Smart Casual Dress Code Explained

Smart Casual Dress Code Explained

Even 20 years ago, dress codes were much more defined and people clearly understood what they meant, however, in recent years, fashion and clothes have become more casualized and because of that, new dress codes have evolved.

The term casual today can be anything from gym clothes or athleisure, all the way up to something that’s office appropriate such as a dress shirt and chinos. Now obviously, there is a big disconnect and just having the casual dress code is no longer enough. So if you get an invitation with a dress code smart casual, I hear your pain.

What Exactly Is Smart Casual?

Historically, the term was coined because people showed up overly casual and the smart implied that you can’t show up with joggers and trainers. If you look at the urban dictionary, it defines smart casual as a nonsensical dress code that people slap on to events, parties, and workplaces. Completely down to interpretation, this always causes confusion and often spectacular results. The mixture between smart and casual should not be taken literally. So while it’s hilarious, sadly, it’s not very helpful.

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First, the urban dictionary got it right by saying don’t take it literally. That means, don’t wear tennis shoes with a dress shirt, or combine sweatpants with a blazer. So in a nutshell, smart casual is not about mixing different pieces of clothing from different degrees of formality but rather to pick something that is in between a very casual outfit and a formal or businesslike outfit. A hoodie would be too casual and pleated wool dress pants would be too formal, instead, if you go with chinos, they are less formal, as well as a polo shirt, you hit that perfect sweet spot of smart casual.

Personally, I like the idea of a smart casual dress code because it allows you to use lots of colors and to combine different things that you may not have combined otherwise. Ideally, you always want to avoid looks at the extreme end of the spectrum, that means no jeans, no trainers, no hoodies, or no sweatpants. At the same time, it also means no neckwear, no suits, no pleated pants, and no black dress shoes.

Where Do You Encounter Smart Casual Dress Code?

It’s not at the office because there are different terms such as business casual. You can usually find smart casual dress codes in a social environment such as cruise ships, restaurants, or resorts. The whole idea is to look neat and presentable without being overly stuffy.

So let’s say you work in a white-collar office and you have an invitation to a smart casual event afterward and you usually wear dress shirts, ties, and pinstripe suits, you definitely want to bring a change of clothes. If you’re a bit more flexible at the office, you can get away with wearing a blazer and chinos for example, as well as a tie, but when you go to the smart casual party, I suggest to take off the tie, add a bold pocket square, maybe a boutonniere, have some bolder socks and shoes and brown tones or more colors such as dark red, dark green, or navy, and it just creates a more fun outfit that is not as boring or stuffy formal as you would usually know from an office environment.

Should You Dress Up Or Down?

So if you’re unsure whether you should dress up a little more or dress down, I suggest you always dress up because that way, you don’t embarrass yourself. Of course, always stay within that smart casual range which means below business wear.

Smart Casual Clothing Items

A tweed blazer with chinos for a dapper yet modern take on a classic

A tweed blazer with chinos for a dapper yet modern take on a classic

A Stand Out Blazer Or Odd Jacket

On the formal side would be an odd jacket or a blazer. Odd jacket meaning it has a bolder pattern, another color, and it doesn’t match the pants. You don’t want to wear a suit, a combination at most. Also, that means, don’t wear orphaned suit jackets from your pinstripe suit with a Nantucket red pair of pants because it’s simply odd and doesn’t work together.

Harrington Jacket Racing Green Baracuta

Harrington Jacket in Racing Green from Baracuta

Of course, if you want to be more casual with your jacket choice, you can absolutely do that. You could go with a Harrington jacket in cotton, maybe a linen jacket such as this green one, I would even argue you could wear a bomber jacket or maybe a leather jacket if that suits the overall outfit.

Checked Collared Shirts

When it comes to shirts, you should definitely stay clear of t-shirts but you can wear dress shirts. That being said, I suggest not to wear plain white or solid light blue dress shirts because they’re true business formal. Instead, go with checked shirts in a collar. You can also go with bolder checks, smaller checks may be a small houndstooth or a bolder stripe. It all works, just make sure there’s some contrast, there’s some color, and it’s not too stiff. If you live in a warmer climate, linen shirts are perfectly fine. Personally, I would always stay clear of short-sleeved dress shirts and instead go with polo shirts because it’s more natural and works better.

