NeshNYC is reader-supported, meaning we get a small commission if you decide to make a purchase through our links, at no cost to you. Read the full disclosure here.
Finally, a guide for the modern professional man with pictures, tips, and tricks to nail those tricky office dress codes once and for all.
It’s about time someone tackled the confusing world of men’s office wear and we’re here to officially set the record straight— to define and decode the 3 major men’s business dress codes, taking the guesswork out of office dressing, so you don’t have to.
You’ve got questions, we’ve got answers!
Today’s modern man is expected to understand & differentiate between workplace dress codes, including Business Formal, Business Casual, and Smart Casual— depending on his corporate environment.
And, sometimes these dress codes extend outside the office, ie: the inevitable country club invite (that no one actually wants to go to) from the big boss that reads: smart casual; that one business meeting that requires you to dress: business formal, even if you don’t normally wear a suit and tie on the daily; and plenty of other invites that will read: business casual.
So how will you know what to wear? Don’t panic, we’ve condensed everything you need to know about men’s corporate dress codes and how to style them— right here!
But first, a little info on dress codes and why they serve a purpose, just to prove that we’re not totally bonkers.
Simply put, an office dress code is a set of rules created by your employer to let employees know what they’re expected to wear to work everyday. And, this dress code shouldn’t be seen as a bad thing at all. It’s surprisingly put in place for your advantage, and not your punishment.
Why Are Dress Codes Important?
The importance of a professional dress code is high! But why?
Because, whether you like it or not, people are going to judge you based on what you’re wearing (shocking, we know).
What you’re wearing shows in what light you want to be represented, and your employer has already determined that by creating your corporate dress code.
Put it this way, people form an opinion about you within the first 30 seconds of meeting you, and more than half of those seconds are used evaluating your attire. Your clothing choices speak for you, make sure you like what they’re saying!
Professional dress codes also set the tone for the office atmosphere and they promote cohesion. They also prevent you from showing up to the office in shorts, pajamas, or your birthday suit!
But How Many Dress Codes Are There?
The short answer: A LOT!
Luckily for you, they don’t all apply to the corporate world, and we’re not going to bore you with their many details. We’ll just list them below instead so that you can at least say you’ve heard of a white tie or creative dress code.
So, here’s that list, and remember, these dress codes are not acceptable for the professional working man. You’ll probably only ever see these dress codes written on wedding invitations, used for parties or galas, designated for fashion or super unique artsy companies, and other events that don’t include showing up to the office:
- White Tie
- Black Tie
- Black Tie Optional
We’d never recommend for you to wear a top hat and coat tails to your dream law interview (it’s just a tad overkill), and we’d also never suggest that you wear jeans and a graphic Star Wars tee to a smart casual office, no matter how much you think you’re fitting in (newsflash, your Chewbacca t-shirt isn’t giving off casual smart vibes).
There’s a time and a place for everything, and we’re going to help you figure out what that actually means when it comes to dressing for the office!
Keep this phrase in mind: If your boss wouldn’t wear it, neither should you!
How To Dress Business Formal
Business formal is a dress code reserved for lawyers, executives, doctors, and any other profession that requires a professional to wear a suit and tie everyday. Of course, there’s more to dressing business formal than just throwing on a random suit and tie.
Here we’ll break down what business formal really means, what items are actually appropriate for a business formal office dress code, what’s not considered business formal attire, tips and tricks for nailing this conservative look every single time, accessories that can make or break your formal business ensemble, and the importance of topping off your professional look with a quality watch.
Business Formal Outfit Ideas
First off, we need to say something— We love and appreciate when we can actually relate to something, and we want you to feel the exact same way. That’s why we’ve included real pictures and real examples of what a great business formal suit looks like— on a real person, in real life.
Yes, we’ll give you the occasional male model picture, but he’s going to look more relatable than romance novel.
Let’s get started!
- Very important: Make sure your suit jacket and slacks match in color and style!
