business casual wear.

First, let’s get something straight — khakis are NOT business casual. I don’t care what your favorite style columnist says, or what the salesperson at the local Menz Discount Suit Deal$ store tells you. Khakis are essentially jeans that are tan instead of blue. Stop wearing them in a professional setting. You look stupid, juvenile, or both.

Instead, you should have is at least three pair of gray wool trousers: light gray, mid gray, and dark gray. Don’t believe me? Listen to this guy who has worked at J. Press probably for longer than you’ve been alive. I prefer flannel trousers — they have a better texture and are less likely to be mistaken for mis-matched suit pants. Plain wool trousers in light, mid, and dark gray are versatile enough to go with virtually any shirt, jacket, and tie combination, and will spruce up your look from khakis. Whether you get flat front or pleated is up to you — I own both.

Make sure that you get them altered properly (both in waist and leg length) and get them cuffed. Anyone who tells you that cuffs are for old men is stupid and wrong.

4) Shoes

We’ve already been over this before. The nice part of a business casual outfit is you’re afforded an extra bit of leeway with shoes — you don’t have to stick with just a black or brown cap-toe. Try a burgundy loafer,  a shell cordovan plain-toe blucher, or a tan semi-brogue.

Sneakers are always unacceptable. Vibram Five-fingers should be grounds for disbarment.

5) Tie

Chose your own adventure:

5a) I hate wearing ties!

Good news! You don’t have to wear one if you’re in a business casual outfit. Consider a pocket square, though, to spruce up your appearance. Make sure that if you’re not wearing a tie, and are instead wearing your collar unbuttoned, that you have a v-neck undershirt on so it doesn’t show. Undergarments should not be seen.

5b) I love wearing ties!

Good news! The business casual environment gives you a bit of extra leeway with experimentation. Bring out those ties that might be less appropriate with a full suit — like knit, wool, or bow ties. Your imagination’s the limit.

6) Pocket Square

If you’re not wearing a tie, you should have a pocket square. If you don’t own any, buy some. Start with white linen.If you are wearing a tie, tread lightly. Don’t get too matchy-matchy with your tie. Burn any matching tie and pocket-square sets you own.

In either case, stick with plain white linen if you’re an amateur. Cream silk is a good second choice. If you’re feeling more adventurous, follow this sage advice.

There’s your primer on real business casual dress. Feel free to ask additional questions or berate me in the comments below. Happy New Year, and until next time.

(image: young casual man going thumb down from Shutterstock)

Lifestyle

  • Bunnie Watson

    I’m new to your blog, and perhaps have missed past rants. Zowie, why do you care so much about this? Fashion fetishism is unbecoming to everyone, from Karl Lagerfeld on down. I also note no attention is paid to those of us of the female persuasion, who are bereft of even the optional ties and pocket squares. Seriously guys, the world does not revolve around what you are wearing today. Now that you have enunciated the details of your dress code, however, Jordan will likely reconsider his sartorial faux pas and fall in step as a spiffy lawyer clone.

    • http://FishtownLaw.com Leo

      This is a hyperbolized advice column on men’s professional dress that’s based not on fashion, but on solid traditional pieces for a professional wardrobe.

      As I have no experience with women’s professional wear, I think I’d be ill-suited to discuss the matter. Lauren Roso here at the Lawyerist handles that quite aptly: http://lawyerist.com/author/laurenroso/.

  • http://consumerlawyer.mn/cgi-sys/suspendedpage.cgi Randall Ryder
  • denbigh

    Wow. So very snippy about something so inconsequential.

    The sooner clients are conditioned to stop expecting to see us in the Formalwear Lawyer Costume (or its cousin the “damn near close” “Casual” Lawyer Costume) every day, the better.

    • http://FishtownLaw.com Leo

      You should see how snarky I get when things really matter.

    • http://phillylawblog.wordpress.com/ Jordan Rushie

      If he weren’t snarky I would show up everyday in my Glock hat, ripped jeans, and whatever shirt I picked up off the floor first.

      A collared shirt and khakis are a big step for me.

  • Andrea

    Loving this, as I am always on the end of the spectrum that believes better to over-dress than under. Being female – this adds a whole ‘nother layer of complexity. As does the part of the business in which you reside, and the industry you work in.

    Me – female VP Sales. Industry, blue collar, environment – techie. Average dress in the office – Sr. Management in 10 yr old pleated khakis and a button down with a company logo. The tech team might be in flips and holey jeans with a knit beanies on. Oh – and matching black shoes AND black belt is rarely seen. The black belt, brown shoes fiasco lives on.

