Smart casual, as any disciple of the English language will confirm, is an oxymoron. Like ‘open secret’, ‘pretty ugly’ or ‘cruel kindness’, it’s a compound word made up of two words with contradictory definitions.
To make matters worse, there’s no hard-and-fast agreement as to what actually constitutes smart casual – the Macquarie Dictionary defines it as “well-dressed in a casual style”, while the Oxford defines it as “neat, conventional, yet relatively informal in style”.
Little wonder, then, that the words ‘smart casual’, when specified as the dress code at an event, tend to cause confusion. But it needn’t. And we’ll explain why in detail further on, as well as giving advice on what pieces are suitable when working the smart casual dress code, and what ones aren’t.
WHAT DOES SMART CASUAL MEAN?
In reality, smart casual means nothing – so, rather handily, it can mean almost anything. To keep things simple, consider it an umbrella term for the sort of clothing that could be worn to a drinks reception, a smart restaurant or a hospitality box at a sporting event. Essentially, it’s anything that’s smarter than a T-shirt and jeans, but less formal than a suit-and-tie.
While smart casual is a fusion of two contrasting dress codes (smart and casual), it has evolved over time to settle on a style that allows for great flexibility, allowing men to play with different shapes and materials, and to not feel too pressured to adhere to the ‘rules’. As such, it can be interpreted, in its most basic state, as neat attire that retains an informal edge.
HOW TO MASTER THE ‘SMART-CASUAL’ DRESS CODE
KNOW YOUR SMART CASUAL AUDIENCE
The golden rule of smart casual — as, indeed, with any dress code — is to know your audience. As smart casual is so broad in scope, it’s important that you select your outfit to take into account the specific event, location and what, if any, activities will be taking place. After all, while a pair of tailored jeans, crewneck jumper, suede boots and down jacket are ideal when enjoying some corporate hospitality at the Six Nations, it’s not necessarily suitable for a drinks party. You might want to stand out, granted– but make sure it’s for the right reasons.
IS THERE A SIMPLE WAY TO CREATE A SMART CASUAL LOOK?
You’re in luck – there is, actually. As the aim of dressing smart casual is to strike a pleasing balance between two seemingly opposite styles, a simple yet surprisingly effective way to nail the look is to swap smart pieces for casual ones and vice-versa so that there’s a balance of smart and casual garments in your outfit.
For example, consider a razor-sharp suit with box-fresh leather or suede trainers. While the suit is, by definition, ultra-formal, the trainers, conversely, are resolutely casual. Teamed together, they tick the smart casual box perfectly.
It’s the striking contrast in formality that allows the suit-and-trainers look to work – there’s a 50:50 balance between smart and casual. But you need to be careful not to veer too far in one direction – if you’re placing excess emphasis on ‘smart’, or on ‘casual’, then it won’t be a stylish blend of the two; it will simple be ‘smart’ or, at the other end of the style spectrum, ‘casual’.
MASTERING THE ‘ONE-TWO ‘TRICK FOR SIMPLE SMART CASUAL
Another simple trick to help you put together a suitable smart casual look is to learn what is commonly known as the ‘One-Two’. How does it work? You simply begin with a casual outfit and substitute one (or, even better, two) items for smarter alternatives.
To see how it work in practice, consider the following outfit: jeans, T-shirt, trainers. It’s resolutely casual, right? But swap, for example, the trainers for, say, a pair of pristine suede loafers. See, it’s already cranked up a notch and looking far smarter. Now, remove and T-shirt and add in, for instance, a fine gauge turtleneck, and you’re bang on the smart casual money!
Obviously what you swap in and out will have a huge influence on the finished look, but the ‘one-two’ approach simplifies the smart casual dress code enormously.
WHAT ITEMS ARE SUITABLE FOR SMART CASUAL?
How long is a piece of string? Quite simply, when worn with the right items, almost any items of men’s clothing can be part of a smart casual ensemble. However, there are, of course, a few smart casual staples that every well-dressed man might like to consider, all of which are covered below.
IS A BLAZER A MUST FOR A SMART CASUAL LOOK?
Blazers are perhaps the most popular foundation for men’s smart casual, but that’s not to say they’re essential. However, whether worn over a polo, a shirt or even a wrinkle-free T-shirt, a well-fitting blazer has an unrivalled ability to elevate the look of the rest of a man’s outfit, which makes it an obvious starter in most men’s smart casual line-ups.
Not all blazers are created equal, so it’s important to find one that works with your body shape and colouring. When selecting a suitable blazer for your smart casual get-up, look for one that complements the rest of your outfit, and that is season-appropriate. Lighter fabrics are ideal for summer, while warmer materials such as cashmere and wool work nicely during the cooler months.
Some final pointers on smart casual blazers: to really nail the look, they should be made from a more textured fabric than the average suit jacket, cut slightly shorter (which works particularly well when worn with jeans) and constructed less rigidly. This also makes the process of incorporating it into your smart casual ensemble a whole lot easier.