Corduroy pants are an exceptional way to add sophistication to a casual outfit

Corduroy pants are an exceptional way to add sophistication to a casual outfit

Cuffed chinos offer a casual balance when paired with a jacket and tie

Cuffed chinos offer a casual balance when paired with a jacket and tie

Chinos, Corduroys, Seersucker, & Linen Pants

When it comes to pants or slacks, don’t wear jeans and don’t wear pleated pants made out of worsted wool because that’s office wear and both of them are too extreme. Instead, go with chinos, maybe corduroys in the winter, seersucker or linen in the summer or something with a bit more texture that’s interesting and it could also have a pattern such as a small houndstooth for example.

Colorful Accessories

When it comes to accessories, color is your friend. You can be much bolder than at the office and you can experiment and simply have fun. I suggest you skip bowties and regular neckties. if you want to have something around your neck, maybe an ascot can be the perfect item.

If you decide to wear a blazer or an odd jacket, I strongly recommend you wear a bold pocket square or maybe a boutonniere that is just contrasting, it’s a pop of color, it’s different, and it’s fun. Definitely, avoid the white linen pocket square in TV fold, that’s fine for a job interview or the office but not for smart casual.

Another way I like to spice up smart casual outfits is to use colorful socks. You could be bolder, you can experiment, you can go really out there, or you can be a little more subdued. Personally, I want a subdued side.

If it’s cold outside and you need some gloves, I suggest to go with fun colors such as dark green, maybe a light tan, blue, or red, and stay clear of the traditional black gloves, or just boring brown gloves. That being said, if you want to stick with those colors, make sure you get two-toned gloves such as the black and red gloves by Fort Belvedere or the brown and blue gloves which are definitely not your Grandpa’s gloves.

Stick With Leather Shoes

When it comes to shoes, I suggest you stay with leather shoes. They can have a leather sole or a rubber sole but they must not be black because that’s too formal. Instead, go with brown tones or tans but you can also venture into green, maybe off-white, or dark burgundy red. All these colors are acceptable but I urge you to choose a style that is more casual with more casual details. As such, spectators work. You can go with woven leather, or maybe a linen insert, suede is also good.

Brown Derby Shoes with Light Blue Shoelaces by Fort Belvedere - Before & After

Brown Derby Shoes with Light Blue Shoelaces by Fort Belvedere – Before & After

Just get something that’s more casual than a traditional business shoe. That being said, derbies are more appropriate than oxfords but there are oxfords that would be just fine for smart casual as long as they are not too dark and they have maybe a full brogue pattern.

Fringed two tone tassel loafer

Fringed two tone tassel loafer

Apart from that, I think two tone tassel loafers are great or maybe just regular penny loafers, some people even like driving moccs even though I think they wear very quickly if you wear them on a daily basis but they work from a concept point of view.

Classic boat shoes

Classic boat shoes

On a very casual end, I suggest shoes go with boat shoes because they are still leather and they’re still relaxed and you can even wear them barefoot. While it’s clear that tennis shoes and trainers are too casual, a lot of people like designer sneakers or leather sneakers and in my opinion, they’re in a gray area. Personally, I wouldn’t wear it because I find it too casual but I know other people who would probably find a sneaker still appropriate.

CONCLUSION

At the end of the day, it’s your call. Personally, I’d always urge you to get a little bit more formal within the smart casual dress code because that way, you always look dapper and properly attired. No one will turn you down, everyone will respect you, and they will know that you understood the smart casual dress code.

What do you usually wear when the dress code says smart casual? Share your favorite

looks below!

Summary
Smart Casual Dress Code Expalned
Article Name
Smart Casual Dress Code Expalned
Description
Learn all about the smart casual dress code; what it means, dos & don'ts, what clothing items you need to get the perfect look!
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Gentleman's Gazette LLC
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14 replies
  1. Daniel says:

    Smart casual is about as dressed up as I get, but on the dressier end I recently put together an outfit with a charcoal tweed blazer (very expensive, purchased after consuming two martinis and wandering into a pricey men’s shop), royal blue wide wale cords, a blue and white pin-striped shirt with a very colorful plaid bow tie, and oxblood Italian loafers. A pocket square that picked-up the colors of the bow tie, and a daisy lapel pin topped it off. I was the belle of the ball, and at age 62, it was the perfect image for me; playfully professorial. I think having a clear view of our age and the impression we make helps.

    I think jeans are fine, and can be dressed-up with a nice sweater and decent shoes. I grew up in Southern California wearing Vans, and I still wear them here in Nashville, where they elicit some comment. I think they work well on the casual end of smart casual, and playful colors and patterns can be fun.

    I agree with you, if in doubt, dress up a little to be on the safe side. But don’t be afraid to be a little eccentric. One of the few advantages of getting old is losing any fear of being a bit odd!