- Acceptable colors are black, dark grays, and navy. The occasional dark brown suit is also acceptable as a formal look, but it must be pulled off impeccably, whereas with a black or blue suit you have more room for mistakes (but shhh, you didn’t hear that from us)
- Windowpane and pinstripe patterns are the only acceptable patterns to wear as part of your business formal suit look. Leave the funky at home
- Dress pants are pretty straight forward, but for suit jackets, single or double-breasted jackets are equally accepted
What Suits NOT To Wear For a Business Formal Dress Code
- Mismatched suits in either style or color are big no-no’s
- Light-colored suits are not considered okay for this style of business formal dressing
- Stay away from cropped skinny suit pants
- Even an expensive suit can look cheap & unprofessional if it’s tailored too big or too tight
- Never wear an all-black suit and black skinny tie. This look gives off waiter vibes, rather than the serious business professional vibes you’re trying portray
- Light, bright, or bold colors, nor vivid patterns, are considered office formal
What type of shirts are okay to wear for a business formal dress code?
- Crisp white shirts, light blues, light pink, and the occasional vertical striped dress shirt are considered excellent business formal shirts
- Make sure your shirts are made from quality materials— you’ll be able to tell just by looking at the shirt if it’s made well or not
- A well made shirt will appear thicker and have a little more structure to it than a flimsy plaid shirt that you might wear on the weekend
- Your button-up can either have a single front pocket or come sans pocket. Although, having a front pocket to hold your Montblanc pen is always a good idea
- You get what you pay for, so do splurge and spend some money to get something really nice. It’s always a good idea to invest in yourself!
What Shirts NOT To Wear For a Business Formal Dress Code
- Don’t wear a dark colored shirt. Dark colored shirts worn with dark formal suits never end well
- Shirts with crazy or loud patterns, no matter how “dressy” they may be, are never considered business formal
- Oversized or body-hugging shirts are also not formal options. Men, you may think you look great showing off your stuff through your tight fitted shirt, but save those efforts for the gym!
- Never wear a plaid, patterned, or vibrant colored shirt as part of a business formal dress code
- Don’t choose a dress shirt made from thin material, you shouldn’t be able to notice your undershirt through your actual shirt
- Last but not least, never show up in a wrinkled shirt! Always get your dress shirts pressed, ironed, or steamed
What Type Of Shoes Are Okay To Wear For a Business Formal Dress Code?
- Black, dark browns, or navy to match your suit are acceptable formal colors
- You can wear brown dress shoes with a navy or dark brown suit and matching belt, but never wear brown dress shoes with a black suit
- Leather is your best bet for formal shoes
- Slightly shiny or matte shoes both work well with a formal suit. Leave your tuxedo shoes at home
- In the Fall and Winter months, a slight bootie is okay if it’s super dressy in style, and not noticeable under your pants
- Oxfords, dressy loafers, wingtips, monk straps, and similar styles make the perfect addition to your professional suit ensemble
What Shoes NOT To Wear For a Business Formal Dress Code
- Never wear light colored shoes
- Don’t opt for a suede shoe
- Casual penny loafers or moccasins are also no-no’s
- Dirty, old, or worn-out shoes, even if at one point they were dressy, are not considered business formal anymore
The Best Accessories For a Business Formal Dress Code
- Choose a tastefully colored patterned or plain tie
- A pocket square is optional, but it’s a nice added touch. The same idea goes for suspenders
- A matching vest, to complete a three piece suit look, is also optional but elegant
- Carry a black or dark colored briefcase that complements your suit
- Tastefully patterned socks are okay, as long as they are not distracting
- A plain dark colored belt that blends in with your outfit and doesn’t stand out
- A chic pair of cufflinks, these can be playful in color but still tasteful
- And watches are the most important business formal accessories, and we highly recommend any style watch by Rolex or Omega, that also features the date on its face. A tastefully dressed man always knows the correct date and time when wearing a timepiece, and in the world of dressing business formal, a quality watch is a necessity.
What Accessories NOT To Wear For a Formal Business Dress Code
- Leave anything bright colored behind, unless it’s your tie or pocket square
- Don’t wear a designer belt with the brand’s logo splashed all over it. We get it, it was expensive. Sometimes less is more.
- Also don’t wear a belt with a huge distracting buckle
- Please don’t show up to the office in a bow-tie
- Never wear an Apple Watch, Fitbit, or other sport watch with your formal ensemble
How To Dress Business Casual
Business, but make it casual. What does that even mean?
Dressing for a business casual dress code is similar to dressing for a formal dress code, but with a few omissions, which we’ll soon get into. And, it’s ironic, because dressing business casual doesn’t really look so casual after all. At least the casual we’re used to.
