Style

The New Rules of Business Casual

4 Keys to Keep in Mind

By Style Girlfriend | Last Updated: Jan 28 2020

New Rules > Old Rules

Presented by Mizzen+Main

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When it comes to office style, so much of what we think a man “dressing for work” looks like formed in our brains before we even knew it was happening.

Our synapses fired, watching our dads head out the door each morning. That is what ‘work clothes’ look like, our still-forming brains imprinted on the hippocampus.

And, vice versa, what our fathers changed into after work—and what they wore on the weekends around the house—told us, That is what they want to wear.

Even the phrase “off duty” springs from the understanding that your 9-5 time is wholly separate from the 5-9 (and weekends).

Yet, as fashion trends have become more casual, how we dress around the clock has, too.

As Deirdre Clemete wrote for The Atlantic, the term “business casual” first entered the cultural lexicon in the 1980s.

While technological advances in Silicon Valley bloomed, office formalwear wilted. Tech companies inched towards longer, more grueling workweeks, with efficiency becoming the name of the game.

Not unlike the machines they were making, tech employees iterated their wardrobes, shunning restrictive clothing like suit jackets for business casual guidelines that helped them work harder, better, faster, longer.

Relaxed items like chinos and sneakers began to infiltrate offices in Silicon Valley and beyond. Soon, a business casual dress code became the corporate culture rule, not the exception.

So that’s the “Christmas Past” of Business Casual…what about its future?

To help us sort through this question, we spoke with a few stylish FoSG (Friends of Style Girlfriend, naturally), guys who are pushing the boundaries of business casual guidelines today. Now, allow us to do our best Dua Lipa impersonation and share with you the “New Rules of Business Casual.”

These four rules will help you decide what business casual means to you, and hopefully embolden you to fully embrace your own sense of office style.

Below, 4 business casual guidelines for 2020:

1. There Are No Rules.

Okay, yes, the first rule is there are no rules. Very Fight Club of us, we know. But listen!

Save for a few select traditional jobs (liiiiike: stockbroker, lawyer, suit salesman…you get the idea), wearing a full suit to work has largely gone the way of the Apple IIe.

For most guys, the days of going full Don Draper, every day, are long gone.

Hell, in some fields, the days of changing out of your pajamas for work are long gone!

Zachariah Reitano, co-founder and CEO of digital health company Ro, recalls that when he entered the tech world, “Everyone was wearing hoodies and t-shirts.”

And it’s more than just tech. Plenty of offices eschew completely the idea of a dress code, leaving it up to employees to decipher what a work wardrobe means to them.

Eric Toda, a marketer who’s worked with companies like Airbnb, Snapchat, Facebook, and Nike, says that when he started at Facebook, he discovered that “everything I knew about workplace attire was wildly incorrect. T-shirts, jeans, shoes optional—it was like I never left college. I’ve [even] seen engineers go barefoot in the office the entire day.”

“Everything I knew about workplace attire was wildly incorrect."

While most offices won’t let you get away with bare feet, you can probably get away with wearing large portions of your weekend wardrobe to work without anyone so much as looking up from their desk.

In short: we’re living in a sartorial wild west now. Which is…great! More opportunity to develop your own sense of personal style, rather than being a cog in the HR guidelines machine. And also…confusing? When you can wear whatever you want to wear to work, how do you differentiate between your work and weekend wardrobe?

Well, giddyup. If 2020 dress code-free offices are the wild west, then it’s time to embrace your inner (style) outlaw.

2. Develop your style to feel your best.

We’re not in the business of creating an army of identically-dressed style robots here at SG HQ. We want you to figure out what you like wearing, and sport the clothes that make you feel most confident.

Because whatever makes you feel like the best version of yourself will inevitably make your work better.

Ro’s Reitano agrees. “We want everyone to bring their whole selves to work—whatever makes people most confident and comfortable. For some that’s a blazer. For others, that’s a beanie.”

It might take you a bit of trial and error to figure out what that means for you.

