What the Heck Does ‘Business Casual’ Mean, Anyway?

Advice from an insurance agent, a retired car salesman and others who know a thing or two about straddling the most confusing of sartorial lines.

What the Heck Does ‘Business Casual’ Mean, Anyway?

Are you one of those guys who wants to look stylish but finds it doesn’t come all that naturally? Sick of condescending fashion articles telling you why you need to buy $200 T-shirts? Just want to know how to look, well, good? We feel you. Welcome to “Help Me Dress Myself,” an advice column for men who just want some practical advice for not looking like crap.

The Question

Every now and again I get invited to an important meeting/interview/work function where the dress code is “business casual.” To put it bluntly, what in the heck does that actually mean, and how can I avoid over- or underdressing?

The Expert Advice

Blend in with the Crowd. “It varies greatly depending on your company culture,” explains talent recruiter Peter Moore. “On the East Coast, I worked for companies where business casual was dress pants (think J.Crew or Banana Republic) and a button-down shirt (without a tie). On the West Coast, business casual can mean jeans and a T-shirt.” In other words, when in doubt, just take a look around and see what everyone else wears on these occasions.

Be Ready to Hit the Town. “All in all, business casual should be clean and acceptable,” says retired car salesman Kyle Macdonald. “If you go out for drinks after the event, you shouldn’t feel overdressed.” To achieve this look, he recommends donning dark wash jeans, a button-down shirt (tucked or untucked depending on the crowd or situation) and a pair of oxfords, wingtips or boots.

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help. “If you’re applying for a job that requires business casual attire, I encourage you to ask the recruiter before interviewing,” Moore emphasizes. “Still, I don’t think you should ever assume business casual is jeans and a T-shirt, so when in doubt, opt for jeans and button-down shirt.”

If All Else Fails, Stick with What You Know. “For a business casual meeting, I just wear slacks and a dress shirt (I wear a slimmer, more modern fit) usually with brown dress shoes,” says Farmers Insurance agent Evan Specter. “If I’m just working around the office, I’ll throw on something a little more comfortable — maybe a collared shirt with a sweater over it, something to mix things up.” But, he emphasizes, don’t you dare put on a tie — like a mullet that’s only got two inches of growth at the back, that’s too business and not enough casual.