Consider also unstructured blazers, which are created without the heavy padded shoulders and canvassed chests of their more conventional counterparts. Although smart, these have a defiantly casual look, making them ideal for the dapper smart casual man.
WHAT ARE THE ALTERNATIVES TO A BLAZER FOR SMART CASUAL?
While a blazer lends itself perfectly to the smart casual dress code, there are plenty of other stylish options that you can wear while adhering to the look.
A well-fitting leather jacket, a lightweight trench or even a sleek bomber, makes for a stylish and contemporary alternative to the more traditional, tailored designs. To ensure your outfit ticks the smart box as well as the casual, team your jacket with some tailored trousers, smart shoes and, ideally, a collared shirt.
CAN A BOMBER JACKET REALLY PASS FOR SMART CASUAL?
Certainly – but it needs to be the right style. And that’s an absolute must.
For it to qualify as smart casual, a bomber jacket needs to be slightly slimmer than the bulkier military-issue MA-1. It should also be in a dark colour, such as navy, rather than the standard issue mid-green; and should be made of a more luxurious lustrous fabric (think wool, cotton or, if your happy to go that bit extra, cashmere) than the conventional shiny nylon (preferably wool or cotton).
WHAT TYPE OF SHIRTS ARE SUITABLE FOR SMART-CASUAL?
Like the trusty blazer, a shirt is one garment in a man’s wardrobe that works perfectly for all manner of smart casual. As ever, though, the devil is in the detail, and there are some styles that are more suitable than others.
A long-sleeve shirt with button-down collar is the preppie choice – classic and conservative, it will go with just about anything, whether it’s a blazer, cardigan or crewneck sweater. Take your pick from Oxford cloth or chambray, which is less smooth and shiny, and opt for a design in a monochromatic colour, which will allow you to introduce pattern and colour via a blazer.
For those who prefer to play with colour in their shirts, loud patterns are best avoided, but a discrete print or a classic pattern, such as a sober Paisley or an elegant gingham, can inject some personality into your smart classic ensemble.
While well-fitted shirts will give an extra polished to your smart casual look, don’t overlook function at the expense of form – if a looser fit is more comfortable, go with that. In fact, some styles of smart casual shirt, such as denim and chambray, actually look better with a slightly looser fit.
Collarless shirts such as granddad and mandarin styles have been particularly popular in recent seasons, and these, too, can work perfectly for smart casual. Just remember than, like with a T-shirt, the absence of collar brings these type of shirts deeper into the casual realm, so it’s important to spruce up the rest of your smart casual outfit with sharp accessories and tailoring.
CAN A T-SHIRT EVER QUALIFY AS SMART-CASUAL?
In short, yes, a T-shirt can qualify as smart casual – so long as it’s wrinkle- and logo-free, made from quality cotton and fits well. But since a T-shirt is inherently casual, it should only be worn as part of a smart casual ensemble if the rest of your outfit is resolutely smart - a dapper blazer, a pair of smart suit pants or tailored chinos that rest just above your shoes, and some tasselled loafers, for example.
Whereas a crewneck tee is indisputably casual, a polo shirt has far more smart casual credibility. The mere addition of a collar and buttons means that it’s closer in style to a shirt, yet retains a casual air, making it perfect for smart casual, particularly when the temperature is high.
If you’re intent on incorporating a T-shirt, whether crew neck or polo, into your smart casual attire, adhere to a few simple guidelines. Opt for designs that are, ideally plain, or that don’t have an abundance of colour of print. Khaki, grey, navy and white will always look sharp, and will look at ease beneath a blazer.
If you must inject a pop of colour or pattern, decide whether you’ll do so via your T-shirt or your blazer. Opt for both and there’s a high risk of clashing, which is to be avoided at all costs.
As ever, pay attention, too, to the quality and fit: inferior quality and ill-fitting t-shirts look sloppy even when worn casually, so they have no place in the realm of smart casual.
HAS KNITWEAR A PLACE IN THE SMART CASUAL WARDROBE?
Absolutely. The addition of a fine-gauge knit in merino wool, cashmere or even cotton, which can be worn over a shirt or T-shirt (but resist the urge to go full Michael Douglas in Basic Instinct, and wear it on bare skin), adds a stylish touch to a smart casual outfit. It will also, discreetly, showcase your skill in the art of layering.
It’s all about the gauge of the knit, though. A chunky crewneck (or cardigan) will always look far less sophisticated than a high-quality slim design, which will look equally at ease over a smart shirt or beneath a blazer.
Don’t dismiss heavier knitwear, though. When the temperatures drop, a thick shawl-collar cardigan is a great go-to option. In fact, worn open and layered over a wrinkle-free shirt can serve and it can function effectively as a substitute blazer.
When it comes to the style of knitwear, plain woven designs will bestow an air of sophistication to your smart casual look that, for example, a chunky rib pattern can only dream of.
AND WHAT ABOUT POLO OR TURTLE NECKS AS SMART CASUAL?
Polo, roll or turtlenecks – call them what you will, they’re all equally at ease in the realm of smart casual. If you’re planning on wearing them under a blazer, look to plain and monochrome designs, and allow the blazer’s tailoring do the talking.
