For us men, there are very few things in life that provide such a conundrum as the smart casual dress code. It is a phrase banded around flippantly through a man’s professional and personal life; fine examples are the new job’s office dress rules or the summer drinks invite. Both say smart casual. But they are such different environments. How can the same etiquette apply?
The official dictionary says:
smart casual: adj
- (of clothes) neat, conventional, yet relatively informal style, especially worn to conform to a particular dress code.
“think of a smart casual outfit as one that you’d wear for a movie or dinner date”
Again, not much use as I would say a movie is a severely less smart affair than a dinner date. Especially if you want to make a good impression on said date.
Don’t fear though, with the correct guidance anyone can take on the smart-casual dress code and adapt it to their own wardrobe for the right event.
It is all in the styling.
Let’s start with the basics and what smart casual actually means.
What is Smart Casual?
Over time, the etiquette around the smart casual dress code has definitely evolved.
If we said to men “smart casual” in the 50s, a time where suits were the norm, it might mean just swapping your suit trousers for slacks or a blazer for a sports jacket. Fast forward to modern times and with a more casually dressed society, smart casual takes on a whole new meaning.
The key to solving this style conundrum is by first understanding when you would be wearing it. This will help you to find a point along the menswear scale that aligns with your event.
For example, attending a more formal setting such as a drinks party or christening versus something like a Zoom call or weekend date will throw up differing style rules.
Smart casual in its simplest form is making an effort without taking it too far. That involves dressier casual and paired-back smart pieces combined to showcase a well-presented outfit.
Context is key.
Formal Smart Casual
Within the context of a more formal event that has called for smart-casual, we should work from back from the suit. This is the definition of smart and if we can remove or alternate elements, then men can still appear smart but with a casual twist. Think more business casual.
The suit is all about a structured elegance to offer a more defined and slimmer silhouette for men. So, if we can pick pieces that start removing some of that restrictiveness we can nail the more casual look.
Start by losing the tie, that is a given.
In the formal smart casual environment, for us a blazer is essential. Though, opting for an unstructured choice can relax the shoulder line and offer a less confined drape.
Next are the trousers. Jeans might push us too far down the casual end of the scale. A nice middle ground is chinos, as long as the fit still gives that slim silhouette. But, don’t feel you need to change the trousers every time. If you have mixed up the blazer then your suit trousers might still do the job.
Lastly, the footwear.
The evolution of menswear and society’s changing opinion of what ‘being smart’ entails has meant men have more freedom when it comes to what they wear on their feet. Decades ago, it would have been unheard of in the style stakes to wear trainers with a suit. Now it is common practice. So much so that it has crept into the formal version of smart casual. Just make sure that your trainers are box-fresh as there are no grubby kicks allowed here.
Relaxed Smart Casual
For this version, we are heading down the other end of the menswear scale for our starting point. Whereby previously we began with the suit, here we are opening with a casual outfit such as jeans and a t-shirt.
A t-shirt simply won’t do though. Swap it for a polo shirt and you can get a presentable upgrade as long as you stick to the golden rule of fit. Merino wool or even a cotton/cashmere blend can deliver a slimmer, structured appearance more so than your standard cotton polo. Cotton has the tendency to lose its form and it is the small details like this that can bring down any outfit.
On the bottom half, a slim fitted pair of jeans minus any embellishment or rips will hold its own in this environment. Foundation colours such as black or indigo are our go-to, albeit some men might feel confident to opt for a white in warmer months.
As an alternative, the trusted chinos can come into play again. They cross the parapet between formal and casual nicely, so are a commendable choice either way.
With footwear, as before, a nice pair of trainers will deliver the needed style points without ruining the dress code.
The crux of smart casual (either formal or casual) is about feeling confident in your clothing and your surroundings. If in doubt, always air on the side of being slightly overdressed. But, in all events investing in high-quality products will help to boost your poise and make men appear more presentable.
Key Smart Casual Pieces
Mentioned throughout this guide is how the balance between smart and casual can be tricky. Although, building a wardrobe of core contemporary menswear staples can help alleviate a lot of the stress. These foundational items will ensure that you are never caught off guard when a last-minute invite is dropped on you.
Crucial is staying on top of caring for your items and keeping them laundered and stored correctly. Then they will be ready and waiting when you need them. Understandably, that might need a change in attitude but appearance and style go hand in hand.
The Unstructured Blazer
The suit jacket is in all its being a formal piece that does an admirable job of keeping men refined. When it comes to smart casual, we need a new friend. Welcome the unstructured blazer.
This is a quintessential piece among the sartorial elite offering formal elegance without the rigidity of a jacket. Think evening meals on the French Riviera thrown on over a polo or simple tee.
In its anatomy the unstructured blazer has removed the padded shoulder, part or all of the lining found with a suit jacket and in some cases lowered the shoulder. A combination that delivers a more relaxed vibe which has made it a modern man’s core piece.