    Reply
    • Duncan says:

      I too am 62 and can put togther an outfit like you describe above. My wardrobe can be quite be quite dandified and frankly I dont give a d*mn.
      Enjoy being the Beau.

      Reply
      • MattD says:

        The contra and upside BEING.., when those of us that have settled comfortably into the role of country gentlemen DO dress up, it only seals the deal.

        Personally, I’m glad Sven brought this all to light. A topic that was long overdue. After several years of family gatherings both forma & casual, everyone’s finally getting it. We’ve moved forward collectively. It’s all part of becoming a fully integrated adult, along w/ greater appreciation for the arts etc.

        Reply
    • Mike says:

      I have to agree on jeans working wonderfully at a smart casual event. As log as they are dark and hung directly from the dryer so they are wrinkle free.

      Reply
  2. Fritz says:

    First. You do a great service with your comments. I do not agree with you on great Jeans. You only say, they are not appropriate in this sense, and do not say when they are. I spend time in Europe and Asia besides traveling in The USA. Jeans with sportcoats, Sweaters, polos, leisure jackets, dress and sportshirts are universal. It the “bad taste” dresser that makes any category
    “Quote” unacceptable.
    The right jeans from Levi 501′ to the most expensive designer jeans have a rightful place in Sherman’s casual/ chic wardrobe
    Perhaps “The Man makes the clothes acceptable ” not the other way around
    Please keep up the great work wonderful forum

    Reply
    • MattD says:

      Opting for cord’s as Sven suggests I’ve found is the best way to go. Something I preferred in my youth, abandoned in early adulthood and regret not having gone back to sooner. Let’s be honest, jeans on a male are basically invisible. There so over worn in American culture, a fashion default if you will, they’ve almost ceased to exist at all?

      Again, I’d prefer to make them the exception not the rule. Cord’s come in so many colors and textures, it just brightens up any room. Gives you so many options. I’d add, if an older gent opts for jeans, not only should they be dark and without frays, neatly pressed is a nice touch. Just sayin’…

      Reply
  3. Duncan says:

    I groan when I hear the term “smart casual”.

    For years, I worked in the City of London which had a very formal dress code: dark suits, dress shirts with double (French ) cuffs, sober ties and always black shoes. It was quite a stifling outfit to wear and very uncomfortable on hot days.

    It had a great advantage- I could get dressed in the dark which I often did in winter months.

    Gradually London has become more casual in business attire but it leads to some anxious moment. What should I wear? What’s the dress code? Some guy’s idea of smart casual can be very different to another,

    Newer companies and media, even hedge funds dress very down: jeans, T-shirts and trainers (sneakers).

    Most banks and professional firms seem to work on the basis that if you are not client-facing, dress smart casual. Even then you take your cue from the client. Smart casual here can mean chinos, collared shirts and pullovers.

    One can appear a real old fogey pitching up “suited and booted” where everybody else is wearing jeans and trainers. There is almost a reverse snobbery: if you wear a suit you are not in the game, you are a wage slave. Dress like a student and you must be a player…

    What to wear has become very complicated. It used to be easier.

    Reply
    • MattD says:

      Duncan,

      Reverse snobbery seems to be the order of the day. The thing is being consistent, making sure other attendees fully understand it wasn’t you that misread the invitation. There’s always someone willing to plumb for the lowest common denominator and I’m always ready to straighten them out. Especially when they’re well old enough to know better.

      By showing up a 2nd and 3rd time in essentially the same caliber of attire.., they’ll eventually get the message. That’s when the tables turn. Often sloppy do nothing but further over compensate as the hole they’re digging gets deeper and deeper… Sad.

      Reply
  4. John says:

    Know the venue, know the crowd, know the weather, know the theme, etc. A good overall video. For instance, I would wear a completely different look for an indoor event at a country club as opposed to a pool party. Dressing is an art and your wardrobe is your pallet. For me blue blazers, khakis or chinos, loafers, Bermuda shorts, button downs, polos. I’ll probably look text book preppy.

    Reply
  5. Leo C. Hantz III says:

    Smart casual is the dress code on the cruises that I take. It seems that 90% of the passengers take this as permission to look like a slob. Personally, I can’t give up wearing a jacket with a pocket square and a flower in my lapel, an ascot, and blue seersucker pants with two tone brown shoes. I am dressed well enough that I have been mistaken for a crew member! I can’t help it. If the ship goes down, I’m going down as a gentleman!

    Reply
  6. Sam says:

    There are many times we need to have a casual look and these tips are really great. Yo your list I would like to add one of my tip. A simple black jeans or trousers with white shirt and folded sleeves looks casual plus cool at the same time.

    Reply

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