Trying to find the true meaning of smart casual can quickly turn into a nightmare. The Oxford Dictionary defines it as “neat, conventional, yet relatively informal in style, especially as worn to conform to a particular dress code”.
More and more people have been doing smart casual of late.
Although there are many style guides that offer various opinions on smart casual attire – from shorts to Ascot ties – it is often difficult to find the right fit for your specific needs.
Many of these guides feel like they were set in stone shortly after the ten commandments
The term ‘smart casual’ can often change to be something different. Today, it’s more about looking neat yet current. Josh Sims, author of Men of Style, agrees: “Smart casual is destined to be one of those terms that history will not be kind to.”
The recent boom in fashion brands not strictly aimed at designers is really great for everyone. It means that you don’t have to second-guess what mainstream fashion is, because it’s all quite smart, albeit comfortable.
WHAT IS SMART CASUAL?
Before we go any further, let’s break down the lingering question… “what is smart casual exactly?” Here are some ways you’ll come across this dress code in action:
SMART CASUAL DRESS CODE
Smart casual is supposed to imply an absence of formality due to the word “smart”. Most sources seem to interpret it as meaning “more formal than a tracksuit and less formal than a suit”. As such, smart casual means nothing, so it can mean anything.
Fortunately, and more importantly, Mr P adds “A perfect answer is a blazer, white shirt, neat jeans, and brown loafers.”
There is no definitive answer to this, but Debrett’s Guide for the Modern Gentleman tries to clarify it. They do this by drawing a contrast between formal smart casual and informal smart casual clothing types.
FORMAL SMART CASUAL
To pull off a great smart-casual look, it’s important to have the right clothes. Be sure to wear chinos or trousers, a shirt with a collar, and stylish but casual footwear such as lace-ups or trainers.
INFORMAL SMART CASUAL
What made up an informal smart-casual dress code? Well, it’s essentially a combination of formal wear with more laid back and casual clothing like jeans, polo shirts, etc.
But it might not seem so important, I’m thinking that the last point is a very good place to start from. One of the reasons that smart casual dress codes are so hard to define is because they can mean differently depending on context. It’s a state of mind as much as anything else.
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN CASUAL AND SMART CASUAL DRESS CODE?
Casual dress is relatively easy. It may just be a simple pair of jeans or sweatpants and a t-shirt or T-shirt. Smart casual can mean swapping out the jeans for slacks, & the t-shirt for a polo shirt,
Another distinction is that smart casual attire provides a more polished look compared to casual. Casual might come across as slouchy or lazy (baggy jeans, we’re looking at you), whereas smart casual carries an air of professionalism, or at the very least, shows some thought behind your outfit.
If you’re not sure where to start with your smart-casual wardrobe, think about your usual day-to-day clothes and see if you can take that into consideration as well. Then, throw in some more upscale or dressy items to balance it out.
This should help you put together an outfit that’s a little nicer than what you’d wear to work every day, while still being comfortable and in-line with your personal style.
THE HISTORY OF SMART CASUAL
The origin of smart casual seems to be elusive and there is no consistent definition. One theory is that it originated in the 80s, but it appears to have been common usage for at least a century.
It is rumored that the earliest documented usage of the term ‘sleeve widening’ can be found in a 1924 edition of The Davenport Democrat And Leader. Whether it’s true or not, we certainly don’t recommend wearing sleeveless dresses!
Whatever the truth, this is a fair assumption and the two are often used interchangeably, even though they’re different: one is for work & the other isn’t.
But back in the day, you didn’t just dress smartly to go to work but everywhere else too.
“Smart Casual is a transitional period between dressing up – that’s to say, more formally – and dressing down with the comfort and self-expression that more and more people are looking for.”
It’s clear to see that the term has sparked a lot of confusion among “authorities” – such as restaurant managers & event organisers – as to how they can handle the shift. Some have gone for a halfway house, telling people they can dress casually, but not too casually.
As a result, men are either too confused or they end up looking like a bad parody of themselves.
SMART CASUAL MEN’S STYLE TIPS
When it comes to dressing in smart casual attire, here are some tips to help get you started:
CHANGE YOUR ATTITUDE
It seems that smartness is more about the appearance of clothing than its style, as Sir Hardy Amies discusses in the A-Z of Style. Shoes should be polished and trousers pressed, as well as tied properly. This will make you look smart no matter what your wardrobe choice.
