The New Rules of Business Casual

New Rules > Old Rules

Presented by Mizzen+Main

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When it comes to office style, so much of what we think about “dressing for work” looks like formed in our brains before we even knew it was happening. Our early understanding about the workplace? Whatever our parents headed out the door wearing each morning and, vice versa, what they changed into when they walked back in again, and on the weekends when they weren’t working.

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 these offices, and before we knew it, 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 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 selected traditional job (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 chinos and button-ups 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.” Rules shmules, just try not to wear a sweatshirt with stains down the front? Hmm… Feels like we can do better.

Eric Toda, a marketer who’s worked with companies like Airbnb, Snapchat, Facebook, and Nike, says that when he started at Facebook, “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. Time to embrace your inner (style) outlaw.

2. That means, it’s extra-important to develop your style

We’re not in the business of creating an army of identically-dressed style robots here at SG HQ. That absolutely applies to your work attire, too.

Whatever makes you feel the most like yourself will 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 works. Not unlike your weekend style, you might not nail that business casual / dress code-free office outfit the first time you try something new.

But, as with anything, practice makes perfect.

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. If you’re making hundreds of choices in a given day, it’s helpful to minimize as many of those decisions as possible.

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.

Just because you wear a lot of the same things over and over again, doesn’t mean there’s not a chance to inject some 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.” 

Uniforms too can be a reflection of your industry, too. David Bruno, a marketing consultant who previously worked at Todd Snyder, says that when he started working in fashion, he resonated with the “luxe casual” vibes of the brand.

So, what could a uniform mean for you? Here’s what it doesn’t mean: It doesn’t have to mean wearing the exact same pieces day in and day out. That would be boring…and maybe smelly?

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 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’ll definitely change again! 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 as adaptable with what you wear as you are with your work is a skill that will benefit you in the long run.

The Silicon Valley companies that gave us business casual would be shocked to see how we dress for work now, so it’s difficult to really predict what’s next. But maybe in the same way that suits were rejected for being too formal, they could be reclaimed as something special.

“I’ve always thought that it would be cool to one day wear a suit to work, but shook it off as I think 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 have more fun dressing for 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!

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