And, as with anything, practice makes progress.

Eric Toda again: “I think it’s taken around a decade to really find my style amongst the eclectic dress code of tech.”

That’s a long time! So take a deep breath, be patient, then head to your closet and start experimenting. Eventually, you’ll discover your own personal set of business casual guidelines that make you feel professional, competent, and stylish.

3. Uniforms Aren’t Boring, Bad, or Bland.

Find freedom in sameness!

There’s a reason Steve Jobs had a uniform. You’re making hundreds of choices in a given day, so save your decision-making muscles for more complicated problems.

Toda agrees. “Simplicity allows me to focus and be less distracted. I feel confident in any situation, as I know I’m dressed well and comfortably.”

That doesn’t mean you have to devolve into a workplace cliche. Writer and director Jeff Gonick points out that he doesn’t want to look like “someone who is trying too hard to look like a director. Meaning? “Black on black on black, with black glasses and a black scarf.”

Yikes. Yeah, we get that.

If the idea of a uniform brings up bad juju (maybe you’re thinking of the “blue shirt and grey dress pants” brigade that invade office parks and high-rise buildings each morning), think again.

A uniform could be a well-constructed pocket tee and dark denim. Or a sportcoat and chinos. Or a crewneck sweatshirt and twill pants.

We could go on.

Our point? Just because you wear a lot of the same things over and over again, doesn’t mean your office wardrobe has to be devoid of style! You can always inject personality into what you wear.

“I still wear Jordans and [Nike] Air Maxes,” says Toda. “But that’s when I’m doing an interview or on a panel. I see that as adding a bit of flash, like a boost of confidence and personality.” 

A uniform can be a reflection of your industry, too. NYC-based strategic consultant David Bruno has worked with stylish brands like Todd Snyder and Knowlita. He says that when he started working in fashion, he found himself leaning into a “luxe casual” vibe that continues today.

“I’ve had the good fortune to work for cool companies and I’ve always jumped right into what we sold and saw myself as a brand ambassador.”

Maybe you don’t work in fashion, but you are a walking LinkedIn ad for your company. Your closet should be full of go-to’s that your boss’s boss would be happy to see you wearing.

So, what could a uniform mean for you?

Here’s what it doesn’t mean: It doesn’t mean wearing the exact same pieces day in and day out. That would be boring…and maybe smelly?

Instead, it’s about consistency that makes getting dressed easier.

Maybe it’s adhering to a certain color scheme, or level of dressiness. There are many ways to interpret what a uniform may mean for you and your given style.

Just be sure it’s intentional (not boring) and that you feel like a million bucks in whatever you decide to wear as your “uniform.”

4. Be prepared to change and adapt

For as much as business casual guidelines have changed, they’re bound to change again. And again some time after that. While more relaxed looks are common place now, office style could go back to how they once were.

“Things go back and forth,” says Gonick. “I could see [the workplace] getting more dressy again.”

Being flexible is a skill that will benefit you in the long run. Actually, this applies to most of life. Pro tip!

The Silicon Valley companies that gave us business casual would be shocked to see how we dress for work now (Steve Jobs wore a cashmere turtleneck, not a cotton hoodie), so it’s difficult to really predict what’s next.

“I’ve always thought that it would be cool to one day wear a suit to work, but shook it off as I think now it’s too stuffy,” says Toda. “Maybe one day my son Ezra will think the same thing when he thinks about a t-shirt, pants, and boots.”

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Who knows what the future of business—and business casual dress codes—holds? But those are concerns for tomorrow, not today. For now, it’s never been easier to dress well and feel your best at work.

Just remember:

Even in a dress code-free world, how you dress matters!

Especially as you rise the ranks in your career, you’re setting the tone and culture for those under and around you. Take that responsibility seriously!

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Check out every dispatch from SG’s No Jeans January wardrobe challenge here. And discover more helpful business casual guidelines for 2020 here.

Thanks to Mizzen+Main and to YOU for supporting the brands that make Style Girlfriend possible!