Written by David Coggins

The phrase business casual, mundane as it is, strikes fear in the hearts of many men. Like “creative black tie,” it’s open-ended yet slightly menacing—like a darkened hallway in a horror movie, you don’t know what to expect. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The best approach to business casual is to make timeless not novel—any place that has a dress code is not a place to be experimental, sartorially speaking. 

Essentially, business casual is a professional, less formal alternative to a suit and tie. Let’s not debate whether that equation needed altering, but accept that in many places it has. So how to look like you’re on the way up while dressing down? The secret is to doing it on its own terms. The goal is not to be corporate, but enlightened, comfortable and understated.

Don’t just dress in a suit and dress shirt and then just ditch the tie; you don’t want to look like you sat down at a bar after work. Instead of a suit, let’s start with a good sport coat. Perhaps the most versatile thing a man can own is an unstructured blue sport coat. It belongs in every sartorial arsenal. It doesn’t have the authority of a suit, but it still communicates confidence and ease.

Dress shirts with stiff collars are designed to be buttoned up to the top and worn with a tie; when they’re unbuttoned, the collar sags and the effect is thrown off. The lesson: Don’t wear a dress shirt without a tie. Thankfully, there’s an icon waiting in the wings: the oxford shirt. The soft, rolled collar is great unbuttoned and still stands up. Depending on your personality, it can be white, striped, pink, checked. And if you’re feeling particularly creative, toss on a knit tie.

Grey trousers (flannel in winter, lightweight wool in summer) are a classic addition. They’re one of the overlooked workhorses in a man’s wardrobe. Once you dial in on a pair you like you will find them incredibly useful. If your office is jeans friendly, then a pair of dark-rinsed jeans will go well with that blue sport coat. When it comes to the workplace and jeans, I think you don’t want to be the first who wears them (unless you run the company). Better wait and see what the consensus is. 

Shoes communicate as much as anything else you wear. So get good ones. You’re an adult, so they should be leather, have a real sole, and even be shined. I always err on the side of formal shoes; they show that you see yourself as an adult. Brogues are fantastic, but if you want to lighten the atmosphere, then a pair of loafers is good. If it’s summer, then maybe ditch the socks. Though in summer white bucks are even more festive and always winning.

In many ways, dressing at work is about reassurance, and you want to dress in a way that communicates your own perceived strengths. Do you want people to think you’re sloppy and indifferent? If you do, then dress like you did in high school. Now that you’re grown up, hold yourself to a higher standard, ready for any equation and a well-deserved promotion.