Ron was invited to a formal dinner.  The invitation indicated “formal attire required.”  Ron’s wife asked, “does that mean Ron has to wear a tuxedo?”  My answer: “absolutely!”  As we talked further it became apparent that neither Ron nor his wife was clear of the different styles of men’s dress.  This made me wonder how many men are unsure of what to wear for different professional and social occasions?

On most days it’s pretty easy to know what to wear. If you’re going to the same job today as yesterday, no big deal. Most guys will just wear a clean version of what they wore yesterday. Wore a blue suit yesterday, wear the grey one today.  Wore the blue cuffed jeans yesterday, wear the uncuffed ones today.  No sweat right?

However, there are sometimes when you’re venturing into uncommon situations and these are times when every professional man should be aware of the rules of dress and how to pull it off.  Receiving compliments on your appearance lifts anyone’s spirits and the great thing is, it’s not very hard to do.  Knowing when and how to pull off the right look for the right occasion is a lot easier than you may think.

If you’ve ever asked yourself what you should wear on a certain occasion, hopefully, this will give you some guidance.    First, let’s be clear, there are basically five looks for men.  They are….

  1. Business Formal
  2. Business Casual
  3. Smart Casual
  4. Casual
  5. Formal

Second, if you want to make the best impression outfit yourself in the appropriate category whenever you step out in public.  As long as it’s ok with your wife, you can ignore these when lounging around the house watching football!  (However, I did have a DRESSED member ask for some help improving his look when hanging out around the house.  It was a strong hint when his wife told him she wished he would look better even if it was just the two of them around.)

So let’s talk about how, and when, to wear each of the five looks:

Business Formal

This look is when you have to put on your serious business appearance.  This look is best for:

  • Working in traditional, conservative work environments e.g. financial services, high-end law firms
  • Working for government agencies
  • Attending business networking events. Especially when job seeking or selling goods/services
  • Attending weddings (unless invite indicates “formal attire required”)

To get this look, wear…

  • Suit
    • It doesn’t have to be a dark suit, it just depends on the situation. For example, when attending a daytime summer wedding in the south, trust me, you don’t want to wear a dark suit.  (See tips on suit fit)
  • Pocket square
    • Whenever you wear a suit coat, always opt for the pocket square to complete the outfit. (Read pocket square StyleStumbles).
  • Formal necktie
    • There is a difference between neckties. Those more formal are generally silk rep ties.  Casual ties tend to be knitted or textured.  When dressing business formal, chose a more formal tie style.  (Read tips on tie widths.)
Formal ties
Formal ties
  • Lace-up dress shoes
    • Lace-up shoes are business formal attire and best for projecting a serious business appearance. Slip on, aka Loafers, are for loafing. When you are business formal, you shouldn’t be loafing.  Although I’m a fan of the emerging suit and sneakers look, my rule of thumb is the suit and sneaker combination should only be worn when you are not wearing a tie.  Since a suit and tie are required for business formal, wear lace-ups and not sneakers.


Business Casual

This style is best for:

  • Attending less formal events, either work or social.
  • Attending an event that you are unsure of the dress code. Since this is the most flexible of all professional looks, you can get away with this at almost any time.
  • Going on the first date. Of course, that depends on the date activity.  If you’re attending a football game, this is too much.

To get this look, wear…

  • Suit without a tie
  • Shirt
    • Since you are leaving the tie at home, select a shirt you wouldn’t normally wear with this suit and its tie. You don’t want to look like you just slipped off the tie. For example, if you normally wear a blue suit, solid 100% cotton white shirt and striped tie, that’s great for Business Formal. But for Business Casual, wear a shirt with a bold pattern, either striped or checked or a different material e.g. denim or gingham.   This suit and tie combination will be an interesting look and again, not appear as though you just left work and slipped off the tie.
Striped shirt under suit w/out tie
Striped shirt under suit w/out tie
  • Sport coat and dress slacks
    • Let me clarify that business casual pants should be slacks, not jeans or chinos. You’ll have an opportunity to wear your jeans or chinos but not now. This look is just one step below business formal so the slacks add an air of gravitas to the look.
  • Either lace up or slip on shoes are acceptable
  • Pocket square
    • Again, whenever you wear a sport coat, use a pocket square (Read pocket square StyleStumbles)

Smart Casual

This look is best for:

  • Working in creative work environments (e.g. media agencies, advertising agencies, entertainment companies, fashion/retail companies, etc.)
  • Social events when you want to stand out from those guys wearing Casual, which is more relaxed and those wearing Business Casual, which may be too stuffy.

