8 Ways To Undermine Business Casual (While Respecting The Office Dress Code)

8 Ways To Undermine Business Casual (While Respecting The Office Dress Code)
Break out of your business casual rut without breaking the rules.
belt guide intro

Let’s play a word association game. When you hear “business casual,” what do you think of?

Do you think,  “office,” “regular,” and … “boring?” 

Love it or hate it, you have to admit business casual isn’t the most exciting or pinnacle of individual personal style … but it doesn’t have to be that way. 

We’re going to reveal 8 simple ways you can disrupt your same-old office outfit while staying totally appropriate for your workplace. But before you can improve something, you have to understand it. 

What Is Business Casual in 2020? (…It’s Complicated)

Simply put, business casual is dressing down your business outfit … not dressing up your casual getups

Under the umbrella of “business casual,” however, is a wide range of sartorial expectations.

Traditional business casual meant slacks, tailored shirt, and a blazer – all in muted tones – with tie optional. Nowadays, contemporary business casual means slacks and a tucked-in button-up shirt with dress shoes or nice boots.

business casual example
Business casual has meant a lot of things depending on the office.

The challenging thing about current business casual is that it means something different in every workplace. 

At my old law firm job business casual meant a pressed button-up shirt, tie, and wool or polyester suit pants. 

In my career as a TV writer, jeans, sneakers, and an untucked button-down was the uniform. 

In my current workplace – a healthcare setting – business casual equals a tucked polo and chinos.

How To Wear Business Casual With Personality And Style 

You may have to wear slacks and a polo or button-up but you can achieve a huge amount of creative style with accessories, colors, and textures. 

Here are 8 ways to turn your business casual from drab to, I daresay, debonair. 

Better Belt & Buckle

Your belt is the perfect place to start punching up a business casual outfit. The business casual uniform assumes a plain brown belt – and while the brown belt is a versatile essential – don’t get stuck in the mindset that it’s the only option. 

I’ve been experimenting with micro-adjustable Anson belts recently, to good effect. For instance, I’ll pair the a graphite nylon strap and gunmetal buckle with blue chinos for subtle contrast.

business casual belts
Picante belt with gunmetal buckle / Graphite strap with black buckle

I’ve also deployed the picante leather strap with my dark khaki chinos for a red-and-earthtone look that’s just a few degrees off from what’s normal and expected. 

This kind of creative combinating is made super easy by Anson’s 100% interchangeable belt-and-buckle system, which makes it possible to swap any strap and buckle in the Anson family. For instance, you can pair the same gunmetal buckle with two different straps for a radically different look.

If you spring for one of Anson’s popular box set options you immediately set yourself up six combinations

anson belt and buckle
Interchangeable belt straps and buckles

In addition to the strap, changing up your belt buckle with a different metal is a subtle but effective way to add variety to your office outfit. A gold buckle adds formality, while a matte finish – or straight black with a canvas or nylon strap – bring casual flair.

Anson’s buckles offer more than the ability to change things up visually. The micro-adjustable buckles mean the belt will fit perfectly throughout the day and the week as your waistline naturally fluctuates. 

I’ve switched to Anson buckles for 100% of the work week because my traditional 5 or 7-hole belts don’t fit the same after lunch, or I find myself between holes depending on the season or my weight.

canvas belt business casual
Graphite canvas belt and the Bulova Lunar Chronograph on a NATO strap

2. Watch Straps

Watch straps are like belt straps – a small change adds a splash of color and/or texture. And as with belt straps, you have a lot of variables to play with.

business casual out with canvas NATO watch

A NATO-style nylon strap adds a casual vibe that’s appropriate for all but the stuffiest business casual environments. This includes intelligence agencies, as Commander Bond’s use of a NATO strap illustrates.

SEIKO watch on Bond NATO strap
Starting Time: Building an Outfit Around a Seiko Dive Watch

Crafting your own leather strap adds an element of rustic Americana and, as a one-of-a-kind piece, can elevate a plain brown belt when the two are paired.

If you want to dial up the personality, opt for a NATO strap with a bright accent strip. A gray NATO strap with a fire-engine red stripe – when paired with similarly red shoelaces – goes from being oddball to intentional. 
Check out our feature on warm weather watches for unique strap ideas.

