Here are two words that almost certainly don’t belong together — business and casual. And yet, there’s a whole style concept around their pairing. Or better put, there’s a whole forced dress code around them. Except, again, they mean almost totally different, totally contradictory things. Business is professional, formal, buttoned-up. Casual is recreational, loose, buttoned-down. And while some things are pretty clearly more casual than business — we’re looking at you tank tops and flip flops — there’s also a giant gray area in our modern fashion world of athleisure, selvedge denim and pricy vintage T-shirts. To say nothing of dad- and Sandlercore.
So what’s the verdict? Can you, in particular, wear jeans, a T-shirt and gym shoes to any event — work or otherwise — deemed to be “business casual”? Or will you forever be remembered as the guy in the Danzig shirt when everyone else was in Oxfords?
T-Shirt, Yay or Nay?
Per the style mavens of r/MaleFashionAdvice (MFA), the answer is a definitive… sorta? “I work in a bank, and so long as you don’t wear shorts, everything else is fine,” writes one MFA member. “You can wear oversized T-shirts, hoodies, shirts, whatever, so long as it’s not shorts or sweatpants.”
According to Dan Hakimi, a trusted MFA regular, “Asket makes a great T-shirt,” which he says works well under a blazer or a cardigan if you need to dress it up. Still, he admits that there’s a large range of things that fit business casual: “In some offices, ‘business casual’ means a blazer, dress pants and dress shoes. In others, it means whatever you want as long as it includes a top, bottoms and shoes of some kind. The standards don’t just vary by area and job role, but by company, too.” Moreover, he adds, “There are offices where ‘business casual’ is really just a way of saying, ‘Wear actual clothing, not a distracting costume or fetish underwear.’”
As for his personal opinion, he believes a crew neck T-shirt without any graphics on it is business-casual appropriate. He draws the line, however, at V-necks: “It exposes more chest hair, and therefore, it has an increased risk of being perceived as an undershirt.”
For his part, men’s style YouTuber Parker York Smith tells me that he thinks a T-shirt can definitely be business casual if it’s well-fitted. But again, like Hakimi, he explains, “Anything too loose, tattered or with a graphic or logo would be a step too far.”
Jeans, Yay or Nay?
FWIW: Levi Strauss kick-started the whole concept of business casual in the 1990s, when the American clothing industry was doing poorly and the denim company noticed that casual work attire had spread beyond Silicon Valley as a way to appease employees. “We did not create casual business wear. What we did was identify a trend and see a business opportunity,” Daniel M. Chew, Levi’s former consumer marketing director for North America, told Bloomberg Businessweek in March 1996. In fact, according to a report in Inc., in 1992 only 7 percent of American workers dressed in casual clothes. Seven years later, in 1999, that number had risen to 75 percent.
And so, it’s hard to say jeans aren’t appropriate for the office — with the caveat that not all jeans fit the bill. For example, Hakimi says ripped jeans are never considered business casual. In addition, another MFA member suggests that dark-wash jeans, with no visible holes or distressing, are better than light-wash pairs. “Someone might have a hard time telling if dark-wash jeans are jeans at all or just dark slacks,” he writes.
Gym Shoes — Yay or Nay?
Here, Hakimi doesn’t mince words: You should never assume that athletic shoes are fine for your office unless you’re explicitly told they’re okay, or you see other people wearing them.
More importantly, Hakimi stipulates that you ought to make sure your sneakers match the rest of your outfit. “Athletic sneakers don’t fit with all kinds of outfits,” he reasons. “Most obviously, jeans aren’t athletic attire, so although they work with some athletic sneakers some of the time, there’s a bit of case-by-case analysis to be done there.” For example, he says that Ultraboosts tend to pair better with sweatpants or track pants, while New Balance 990s tend to look good with “daddish” business-casual styles.
Maybe, then, there is one style expert out there for whom business casual isn’t contradictory or filled with confusing gray areas to worry about, a man who can conjure it intrinsically and impeccably — dear old dad.