To get this look, wear…

  • Sport coat, sweater or vest
    • I am making the distinction here between a sport coat and a suit coat. While a suit coat is made to be worn with the matching pants, a sport coat is designed to be worn as a separate piece of clothing. There are times when you can wear a suit coat as a sport coat but we’ll talk about that in another article.
  • Jeans or chinos
    • Wearing jeans or chinos is what separates this look from business casual. Dress slacks add a touch of formality to the business looks.


Sample Smart Casual look: Sweater, tie and jeans
Sample Smart Casual look: Sweater, tie, and jeans
  • Casual necktie
    • As discussed with business formal style, when dressing smart casual opt for a casual tie. Again, these are ties made with more textured (e.g. wool, knit, etc.) materials.
Casual ties
Casual ties
  • Lace-up shoes or dress sneakers
    • You may be asking yourself, “dress sneakers, really?!” Yes, these are a thing and they are growing in popularity. According to @JacobGallagher in his Wall Street Journal article, here is why dress sneakers are so popular  “First, dress codes have become increasingly relaxed over the past decade—remember when sneakers weren’t allowed in night clubs?—allowing for more creativity and freedom. Second, as designer-sneaker sales have picked up and the shoes’ 24/7 relevance has somewhat justified the price, more designers have begun paying attention to the market.”
Dress sneakers
Dress sneakers


This look is best for:

  • Taking in a movie
  • Running errands
  • Grabbing Saturday morning breakfast
  • Attending the kids sporting events

In the past few years, there has been a growing sub-category of Casual.  This look is known as “athleisure.”  It’s the combining of casual clothing with athletic wear.  When done properly it’s both a great look and very comfortable.

Remember, just because you’re relaxed doesn’t mean you have to look like a slob.  A little effort can go a long way.

To get this look, wear…

  • Polo or tee (add a sweater or jacket for colder weather)
  • Jeans, khakis or joggers
    • Joggers were known as “sweatpants” back in the day. Today’s joggers are a step above the old sweats.  Find them cut a little slimmer with elastic banding around the ankle.  This will give them a cleaner, more modern look.
  • Sneakers
    • Depending on how “casual” you want to feel, wear whichever sneakers you like.  They can be the dress sneakers or a pair of Converse; just make them clean and in good condition.
Athleisure look
Athleisure look

(Read more tips on wearing Athleisure.)



Although many guys make this a lot harder than it should be, this is the easiest look to pull off.  This look is for any “formal” or “black tie” occasion.

To get this look, wear…

  • Tuxedo
    • A Tuxedo is the only acceptable jacket and pant combination. A black or navy suit with a black bow tie will not cut it.
Formal Wear
  • Bowtie or black silk tie
    • This is not the time for novelty ties or multi-colored ties. We talked about the difference between formal and casual ties. This calls for a silk tie.  Either bow or normal will do but it has to be formal.
  • Formal shoes
    • These are black shoes made of patent leather, highly-polished calfskin or velvet slippers. These are clearly not the shoes you wear every day.
Formal shoes
Formal shoes

There you have the five styles of dress for professional men.  I’m sure there are some people who disagree with my suggestions and that’s OK.  Keep in mind, these are guidelines, not rules.  Based on circumstances and some guy’s sense of style, they can veer outside these guidelines.  However, these guidelines will work for 90% of all men.

There are probably some people thinking, “Michael, you left out x,y or z!”  Two things…1) you are right.  I couldn’t cover everything and 2) please share what you feel was left out.  It may help educate someone else or give us a chance to debate the merits of your suggestion.

I’d love to hear your comments below.  Tell me which style fits you best.

Dressed Club is a member-based appearance advisory service.  Our Professional Appearance Advisers provide affordable, expert coaching in the areas of clothing, grooming, health and body language.  Dressed Club members make memorable impressions so they don’t miss opportunities.

Book a session here.


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