The operative words here aren’t ‘shoes’, ‘trousers’ or ‘tie’ (we’re talking about smart casual, after all), but ‘polished’, ‘pressed’ and ‘properly’. A pristine T-shirt, indigo jeans and a perfect slicked-back hairstyle can create the perfect smart casual appearance.
If you’re going to dress up, do so properly. Sometimes people will wear a wrinkled shirt or stained pants but put on their clean and shiny shoes.
A T-shirt, jeans, and trainers won’t always be appropriate. However, smart casual is a lot less formulaic than traditional formal or “pow wow” dress code. As Debrett’s says, “Just because an event is informal doesn’t mean it has to be sloppy.”
PLAY A ONE-TWO
As we’ve seen, there is no definition for what constitutes a “smart casual outfit.” For the sake of clarity and practicality, start with a casual outfit and then swap one or two pieces out for more business-appropriate alternatives.
For example, let’s take a bomber jacket, a T-shirt, jeans and trainers. All very casual, right?
Now swap any of the following: blazer, shirt, trousers or chinos and shoes. You should be safe with a smart casual look. If you add two of these items you would be on target for ‘smart’.
THROW SOME SHADE
Changing your outfit’s color can change its formality. Dark colors are more formal, which means that you can dress up your casual outfit by adding a dark colored t-shirt.
For example, take a green bomber jacket, a white T-shirt, stonewashed jeans and white trainers.
Now if you swapped the olive bomber for a navy one, and the stonewashed jeans for indigo, you would have a dressier outfit. The effect is even more pronounced if you trade in the white T-shirt for mid-grey or charcoal and the trainers for navy or black.
It is hard to contrast two different styles and have them feel like the same. For example, a contrasted style could be considered brighter than a dimmer switch for intelligence. The opposite is also true, less complexity will make your writing seem
TAKE THE ROUGH WITH THE SMOOTH
Another factor that affects the smartness or casualness of men’s clothing is texture. The most formal items – say, worsted wool suits or barathea jackets – are usually smooth and
Swap worsted wool for a matte flannel or tweed, however, and you both literally and metaphorically change the feel of the piece. This will often also make the garment seem larger in size, which only adds to the more casual vibe.
This is a handy rule of thumb and forefinger that you can use to make most any garment casual: shirts, knits, trousers, even shoes.
As mentioned before, throwing on a blazer over T-shirt, jeans, and sneakers is a easy way to nail any smart casual outfit.
But it all depends on the buttons – gold ones are a bit “gin and Jag” (i.e. they’re typically reserved for people with money like gin & tonics, who drive Jaguars C&D)
One helpful trick is to match clothes in contrasting textures. For example, a blazer with some texture should be matched with jeans or khakis. A blazer made of fabric that’s a little lighter and softer will work well here. Patch pockets—which look like they’re stitched on— also go well in this combination.
To make a traditionally formal blazer look more casual and comfortable, simply avoid wearing its padded shoulders and canvassed chest. When you see the word “unstructured” on a label, that’s what you’re looking for.
A t-shirt can qualify as smart casual, provided that it’s plain, good quality, well fitting and not washed to death.
A polo shirt is a sporty alternative to a t-shirt which will instantly smarten up an outfit. Its buttons and collar definitely make it more of a shirt than a t-shirt, but it still looks casual. The name “polo” has its origins in the fact that this type of shirt was traditionally worn for playing polo by players who used to
You might know this popular type of shirt from its less stiff collar. They’re also usually made from Oxford or Chambray cloth, which are less glossy and smoother.
With that in mind, collared shirts are more formal, so if you want a more relaxed look, wear an unbuttoned shirt with a v-neck.
PUT ON YOUR FINERY
A jersey sweatshirt or hoodie wasn’t an element of our example outfit. But substituting a fine-gauge knit in merino, cashmere or even cotton for these thick, casual and sporty pieces can lend a touch of sophistication to your day.
Pull a jumper or card topper over your T-shirt and you’ll be weaved in no time.
A chunky knit won’t do the same job as a jacket with toggles or a rather large moose, but a shawl-collar cardigan could be sufficient if it doesn’t have either of those features. A knitted blazer is somewhere in between.
A word about roll-neck sweaters: too thick and they’re not smart, too thin and they’re as casual as Hemmingway’s drinking habits.