    I prefer to look like the J Crew catalog. Blazer, top, trousers, nice jewelry and leather shoes. And as much as that makes me stand out – so be it. It stands out in a good way.

  • Seamus

    Wait, so this doesn’t count as business casual? http://www.betabrand.com/navy-executive-pinstripe-hoodie.html

    • http://FishtownLaw.com Leo Mulvihill, Jr.

      Only if you get the matching pinstriped sweatpants — it’s a faux pas to wear odd trousers or coats in a pinstripe.

  • Jonas Eigil Nielsen

    I agree with your opinion most of the way. However, in mentioning bow ties, you link to a page (Brooks Brothers) which merely displays pre-tied bow ties. In my opinion, pre-tied bowties make an even worse business casual faux pas than any other item on your list!

    • http://FishtownLaw.com Leo Mulvihill, Jr.

      Not one of those is pre-tied — they’re just tied for photography purposes.

  • Chris Cotteta

    Nicely done, Leo. I couldn’t agree more.

    I think the most important thing that a well put-together outfit does is communicate to others that you care about what you’re doing. It has something to do with aesthetics, but more to do with giving an appropriate context to ones actions.

    I get the impression that people “dress down” because its more comfortable and familiar. Perhaps there is value in being less comfortable, which also creates a kind of mental distance between people. Full dress is not arrogance; it encourages independence of thought and sets the stage for more ambitious discourse.

  • Frederick

    Generally agree with this. I will say that it is safe to have ecru and even pink shirts and tan slacks are acceptable to most.

    • http://FishtownLaw.com Leo Mulvihill, Jr.

      That’s fodder for a business casual 102.

  • John B

    Incorrect. Your description of business casual is not business casual.

    At 99.99999999% of corporate offices business causual is:
    - Khaki or black pants
    - A button-up shirt
    - Dress shoes

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

      I think what Leo is saying is that you’re doing it wrong.

      • http://phillylawblog.wordpress.com/ Leo

        Bingo.

  • Mr. Business Appraiser

    So I’ve read that advice about V-neck undershirts but it’s bad advice if you happen to be a wolf at the collar line. What would you recommend for the hairy chest set?

    Also, wool trousers seem itchy and hot. I’d pass. What’s the next alternative for pants?

    • http://phillylawblog.wordpress.com/ Leo

      Whoever said that it was a bad idea is wrong. Embrace your manly chest. If its excessive, trim appropriately. It’s the same rule for unruly eyebrows, nose hair, and ear hair.

      Well made wool pants can be made from lightweight tropical wools, which are cooler than linen or cotton, through heavy flannel for winter.

      Some people are very sensitive to wool. I am not, and many better quality wool trousers aren’t as itchy as lower quality, cheaper wools.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/matthewsalzwedel Matthew Salzwedel

    So my colleague, Leo, the wise sage:

    (1) Can a lawyer account for regional differences in style when deciding on business-casual attire?
    (2) Do these rules apply to always-business-casual offices, or just specific business-casual days?
    (3) Is it acceptable to wear blue jeans on designated blue-jeans days?

    I, for one, will never wear a blazer or sport coat, much less a blazer with a pocket square. That’s just me.

    And pocket squares for business casual? Seriously? In a prior post, you said that when interviewing a pocket-square “might not be the best option if you’re interviewing in a very-conservative firm.” That advice seems to be inconsistent with your advice in this post that pocket-squares are OK for business-casual firms.

    Finally, if, as you say, I should wear a blazer or sport coat and nice wool trousers and a nice shirt and nice shoes, I might as well wear a full suit and save the mental energy required to put your preferred business-casual ensemble together.

    Otherwise, I liked the post, and learned some new things. Different perspectives are good.

    • http://FishtownLaw.com Leo

      ***(1) Can a lawyer account for regional differences in style when deciding on business-casual attire?***

      You can follow these rules anywhere and look good. By “regional differences”, what do you mean? Like can you wear a hat and boots while in Texas?

      ***(2) Do these rules apply to always-business-casual offices, or just specific business-casual days?***

      Business casual, generally.

      ***(3) Is it acceptable to wear blue jeans on designated blue-jeans days?***

      Sure. I think jeans are always unacceptable office wear. I understand that I am a minority here. If you’re going to wear jeans though, you can do so without looking like Mitt Romney.

      ***I, for one, will never wear a blazer or sport coat, much less a blazer with a pocket square. That’s just me.**

      Then don’t. But that’s not business casual — that’s just casual.