Most companies use this business casual dress code as their main form of office attire, and this dress code is very often misinterpreted, so we’re here to break it all down for you. And, of course, we have the best examples, tips and tricks, and business casual photos that you need to dress for success, so you can put down this article feeling fully satisfied and with a newfound confidence!
Business Casual Outfit Ideas
Business Casual Suit Jackets
- As opposed to business formal dressing, you can wear a light colored jacket with a business casual look
- Light blues, light greys, tans, and beiges are wonderful additions to your business casual look
- You can wear a darker colored jacket if your pants are lighter in color
- Notice that your suit jacket shouldn’t match your suit bottoms. Opposites attract here!
What’s NOT Considered a Business Casual Suit Jacket
- Sorry, still no bright colors or patterns are accepted
- Pinstripes are too formal for this look
- Don’t purchase a corduroy jacket unless it’s impeccably tailored. The material is too hard to pull off for most people, and there are limited fashion-forward corduroy styles out there
Business Casual Suit Pants
- Dark colored chinos are allowed. Either navy or a dark khaki color are great options for your business casual ensemble
- Dark colored, well tailored jeans are also allowed
What’s NOT Considered a Business Casual Pair of Pants
- Hold off on the cargo pants
- Save your sweatpants and track pants for the weekend
- Baggy denim, distressed denim with rips or holes in it, and light colored denim are not acceptable to wear in a business casual setting
Business Casual Sweaters
- Yes, sweaters are allowed! Choose a well fitting sweater with either a crew or v neck
- Turtlenecks are also allowed, just make sure they are slim fitted
- Cardigans are also acceptable, as long as they are very professional in appearance
- A cashmere zip-up is also a chic business casual addition when worn under a suit jacket, as long as it’s not bulky
What’s NOT Considered a Business Casual Sweater
- No crazy patterns or colors
- No chunky knitwear
- Large front logos or phrases are not acceptable to wear across your chest in a business casual setting
- Distressed sweaters are also not permitted
- Oversized or too tight sweaters also don’t have a place in a business setting
Business Casual Shirts
- Do choose a neutral colored shirt
- A classic plaid pattern is okay if a sweater is worn over it
- Still make sure to choose a well-made dress shirt over any other type of flimsy button-down
- A collared polo shirt is okay if a sweater is worn over it, or if it’s worn with a blazer, and then add a pocket square for an elevated look
What’s NOT a Business Casual Shirt
- Wearing just a polo shirt is not business casual accepted
- Bright colors or patterns are not okay
- T-shirts, no matter how expensive, are not going to work
Business Casual Shoes
- Leather or suede shoes look fantastic with a business casual outfit
- Loafers or any other dress shoes work
- A chic pair of sophisticated sneakers is also allowed! Use a discerning eye, and choose a neutral color such as khaki, navy, and so on
What Shoes NOT To Wear as Business Casual Shoes
- Athletic sneakers are a no
- Chunky shoes are also a no
- Bright white sneakers should be avoided, as they get dirty fast and often look out of place
- Open toed sandals or any type of sandals are also not permitted as business casual
The Best Business Casual Accessories
- A pocket square is an elegant touch to add, if your business casual outfit seems too casual, this will make all the difference
- A tie is okay, but not mandatory. Choose a simple color or simple pattern and make sure your tie is a casual material like a knit or otherwise
- You can definitely wear a suede belt with a business casual outfit
- A light colored or tech fabric briefcase or messenger bag is great for business casual days
- Don’t forget to invest in a quality timepiece. A watch is so important with a business casual look! Even though you’re dressing business casual, you still need to represent yourself in a professional light. A watch is an essential added touch, that’s both functional and fashionable. We suggest pairing your business casual look a with Seiko Astron or a sleek Oris watch.
What’s NOT Considered a Business Casual Accessory
- Loud socks with crazy patterns are still not accepted. Leave your Santa socks at home
- Never wear a baseball cap of any kind. Sportswear is never acceptable in an office setting (although we know you wish it was!)
- Cufflinks are not necessary and are considered too formal for this look, even if they are playful in nature
How to dress Smart Casual
Smart casual is a very common dress code, especially for men who work in the tech field.