The White Trainers
Who would have thought from its beginnings in the sporting arena that the trainer would be as universally loved as it is among the entire menswear world; from designers to the high street.
The appeal has meant it has forearmed its way into multiple dress codes and smart casual is no exception. In pristine white, it is a laser-focused way to remove formality and add a casual swagger. As long as they are box fresh then feel free to wear them with a suit or their natural partner in crime, the chino.
A simple, yet versatile piece, the white trainer epitomises our changing attitudes to our perception of smart. The rules of the game have changed, so embrace it. Comfort and style points will follow if you do.
If you are looking to move away from denim or formal suit trouser, then chinos are your answer. They instantly make an outfit look smarter than it would have with jeans. But, isn’t too formal that it would throw off the aura of a smart-casual ensemble.
Classic colours such as beige or navy combine well with more colours and therefore enable you to utilise your current wardrobe options. For a more contemporary colour choice, grey is a nice preference partnered with white, black or even navy.
With fit, men can’t go wrong with a simple slim fit. Though the benefit with chinos is how they can be styled. Turn up the bottoms for a cuff or even opt for a trendier ankle length should the scenario allow for that kind of interpretation of the rules.
The Oxford Shirt
We can get smart casual influence from the preppy style of America’s universities and colleges. Initially, a way for the younger generation to define themselves away from their older, more formal forefathers. With its hybrid of smart and casual elements, it still holds true today.
The oxford shirt sums this up. It is versatile enough to be worn with a suit or an unstructured blazer it is also adept at being paired with either jeans or chino. A chameleon of dress codes, the oxford shirt is a key piece in any gents wardrobe.
Generally, we would opt for a white or light blue, but you can feel free to experiment as this shirt is pretty failsafe. Just make sure it is 100% cotton and is manufactured to hold its shape well over time.
The Polo Shirt
The unassuming polo shirt can often be an overlooked asset in our daily outfit arsenal. Cast aside for the shirt in a formal look, a t-shirt then gets the nod when we head more casual. But, in ignoring the polo shirt we are missing out on a great menswear piece.
The key for men is to focus on the fit and materials of their polo shirts. That means sleeves that finish mid-bicep and a hem that ends around the mid-fly of our trousers. Combine this with super soft merino or cashmere and we have an elevated basic that can be partnered with a wealth of different items.
With a wealth of designs and colourways available for men. There is always a way to add your own personal taste to a smart-casual outfit if you want to push the envelope further.
A staple of any man’s wardrobe is a good pair of jeans. To allow them to fall into a smart casual dress code though we need them to stick to a few trusted points. Fit is the most important.
Remember, with this dress code we are looking for a contemporary take on either smart or casual. So, your baggy 90s jeans or paint splattered alternatives won’t cut it. Stay faithful to a slim fitted silhouette and make sure that length has not been forgotten. We don’t want your jeans bunching over your shoes and spoiling your entire outfit.
Colours shouldn’t stray too far from dark hues like navy or black. They are dependable and versatile meaning they work well with the other key pieces in this list. Just follow the rule that the darker the jeans, the dressier the look.
Accessories can be your chance to add an element of personality, just be sure not to overdo it. To the uneducated, subtlety is the name of the game with this.
Items like a belt, watch, pocket square even a hat can all add a dash of sprezzatura and playing it safe would mean using accessories in keeping with the style of the overall outfit. Though the more daring might like to use an accessory as a way to juxtapose the current look to draw the eye and include a talking point.
Smart Casual Style Tips
No matter the social event or the strictness of following the smart casual rules to attend. There are always just some basic styling tips that can be applied no matter what.
Abiding by the points below will help you elevate your chosen look while allowing creative freedom that can enable you to introduce your personality or some on-trend pieces.
We have referenced the difference between a relaxed and formal smart casual dress code. Now it is about being able to apply what you have learnt. That means knowing in advance the dress code for any event and planning ahead what you are going to wear.
Not only will that ensure you are not too over or underdressed, but gives you plenty of time to get to make your clothes as presentable as possible.
This is crucial for everything in menswear. Understanding your body shape and size and then purchasing pieces that play to your strengths will save you money in the long run. That means no buyer’s remorse and unwanted trips to the Post Office to return packages bought online.
The most stylish gents have layering nailed. In its basic form, it is adding a jumper over a shirt. But it can be taken so much further.
Transitional items are a good starting point. Pieces like a gilet, denim jacket or shackets can be worn beneath blazers or on top of an oxford shirt/polo shirt to add texture and interest. They can also be crucial in colder months when you don’t want to always be carrying a big winter coat around.
Investing in quality, well-made products will start to educate you on what fabrics last longer than others and how different materials will change a look.
A cotton polo versus a merino wool alternative is chalk and cheese. In the same way, a cashmere jumper will look far more luxurious than an acrylic or polyester one.
The knowledge of fabrics can be what set stylish men apart from others. It is understated panache, which makes your clothes do the talking before you do.
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