3. Dressy Sneaks (Or Sporty Dress Shoes)

Can you wear sneakers with business casual?

In creative and tech industries nice sneakers are already part of the business casual uniform, and some younger, hipper companies in more traditional sectors are headed the same way. 

But that doesn't mean you can wear your running shoes to the office.

On the smart casual end of the spectrum, gum sole sneakers are a classic – and classy – option

business casual with sneakers
Fall Getup Week: The Modern Minimalist

On the flashier end of the spectrum, a rubber-soled chukka like this one from Cole Haan is perfectly appropriate, adding a contemporary, polished edge to your look. 

can you wear sneakers with business casual

And if you are going to go with a traditional leather dress shoe, there’s no reason your daily driver can’t be as comfortable as possible. Check out our feature on The 4 Most Comfortable Dress Shoes For Commuting to Work.

white sneakers with dress pants
Dressing Up the Henley with Stylist & Creator Travis White

4. Shoe Laces

Shoe laces are such a subtle part of your look that most people don’t even think about it. Don’t ignore them. 

Simply swapping athletic laces for leather on a pair of white canvas shoes instantly makes them classier

Pairing brown leather boots with red, blue, or yellow laces adds a hint of color that – coordinated with your watch strap, belt, or spectacles will make people think, “That guy’s put together” without really knowing why

wood and leather phone case
Etsy

5. Phone Case

Most of us have our phones out most of the time anyway … you might as well let your phone case do some work for your overall style.

Wood iPhone case
Etsy

Wood, leather, and even stone are being incorporated into hand-built phone cases at reasonable price points. Head over to Etsy to see the myriad options; there’s something for every aesthetic.

6. Loud Shirt + Neutral Pants

If your office has a casual Friday, forget the jeans and rock a floral print shirt with chinos … like you’re on your way to a garden party

If you’re not feeling bold enough to go full floral, consider a mustard, mint green, or ochre button-up with neutral pants. 

For more on neutrals you can pair with loud colors, check out our getup on Dusty Casual for the Office

floral shirt with blazer
The Invitation Says Garden Casual Attire – How Do I Rock It?

7. Chinos in Fresh Colors

This tip ought to be so obvious it isn’t on the list but out in the wild I observe a shocking – nay, scandalous number of guys still wearing traditional, dad-beige khakis 5 days a week. 

chinos in different colors
Swap the age-old cream khakis for navy, charcoal, or olive

Vanilla khakis are boring. Chinos are not. Chinos in gray, slate, olive taupe, or British khaki are rugged and full of character.

8. Add Textures

Another khaki alternative is corduroy. “Wales” are the little ridges that give corduroy it’s distinct look, and a fine-wale pant can shake up your bottom half with a different texture that lends dynamism to your outfit in different lighting situations. 

Business casual Shirt
Nordstrom Rack

Deploying different shirt fabrics has much the same effect. A linen button-up, for instance, has character and is cool-wearing for warm temps
Adding texture also applies to accessories. If you choose to wear a tie to your business casual office, consider a unique texture – like knit – to create interest and signal your smart casual (instead of stuffy) intentions.

What Being A Business Casual Rebel Is Really About 

In case you haven’t already noticed, there’s a simple trick at work here: grab concepts, fabrics, and pieces from the world of smart casual and apply them – in an intentional way – to business casual. 

The line between sharp business casual and smart casual is virtually indistinguishable. If you’re in a creative industry, your biz casual is smart casual. If you work at a law firm, you probably can’t get away with wearing a t-shirt and blazer … but those are the exceptions that prove the rule. 

To learn what smart casual is and how to incorporate it into your style, check out our authoritative guide

Whether it’s your belting, watch, or fabric choices – bringing some flair to your business casual getup has never been easier, or more fun. 

How Do You Avoid Being An Office Drone While Also Not Being A Rebel? Let Us Know In The Comments?

Stillman Brown

Stillman Brown is a writer and TV producer who has created prime time content for National Geographic, Discovery, Travel Channel and many others. His interests span science & the natural world, personal growth, and food. He lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma.