Men’s dress codes can be incredibly confusing. Depending on which sources you consult, there can be anywhere from five to seven of them, which can be perplexing in itself. Though intended to guide men on what to wear for certain events, occasions, and situations, the fact that there are few differences between what makes an outfit “business casual” or “smart casual” can also make putting one together even more difficult.
Fear not, though. In this guide, you’ll learn about some of the most common dress codes that you might encounter at workplaces or events, as well as what makes one distinct from the other. Here are the five essential dress codes that every man should be familiar with:
Casual Dress Code
The casual dress code should be the one that’s most familiar to men, as it constitutes a majority of what they wear every day outside of work. It’s the most relaxed out of all the dress codes, which means that practically any ensemble that you feel comfortable in can be considered a casual one.
However, just because it’s supposed to be laid-back doesn’t mean that it has to be sloppy. The idea is to always dress in an elevated way, so leave the oversized shirts and loose pants at home. Keep your look fresh on the weekends with well-fitting clothes. For your bottoms, you can never go wrong with dark-wash denim jeans. As for tops, go for sweaters, t-shirts, Henley’s, or V-necks in soft, relaxed fabrics such as cotton and flannel. Don’t forget to put on a good pair of men’s casual socks and casual shoes such as sneakers, boots, or boat shoes.
Casual is also the area where you have the most room to play with colors and patterns, so don’t be afraid to experiment. However, if you have trouble mixing and matching, you can stick to solids and neutrals for an easier time getting dressed in the morning.
Business Casual Dress Code
Some modern workplaces implement a daily business casual dress code, while others may allow their employees to dress this way only on specific days of the week. Business casual is often mistaken for smart casual, so it’s worth knowing what the key differences are, especially if this dress code becomes part of your working life.
As the name implies, the ensemble has to appear professional, but it doesn’t have to be too stiff or uncomfortable. Essentially, it allows you to ditch the traditional suit-and-tie for something more informal yet refined. Business casual means nice button-ups—always freshly pressed, without a crease in sight. You may be able to get away with dark jeans, depending on your company’s policy, though the safer option is to go for dress pants. Blazers and belts are also good accessories to have on hand. For footwear, stick to leather and go for classic styles, such as loafers or oxfords.
Smart Casual Dress Code
In a lot of ways, keeping to a smart casual dress code should be enough for most workplaces. That said, smart casual is a dress code that is usually intended for special events and occasions. This makes it more of an opportunity to showcase your personal style than a dress code that’s only functional and utilitarian.
To go smart casual, take business casual staples, have them altered to fit closer to your body, and add standout accessories. Hit the right note by sticking to earth tones and colors like navy, and staying away from grey or black. Grey is often considered too business casual, while black is thought of as too formal.
Semi-formal Dress Code
Some guides refer to the semi-formal dress code as the standard business dress code. Others call it the professional dress code. It should be quite self-explanatory as to why: this is the power suit, complete with tie. In the workplace, colors like gray and navy blue are your best friend. Black suits are typically reserved for special occasions. You can also experiment with subtle patterns such as pinstripes. For footwear, only oxfords, derby shoes, and other types of formal shoes should be considered.
Since this is one of the stricter dress codes, it can be a little restrictive, making it difficult to express your personal style. This is where accessories come in. Add a nice watch or a pocket square in your favorite color, or go for a nice tie in a shade or pattern that matches the rest of the ensemble.
Black Tie Dress Code
The black tie dress code is reserved exclusively for the most special occasions you’ll attend, such as your wedding or a gala. Here, the rules are even stricter: no colors outside of black or white are allowed. This is the dress code that the sharp black suit belongs to, as well as the traditional tuxedo. For footwear, only dress shoes are acceptable.
Dress codes can feel inscrutable, but with a bit of research, you should soon be able to identify the subtle differences. After that, you’ll feel more confident that you’re dressing correctly, no matter what the occasion.