We select and review products independently. When you purchase through our links we may earn a commission. Learn more.

Dress Code Guide: What Does Casual Mean?

A group of people wear casual attire in an office.
Studio Romantic/Shutterstock.com

The invitation says “dress code: casual.” So, you’re supposed to, what—wear clothes?

Although dressing casual is easy in theory (most of us do it every day), decoding what “casual” means when it’s the dress code is a little bit different. “Casual” doesn’t necessarily mean “wear whatever you feel like.”

It’s harder to go wrong with a casual dress code than with most others, but there are still some guidelines that can help you get it right. In this installment of our dress code guides, we’ll help you figure out how to navigate this deceptively simple dress code style.

Casual: A Definition

Man leaning against a brick wall wearing denim
the stock company/Shutterstock.com

Casual basically means “whatever you’d like—as long as it’s event appropriate.” Like business casual, casual dress is dictated in part by the nature of the event. But casual attire offers a much wider range of possibilities than business casual attire.

You can wear anything that looks nice. This includes wearing jeans, sweaters, t-shirts, sneakers, and much more. However, it usually excludes flip-flops, sweats or gym clothes, revealing clothes, stained clothes, heavily distressed or ripped items, and graphic shirts with offensive or controversial statements on them.

Amazon Essentials Women's Short-Sleeve Scoop Neck Swing Dress

Shirt dresses are a great option for casual attire.

Your goal is to wear your regular clothes but with just a little more attention to presentation.

To make things even more confusing, some workplaces have a casual dress code (or participate in the slightly odd “casual Friday” tradition). With a casual dress code at work, you have the opportunity to express lots of personality with your clothing—just avoid things that might make you look lazy (like sweats), or make someone uncomfortable (like certain political slogans).

When in doubt, opt for business casual at work instead.

Cole Haan Men's Grand Crosscourt Ii Sneaker

Invest in a nice pair of sneakers, keep them clean, and you can wear them with just about any casual outfit while still looking put-together.

When to Dress Casual

Summer barbecue party with friends.

If the dress code style for an event is unspecified, you’ll want carefully to consider whether or not going casual is the right choice.

A few examples of when you might wear casual clothing include:

  • Picnics
  • Parties
  • Restaurants
  • Airplanes

Amazon Essentials Women's Knit Ballet Flat

Ballet flats are a versatile option for your wardrobe.

You should wear casual clothing in places that don’t call for anything fancier, but where you might want to make a good impression on the people around you.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with wearing sweats to a laidback restaurant or on an airplane. But if it’s a specific event, like a friend’s birthday dinner, or a flight with the wedding party to a destination wedding, you can honor the occasion with carefully chosen casual attire.

There are some exceptions to this list: for example, casual clothes won’t fly if the restaurant does fine dining, and business casual will suit a work party better. True casual wear is best reserved for events involving friends and family—not coworkers—unless it’s a casual workplace.

Amazon Essentials Women's Classic-Fit Short-Sleeve V-Neck T-Shirt

A classic t-shirt is the perfect starting piece for all casual wear. It can be dressed up or down and layered for your ideal look.

Casual Ideas for Women

Woman in white jacket, red top and jeans walking down the street
Diana Indiana/Shutterstock.com

Women can put together a casual look with these ideas:

For footwear, you can choose sneakers, boots, cute sandals (avoid flip-flops), or even heels.

Levi's Women's Ribcage Straight Ankle Jeans

These viral jeans are a perfect casual option.

Your accessories and makeup, if you choose to wear them, should follow the same rules as your clothing: pretty much anything goes, as long as it’s not offensive or overly lazy. For example, the ratty old backpack you’ve had since college isn’t a good choice, but a well-maintained, nice-looking backpack is fine.

Kathemoi Womens Ankle Boots

A cute pair of boots can go with skinny jeans, skirts, dresses, and so much more.

Casual Ideas for Men

Man in sunglasses sitting on top of an outdoor bench
Yevhen Rehulian/Shutterstock.com

Men can make a casual outfit with items like these:

  • T-shirts
  • Jeans
  • Sweaters
  • Hoodies
  • Khakis
  • Polo shirts
  • Flannels and other casual button-downs

For men, closed-toe shoes are a good choice, like sneakers, loafers, or boat shoes. Accessories like belts are optional (unless your pants will fall down without one).

Levi's Men's 501 Jean

The right pair of jeans can be mixed and matched with t-shirts, polos, and button-ups for just about any casual look you're going for.

Even in super-casual settings, like beach parties, make sure you’re well-groomed and your clothes are clean and free from stains, most of what you have in your wardrobe will probably work as casual attire. Just don’t take the “casual” concept to the extreme. When in doubt, it’s always better to be a little over-dressed than the alternative.

Stacey Koziel Stacey Koziel
Stacey Koziel is a news writer at LifeSavvy. She's worked as a freelance writer for over ten years, focusing on family and lifestyle content. She also has a background in marketing and social media, and is always eager to talk (and write!) about the latest TikTok trends. Read Full Bio »
LifeSavvy is focused on one thing: making your life outside of work even better. Want to know more?