POCKET THE DIFFERENCE
For a casual occasion, trousers or chinos are often good options. Chinos can be especially safe if you want to go for a smart-casual look, but keep in mind that some people might perceive them as too formal for the occasion. Some people might find it difficult to relax with other individuals who wear such articles of clothing because they may not find them interesting enough
Your wardrobe is often overlooked as an opportunity to make an outfit formal or casual. One of the most common outfits people wear on a day-to-day basis is jeans, a t-shirt and trainers. You can alter this outfit by wearing tailored trousers instead of jeans. This will not only look smarter and dressier but also fashionable in its own way
A textured, not-too-shiny fabric like a flannel or linen can help you pull off the casual trouser, but it’s not an entry-level swerve. That’s why most guys stick to casual jeans or chino pants.
TOE THE LINE
We’re not in doubt, trainers go with anything. As Debrett’s points out, “The right shoes can rescue even the worst fashion disaster.”
Different colors and shoes have different levels of formality. For example, black is the most formal color, while brown can look casual. A round or almond toe is more formal than a pointy one. Meanwhile, a nubby, matte suede can be more casual too.
For these reasons, wingtips, Derbies, loafers, Chelsea boots, and chukkas are better bets than office-y Oxfords. Though some can be very smart while others may not be suited for the office, so tread carefully.
GET YOUR KICKS
Many smart casual guides rule trainers out completely, but that’s a little old-fashioned.
If trainers are permitted, a classic style such as Converse Jack Purcells or Adidas Stan Smith is recommended. That’s not wrong.
But you should still take care to use colours which are formal: dark colours may be less likely to incur people’s eye, so there’ll be less of an opportunity for them to disapprove of your clothing.
The best material for your clothes is leather, since it’s easy to maintain and looks the best, although there are other options. You can try shoes made of suede or knitted trainers, too.
5 KEY SMART CASUAL PIECES
Clothing – these are the five key pieces every man needs for smart casual occasions+
1. UNSTRUCTURED BLAZER
They’re absolutely necessary for any grown man who cares about their professional appearance. They can be worn for any occasion, from work to court, and are the quickest way to nail smart casual. Make sure you invest in a quality, tailored blazer and you won’t regret it.
To look smart casual, the blazer needs to be made from a textured fabric that’s much more informal than a suit jacket but which still hangs nicely. It should also be cut slightly shorter and constructed less rigidly so you can throw it on in a hurry.
2. ‘BLAZER BOMBER’
Yes, blazers are great for business and for more casual events but what about when it’s just a little too formal? The solution would be blazer bombers. They have the versatility to amp up your style in any occasion.
Military uniform-wearing soldiers have a certain formality that comes from their occupation, which is where the style originated.
But for it to pass inspection as smart casual, the bomber jacket should be slimmer than a military-issue MA-1, in a dark colour (e.g. navy or black) and made of a less lustrous fabric than the standard shiny nylon (preferably wool).
This training is perfect for informal, smart-casual missions.
3. CHAMBRAY SHIRT
Oxford button-down shirts are just as at home in the workplace as they are at an evening social event. I wear mine both to work and on weekends – they’re just so versatile! They look great with chinos or slim jeans, but really, they work with anything
Chances are, you probably don’t know what chambray is. It looks and feels like denim, but is woven in a different style with different types of threads. Generally, chambray helps make more formal outfits more casual or fancy up more casual outfits.
4. DARK JEANS
Like polo shirts, chinos (chinos are also known as khakis) are a staple in any man’s business casual wardrobe. They can also be easily worn during smart casual occasions.
Given that the latter is less formal than the former, and we don’t want to repeat ourselves any more than is strictly necessary, we’ll plump for plain, dark selvedge jeans with minimal bells, whistles and Western pocket detail.
You don’t have to go with indigo, though: black jeans can look just as smart, if not smarter.
You probably have a lot of trainers and other items in your wardrobe that you can use to put together an outfit. A pair of shoes is usually really useful, but not when they don’t give the right impression.
Brogues are a smart casual shoe, if slightly old-fashioned; Chelsea boots can strike a more rock ‘n’ roll tone. But we’re making the case for Derbies.
A lot of people are jumping on the bandwagon this season, with hip brands like A.P.C. and Ami producing them while the chunky soles add a hint of punk kick-assery.