WHAT ARE THE BEST OPTIONS FOR SMART-CASUAL TROUSERS?
When it comes to trousers that toe the smart casual line, there’s a wealth of choice. With the obvious exception of distressed or acid-washed denim, and synthetic tracksuits, almost every trouser style can be dressed up (or down) to adhere to the dress code.
While chinos are the failsafe trouser style that will bring you anywhere from Michelin-starred restaurant to cocktail party or after-work drinks, that’s not to say that denim won’t cut the mustard when it comes to smart casual. So long as it’s the right style of jeans — tailored, dark, logo-free and not distressed or faded — there’s no reason why your trusty denims can’t be part of your smart casual look.
If you’re new to the smart casual, though, it’s always advisable to play it safe and stick to classics such as the aforementioned chinos, corduroy or moleskin. These three trouser styles are ideal for ambiguous dress codes and are always a worthwhile investment. Opt for ones in more sober tones such as grey, khaki, navy or beige, and you’ll be rewarded with a pair of trousers that will work with a huge range of colours in your wardrobe. Think of them as your smart casual wingmen, who you can rely on time and time again.
Other smart casual trousers options include a textured, not-too-shiny fabric such as flannel, or, during the summer months, an elegant linen or linen mix. Both styles will work perfectly within a smart casual framework, and can be dressed up or dressed down accordingly.
Whatever your trouser style of choice, just remember: fit is key. You might even consider getting your trousers tailored, if they’re a little loose in the leg or ankle. At the very least, make sure the hem line stops just above your shoes.
CAN SHORTS QUALIFY AS SMART-CASUAL?
Yes, shorts really can qualify as part of a smart casual outfit – but it’s a look that’s best reserved for those who know their style, and are sufficiently confident to take a risk.
Not all shorts are created equally, obviously. What you’re looking for is a smart, tailored pair of shorts, in a high-quality fabric that sits above the knee. What you don’t want is anything with an elasticated waist or a surplus of pockets, or anything that could be confused for a pair of sports or combat shorts.
Fabric-wise, look to cotton or cotton-linen for maximum smart casual style points. And feel free to opt for a pair in a pattern if the rest of your outfit is plain, but otherwise keep it paired-back with an unfussy design in monochrome navy, grey, cream or khaki.
WHAT ARE THE OPTIONS FOR SMART-CASUAL FOOTWEAR?
When it comes to smart casual footwear, it’s usually best to err on the side of caution and play it safe. As Debrett’s, the esteemed authority on etiquette, succinctly puts it: “The right shoes can rescue even the worst fashion disaster – the reverse is hardly ever true.”
Bear in mind that working the smart casual look is all about balance; you want to put forward a polished yet informal look. Smart footwear options that are smart casual-appropriate include everything from wingtips and Derbies to Chelsea boots, chukkas, Oxfords and loafers, any of which will lend a more mature edge to your outfit.
As mentioned earlier, a great pair of trainers can also be a perfect accompaniment but keep in mind that you should opt for clean, minimalist styles (leather designs such as Converse Jack Purcells or Stan Smiths by Adidas are an inexpensive go-to), rather than athletic sneakers.
If you do opt to tread the trainer path, remember that shiny, smooth leather is smarter than matte, coarse canvas; and suede is somewhere in the middle. The latest generation of ultra-light, knitted trainers can, at a push, look reasonable smart, if they’re dark, but they’re likely to appear overtly casual, unless you’re teaming them with a sleek suit.
Colour-wise, box-fresh white trainers can look immaculate at the base of a smart casual outfit, but don’t feel restricted – darker colours, such as black, grey and mahogany, are a smart choice, too, and have the added bonus of concealing any marks or stains.
Oh, and should you be wondering, the closest you should get to sandals or flip-flops when wearing smart casual is a pair of moccasins or, at a real push in the summer months, espadrilles. Remember, you’re looking for a look that merges smart with casual, so toes and toenails should remain out of sight.
The smart casual dress code should be interpreted as an open invitation (rather than a diktat) to accessorise.
A well-edited selection of accessories can add the finishing touches to an ensemble, but resist the temptation to gild the lily; less can often be more. A smart leather belt is an obvious starting point, and will add an elegant touch to your shorts or trousers.
After that, it’s up to you. Whether you choose to wear a tie or not will depend on the event or occasion, and your personal style. If you decide to go with an open neck, consider, instead, a dapper pocket square, which will dress up your outfit a little more.
Other accessories you may wish to wear include an elegant watch, stylish cufflinks and, weather permitting, sleek sunglasses.
AND, FINALLY, IF YOU ONLY FOLLOW ONE TIP WHEN IT COMES TO SMART CASUAL….
Err on the side of caution and place the emphasis on the smart side, rather than casual.
As the saying goes, ‘When in doubt, suit up.’ After all, appearing over-dressed is infinitely preferable to arriving at a gathering in your favourite jeans and tee when the other guests are impressing in their chinos and blazers.
Go forth and conquer!