Business Casual 101

  • Print

Vital statistics

Michael A. Braem

POSITION Law student expected to graduate in January 2006 from Thomas M. Cooley Law School, Lansing, Mich.

AGE 38

GOAL To learn how to make the right sartorial statement in a business casual environment

Our Expert

Mark Gill

Chicago-based wardrobe consultant and handbag designer Mark Gill began his career at Banana Republic, where, within one year, he became the company’s top salesperson worldwide. He has gathered a loyal following ever since, helping to dress individuals for home, work and evenings out. He also works with businesses on formulating policies on attire and on teaching their employees what to wear. Gill’s work was recently featured in O magazine.

Like many other men, Michael A. Braem finds it hard to get excited about clothes.

In his opinion, clothes need to do little more than fit well and be comfortable. Not only does Braem have little use for the latest fashions, he could not care less about the latest trends. And his clothing choices reflect that belief. At work, he favors conservatively tailored, dark, solid-colored slacks and long-sleeved white shirts–classics that never go out of style.

“My style is definitely conservative. I do not want to change because I think that the trends go by so quickly,” Braem says. “Part of the reason that I want to be conservative is because, as the years pass, I do not have to go shopping.”

But lately, as Braem dips his toes into the law firm world as a clerk for a Lansing, Mich., firm, he is stunned to find himself actually thinking about what to wear to work.

Working at the Thrun Law Firm two days to four days a week, depending on his class schedule, he’s starting to feel like his standard clothes are–gasp–boring. “I do not feel lively in them,” he admits. “Maybe it’s OK to wear that in the winter, but for spring and summer, I want some lighter-colored business casual clothing.”

Though he is loath to admit it, Braem is willing to acknowledge that clothes may, just may, help him project a better image.

Problem is, Braem is not quite sure what to buy and how to put it all together. The office where he currently works as a law clerk is business casual. He could get away with wearing short-sleeved collared shirts and khakis but does not think that will make the kind of impression that he wants to make. He also does not want to overdress by wear­ing a suit.

What’s a man to do?

Life Audit professional attire expert Mark Gill says a young lawyer (or an aspiring one) can never go wrong by keeping it professional. But what that means in a business casual environment is hardly clear. “Business casual is not a uniform like a suit,” Gill says. Nor is it cotton khaki pants, golf shirts and clunky shoes or sneakers.

When it comes to men’s fashion, Gill doesn’t bend the rules: Business casual, he says, means wearing a mix of slacks, shirts, blazers and ties. Yes, ties. “Ties show that you respect your peers, your position and your environment,” he says, and they should be de rigueur for every male attorney.

Building On the Basics

Bream already has the build­ing blocks of a good professional wardrobe, Gill says. In his closet, Braem currently has three suits; three pairs of slacks, each in a classic color; four white shirts; one blue shirt and three ties. Gill would like to see him buy a few more staples, including sport jackets, ties and as many new white shirts as he can afford.

Because Braem wants to inject some color into his ward­robe, Gill says the place to do that is with sport jackets and ties. He’d like to see Braem buy two sport jackets, and he suggests buying them in charcoal gray and chocolate brown. The gray blazer can be paired with navy, brown, tan or black pants, and the brown blazer with navy, black, gray and tan pants.

“Instead of doing the same old navy blazer with brown pants, reverse it,” Gill says. “Do something fresh and new. It is acceptable in the office environment.”

Gill also wants Braem to buy new ties and suggests choosing designs in shades of yellow or pink. “The colors will give him the lightness and color that he wants, and they are not so mundane. In addition, by keep­ing the rest of his clothing classic and professional, he can be a bit more daring with his ties. Plus, the colors coordinate beautifully with the grays, browns and navy blues in his closet, providing an instant lift to his ward­robe.

But Gill advises Braem against going with color when it comes to shirts. Keep them white. A crisp, clean and perfectly pressed white shirt always looks professional. “You can never go wrong with a pure white shirt. Never. It’s always perfect,” he insists.

Even though Gill has a short shopping list for Braem, buying the items is another story. Braem hates shopping and reserves it for the times when he absolutely, positively has to go to buy clothing. Then, he says, it becomes an ordeal. He’d rather swoop in, scoop up the first thing he sees without trying it on and make a quick exit. His wife likes to linger, examining different fabrics and styles for the perfect look.

“She’s right,” Braem says, “because most of the time she gets something that looks or fits better. But I think shopping is a waste of time. I have other things I could be doing, like studying or working out.”

Gill may not be able to rid Braem of his aversion, but he does have some advice to make shopping a little less painful for him, and it’s as simple as calling ahead.

Gill suggests Braem call a salesperson before showing up, be it at a specialty store or department store, providing a shopping list and size information. Then, when Braem arrives at the store at an agreed-upon time, the salesperson can have his clothing waiting in a dressing room, reducing the shopping experience to less than an hour, Gill promises. And, Gill says, if Braem is willing to spend a few more minutes in the store, he could bring his existing clothing into the dressing room and ask the salesman to help coordinate outfits from his new and existing clothing.

Now, that’s a classic and modern man.

WE NEED YOU! Got some room to improve? Get free advice from the experts on health and fitness, finance, work-life balance, entertaining, travel and wardrobe plus your mug in this mag with Life Audit, the Journal’s monthly lifestyle feature. It’s fun, fast and free. If you would like to participate in a future Life Audit, please e-mail Jill Schachner Chanen at [email protected].


Life audit hot tip: weight fluctuations? Flat-front it.

Sitting at a desk all day can certainly take its toll on the midsection. And, believe it or not, so can the style of pants you wear. Life Audit professional attire expert Mark Gill says pleated pants actually accentuate girth. Try flat-fronted pants instead. “They are more modern and slimming,” he says.

Defining The Style


Wearing a suit’s jacket and pants as separates; it looks bad and makes the suit wear unevenly.

Wearing polo shirts or long-sleeved T-shirts.

Going tieless.

Pleated cotton khaki pants.

Clunky shoes with buckles or thick soles.


Buy two or three blazers to wear specifically as separates.

Wear long-sleeved, button-down oxford shirts only.

Wear a tie every day, but play with color and patterns.

Flat-fronted slacks in navy, charcoal and brown.

Wing tips, loafers with tassels or spectator shoes in solid colors.

Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.