You’d think that, by opting for more casual dress codes, workplaces would offer their employees some relief. Instead, we’re left with the ambiguousness of “smart casual” – definitely not formal yet somewhat more laid-back than business casual. It purportedly smooths the transition from office to evening and factors client meetings in between, but all we’re left with is head scratching and a bunch of missteps.
This post may have affiliate links, meaning we earn a small commission on purchases through the links (at no extra cost to you). This does not change our opinion but does help support the site. Thank you!
So, before you get dress-coded by HR, we’ve put together some pointers for navigating this supposedly cozy minefield:
What is Smart-Casual, Exactly?
Before you say, “No one knows,” understand this: At its core, smart-casual focuses on fit and elevating your wardrobe’s more “casual” garments. With a stretch, tees and jeans fall within these parameters – under certain conditions, of course. Chinos are always a good choice – assuming you’ve ironed them and they’re not bunched up around your ankles.
Beyond just the barebones, realize this aesthetic is meant to streamline your office attire. No more strictly-business suits, networking-and-cocktails getups, and for-the-office business casual, which – let’s be honest – often consists of a poorly fitting button-down, khakis, and loafers.
This median pulls from each direction – well-fitting shirts, unlined blazers, and slimmer pants that fall right to the tops of your shoes.
Nothing should be too loose, yet too-tight seems too youthful – especially when you’re making a presentation. The end result not only strives for this precise midpoint, but further comes off as approachable. Suits – unless you work in law or top-tier finance – are best left for formal occasions.
How to Do Smart-Casual
Among all factors, quality comes high on the list. Specifically, you want to seek out finer, traditional materials that don’t look cheap. Think cotton and linen over fully polyester pieces. Certain synthetics, like rayon, viscose, and nylon, may work for your shirt, assuming the fabric isn’t see-through or torn.
Avoid anything that looks stretchy. That, however, doesn’t exclude pants that contain a touch of spandex purely for your comfort level. If you can see the weave and the pants don’t have a noticeable give, you’re good to go. Anything resembling workout pants – yoga pants, leggings, or joggers, for instance – ought to be left in your bag for the gym.
With these points in mind, ironing your garments definitely makes a difference. It’s likely a reason no-iron garments – themselves containing a touch of polyester – have taken off in recent years.
Thus, if the shirts and pants hanging in your closet have a propensity for showing wrinkles, give them a once-over with the iron the night before – tees and dark denim, included. No matter how good the fit or the material’s quality, visible creases and undulations paint you as someone unprofessional.
As disappointing as it seems, the office isn’t a place for making strong, flamboyant style statements. For this reason, it’s best to keep the bright colors – reds, yellows, and neons, particularly – at home, ready for a night out or the weekend.
Although you don’t have to stick strictly to navy, khaki, white, and dress-shirt light blue, stay within neutral grounds and opt for the understated: Burgundy over royal purple, and olive and sage over turquoise.
Patterns and prints, to some degree, fall in this camp. Although you don’t have to stick with solids, keep the colors neutral, and the size small to medium. As well, veer toward more established combinations than a straight-from-the-runway pattern.
For instance, plaid, stripes, and even florals fit the bill. That pop art cartoon print, on the other hand, might be perceived as too garish.
This doesn’t mean that you need to steer clear of details. Think about the buttons on your shirt, look for a distinctive trim, and seek out less-showy facets (hint: no gold buttons) that point to the garment’s quality.
Along with all this, make sure your smart-casual pieces are easily layered. As business casual’s biggest downfall, too many guys get mired in the polo-khakis-loafers combo, and rarely – to borrow a corporate cliché – think outside the box.
For this reason, look for V-neck sweaters that can be worn with button-fronts, unstructured blazers, and cardigans. Even that finance-bro fleece vest – as much of a fashion faux pas that it is – fits, to a degree.
Building Smart Casual Basics
To make some sense out of smart-casual’s convoluted rules, begin with:
Like those pants we reviewed from Frank & Oak, suit separates pull your look together when you want to be polished, and function independently in your wardrobe when you’re not impressing prospective clients. For this reason, consider having a couple of sets in your closet that match your button-fronts and other blazers.
On the topic of blazers, err toward unstructured and unlined – no inner canvas and definitely no padded shoulders. Lighter feeling aside, the character compared to traditional sportscoats is a step in a friendlier, freeing direction.
On your list of footwear don’ts? Athletic shoes, sandals, and skate shoes. That being said, smart-casual encompasses a wide range of styles. Dress boots, oxfords, brogues, and loafers get you off to a solid start. For sneakers, look for higher-quality materials and solid colors, and veer away from anything trendy. Particularly, keep the Balenciaga dad shoes at home.
Here’s where you can get creative to a certain extent. As long as the button-front is slim, fits well, and steers clear of bold prints, you’ve got a wide range of possibilities. As such, think about your collar: button-down, pointed, or banded?
And, factor in texture; a little weave never hurt anyone, provided it doesn’t seem too threadbare. And, within the full spectrum of colors, the only thing that matters is that the shirt matches your pants and blazer.
As a note, avoid wearing your shirttails out, unless the style’s are specifically on the shorter side. It’s still expected that you tuck them in and add a belt.
Keep it fine – nothing chunkier than a cable knit. That said, once it’s past layering weather, some T-shirts and polos are fair game. The trick to wearing them well? Avoid overly trendy touches – no color-blocking and exaggerated shirttail hems – and make sure you can see the knit. That smooth, shiny polyester look only works for the golf course.