      ***And pocket squares for business casual? Seriously? In a prior post, you said that when interviewing a pocket-square “might not be the best option if you’re interviewing in a very-conservative firm.” That advice seems to be inconsistent with your advice in this post that pocket-squares are OK for business-casual firms.***

      Not at all inconsistent. The interview is not about your sense of style, it’s about you as a candidate, and it’s very formal. You want to dress as conservatively as possible. But once you have the job, go wild. Furthermore, a pocket square doesn’t necessarily make an outfit more formal — in fact, it can have the exact opposite effect.

      ***Finally, if, as you say, I should wear a blazer or sport coat and nice wool trousers and a nice shirt and nice shoes, I might as well wear a full suit and save the mental energy required to put your preferred business-casual ensemble together.***

      Very different animals. Odd coat and trousers put off a distinctly different vibe than a suit. I’d never wear an odd coat and trousers to court (unless it was a dire emergency).

    • KMack

      FYI: Cowboy boots in Texas are casual, business casual, business, and black-tie appropriate. The only difference between the categories is the level of cleanliness of said boots.

      Fortunately, my office is casual casual. If I’m meeting with a client or attending a business lunch or professional meeting, I’ll suit up. Otherwise, I’ve had days where I stroll into work in a t-shirt, ripped jeans, and flip-flops and have not been the most casually dressed person in the office.

  • Dave

    Love the article, but I do have one correction (suggestion?) about trousers.
    The general rule is pleated=cuffs, flat front=straight leg.

    • http://FishtownLaw.com Leo

      This rule is wrong.

      My rule: Cuff nearly everything.

      Some exceptions apply for my more casual trousers (moleskin or twill), but I cuff any wool pants that have the length necessary.

      • Andrew P.

        I have to go with Dave on this one-cuffs look funny with flat front. But why squabble-if you’ve got the wool trousers, good enough by me

  • Andrea

    Gentlemen….

    Pleated is out. Period. IF you don’t believe me, ask Tim Gunn ….

    Andrea

    • http://FishtownLaw.com Leo

      Tim Gunn is wrong. He might have a great eye for high fashion, but his taste in menswear is questionable, at best.

      The reason that many pleated pants as worn by the clueless look awful is that men are wearing them like jeans — slung around the hips. This looks stupid.

      They should be worn at the true waist — near the belly button. And they usually look better when worn with an odd jacket.

      Today, I’m proudly wearing pleated pants with my suit.

      • Andrew P.

        I really think it depends on age. If you’re a young man, pleats look weird

        • http://phillylawblog.wordpress.com/ Leo

          No.

  • Paul

    There are various other colors of shirts for a reason. Would someone in a classy purple, pink, light green, or dark red button up shirt would be less business casual? There are very tasteful versions of those colors in the major brands sold at the major men’s clothing stores and they look quite professional. Pair them with a solid pair of wool slacks and you got good business casual in my mind.

    • http://FishtownLaw.com Leo

      Some shades of pink are ok, as are ecru, pale pink, pale yellow. But that’s a 102 level course, and this is 101.

      Dark red is never ok for professional wear.

  • Dan

    Tomorrow we’ll discuss “Business Music” and why that doesn’t include death metal.

    • http://FishtownLaw.com Leo

      There’s always room in the professional office for death metal.

  • Seth

    You’ve left out considerations for eye wear.

    • Andrew P.

      I think eyewear has to be pretty extreme to be inappropriate. I’ve worn big plastic Ray Ban frames to federal court and never heard a peep.

  • Andrew P.

    I respectfully dissent. If you’re under 30 (really, under 40), for the love of all that is good and just, do not cuff your pants. Also, if you are under 40 and weigh less than 300 pounds, flat fronts.

    • http://FishtownLaw.com Leo

      Well, you’re wrong.

      • http://FishtownLaw.com Leo

        Hit enter too soon.

        There are countless examples of cuffs looking great on younger guys.

        A tip with cuffs, though — don’t wimp out. 1.75 to 2″ sound big, looks great..

  • http://www.regulatorylawsa.com Lee Swales

    Great blog, besides the pant cuffing advice. Even here, in deep dark Africa, pant cuffing is a faux pas, especially for those under retirement age.

  • Carrie in California

    OCBD*. Classic “casual” shirt that translates well in a business casual setting depending on industry.

    Ironically, button down shirts were the first real polo shirts. The jockey’s got sick of their collars smacking them in the face while in play.

    The shirt we know now as the polo shirt is as you pointed out, a golf shirt.

    *Oxford Cloth Button Down