SMART CASUAL DRESS CODE DOS & DONT’S
Still not sure if you’re approaching smart casual in the right way? Here are some of the main do’s and dont’s to help you be successful with your styl
DO: COVER YOUR BASES
If you wear shoes that aren’t trainers and trousers that aren’t jeans, you’ll sidestep most smart casual pitfalls. A blazer will make you practically bulletproof.
DON’T: UNCOVER YOUR ARMS
Whether they’re attached to a shirt, polo or T-shirt, short sleeves are casual (actual shorts even more so). Check that it’s safe before unholstering the guns.
DO: LOSE THE TIE
Smart casual almost never requires a tie, so wear something more smart and formal. A grandad shirt, polo or roll neck will quickly let anyone know you weren’t just thrown together.
DON’T: FORGET THE TIE
Disclaimer: if you’re not sure, and it’s a formal smart casual occasion or a job interview at a casually dressed company, then you’ll never regret carrying a tie.
DO: GET YOUR COAT
Performing the same elevating effect, a neatly cut overcoat can even take the place of a blazer for informal smart casual events where you’ll take it off anyway. CASUAL DRESS CODE
DON’T: STITCH YOURSELF UP
For formal smart casual events, you might want to keep your blazer on, so wearing a removable overcoat over the top might be better than a knit underneath.
DO: PATTERN UP PROPERLY
With the exception of corporate pinstripes, patterns make pieces such as blazers and shirts look more casual, and you look less like you came from the office.
DON’T: TRY AND BE A LEGEND
T-shirts are already casual, so avoid patterns, logos, slogans or (shudder) jokes. “Liquor in front, poker in rear” only advertises that you’ve got nothing upstairs.
DO: KEEP IT TIGHT
As outlined above, silhouette also determines formality. So ensuring that casual pieces fit correctly is one way to convey smartness. We said ‘casual’, not ‘sloppy’.
DON’T: CUT OFF THE SUPPLY
There’s a difference between ‘fitted’ and ‘clingfilm’. Smart casual clothes that are too tight make you look like you’re gussied up for a night at some tacky nightclub.
DO: GET A SWEAT ON
A hoodie? Irredeemably informal. A blazer in the same material? You got game. A plain sweatshirt can also substitute for a knit under a casual tailored jacket
DON’T: JOG ON
Trousers or chinos with sporty drawstrings or cuffs are one thing, but jersey sweatpants are just barely permissible as casualwear. Remember: it’s smart casual.
DO: ROLL WITH IT
Smart casual is also about how you wear it. Take the formal edge off by rolling up your sleeves and the hems of your chinos to expose a touch of mankle. CASUAL DRESS CODE
DON’T: LET IT ALL HANG OUT
If your shirt is poking out from under a jacket, then that’s not with rules. But if it’s sticking out of a blazer? And depending on the circumstances, it can be both embarrassing and unintentionally disrespectful.
DO: GIVE IT A LITTLE EXTRA
Switch your leather dress watch for a sports one with a metal bracelet or Nato strap, and your leather belt for a woven one, maybe in a colour other than brown.
DON’T: SOCK IT TO ‘EM
More than one online ‘style’ guide proposes expressing your personality through the medium of coloured or patterned hosiery. Don’t do this. Really, don’t.
SMART CASUAL DRESS CODE FAQS
Hanging on to some lingering questions about the smart casual dress code? Here are some FAQs with final words of advice:
CAN YOU WEAR JEANS IN SMART CASUAL?
Generally, jeans are acceptable for smart casual dress codes, but you’ll want to stick with a darker wash, without any rips or distressing. If you’re worried about being underdressed in denim, try a pair of chinos instead.
WHAT IS SMART CASUAL AT WORK?
In the business context, smart casual can mean a pair of dark jeans or chinos, a collared shirt and an unstructured blazer, paired with some Derbies or smart sneakers. To stand out in the board room, throw in some subtle, yet sleek accessories like a colored belt.
CAN I WEAR SNEAKERS FOR SMART CASUAL?
Typically, Derbies or other casual dress shoes are a better pick for smart casual than sneakers. That said, smart sneakers have a way of bringing life into an otherwise boring outfit, so invest in a pair reserved for more dressed up occasions, that are free from marks or scuffs. CASUAL DRESS CODE