A technology start-up or other modern tech company may require you to dress smart casual instead of business casual, and to be honest, it’s a little confusing for most people.
We get it though, and we want to share our insights on dressing for a smart casual dress code, so that you can worry about more important things (like deciding on where to go during your lunch break and if they have cold beer).
So, a smart casual dress code allows for more leeway than the business casual dress code (duh), and it’s a world away from business formal dressing. No one dress code is better than the other (different strokes for different folks), and now you’ll get to experience what a smart casual outfit actually looks like.
Smart Casual Outfit Ideas
Smart Casual Jackets
- A dressy zippered jacket, often referred to as a bomber jacket, is considered smart casual and it looks ultra hip
- Most of the time a jacket isn’t even necessary so please don’t feel inclined to wear any kind of suit jacket
- If you are wearing a smart casual suit jacket, it’s okay to wear a crisp white or light blue t-shirt underneath
What Jackets Are NOT Ok For Smart Casual Dressing
- Anything super structured or fancy looking should be left at home
- Crazy patterns and colors never work in an office environment, no matter how lax
- Denim jackets, even if black are a no
Smart Casual Tops
- A sweater is a great option, and any of the above-noted sweaters for business casual can also be worn to a smart casual office
- A collared polo shirt is a nice smart casual look, and it can be worn by itself or with a sweater over it
- A crisp plaid shirt also makes for a smart casual look
- Surprisingly a t-shirt is okay here. Just make sure it’s made from a thicker cotton material, and that it fits you well. Not too big or too tight. It should look like a “dressy” tee, if that makes sense
What Shirts Are NOT Smart Casual Tops
- Never wear a hoodie to work (sorry Mark Zuckerberg)
- Graphic tees are a no-no
- Anything distressed isn’t permitted
- Any mesh materials won’t fly here
- Anything wrinkled or worn-out looking should be saved for the weekends
- Anything distressed isn’t permitted
- Any mesh materials won’t fly here
- Anything wrinkled or worn-out looking should be saved for the weekends
Smart Casual Bottoms
- Straight leg denim in a light or dark wash is a yes
- Chinos are a definite yes
- Sleek black straight leg jeans are great smart casual bottoms
What Bottoms Are NOT Considered Smart Casual Bottoms
- Shorts are never allowed, even in smart casual environments
- Track or sweatpants are also never permitted
- Dark dress slacks won’t fit in here
- Colored and white denim is a no
- Anything too tight or baggy
Smart Casual Shoes
- Penny or suede loafers
- Fashionable booties
- White sneakers can be worn here as long as they are not bulky or athletic in nature
What’s NOT a Smart Casual Shoes
- Uggs or moccasins will never make the cut, sorry
- Dirty sneakers or shoes (this should be a no-brainer)
- Patent leather won’t work here either
- Construction boots (another no-brainer)
The Best Smart Casual Accessories
- A lightweight scarf
- Fashion glasses are okay for every dress code, as long as they look sleek, polished, and brand-new. No oversized frames please
- A bright or fun pocket square works nicely when paired with a super casual blazer
- Last but definitely not least, a watch should be a crucial part of a man’s style! Everything you go to will require you to know what time it is, and knowing the date doesn’t hurt either. Stay up-to-date and on time with any watch that isn’t a sport watch. You know, those ones that track your calories. From a Seiko to a Gucci, it doesn’t matter the brand name, what matters here is quality. Any classic gentleman’s timepiece is a must, and you can pretty much get away with wearing any kind of quality watch with a smart casual dress code!
What’s NOT Considered a Business Casual Accessory
- Neckties are a no-no for smart casual dress codes
- Still choose your socks wisely, nothing obnoxious and nothing dated like thick, chunky socks
- Don’t wear a loud or oversized backpack that calls attention to itself. Opt for a backpack that’s more slim and streamlined
That’s a Wrap!
Phew! That was A LOT of content in one place, BUT it was all 100% necessary and worth it to make sense out of men’s office dress codes once and for all.
By the way, don’t beat yourself up over not knowing this stuff, nobody does! It’s impossible to memorize all 3 dress codes perfectly, so make sure to bookmark this page to refer back to.
Also, seriously don’t overlook the importance of wearing a watch to work. Wearing a watch, along with following a dress code, shows that you took the time to show up professional and prepared.