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Smart Casual for Men: How to Build the Perfect Wardrobe

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 for men” – definitely not formal but a little more laid-back than business casual.

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It’s supposed to smooth 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.

So, before you get dress-coded by HR, we’ve put together some pointers for navigating this supposedly cozy minefield.

Men wearing black blazer and checkered black pants

What Does “Smart Casual” Mean, Exactly?

Before you say, “No one knows,” understand this: At its core, smart casual for men focuses on elevating your wardrobe’s more “casual” garments.

With a stretch, tees and jeans fall within smart casual – under certain conditions, of course. Chinos are always a good choice as long as you’ve ironed them and they’re not bunched up around your ankles.

Beyond just the barebones, this look 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, or too-tight because that seems too youthful – especially when you’re making a presentation.

The end result strives for this exact midpoint and is also approachable. Suits – unless you work in law or top-tier finance – are best left for formal occasions.

men wearing gray blazer and gray pants

Smart Casual vs Business Casual: The Difference

Alright, so let’s talk about the difference between smart casual for men and business casual attire for men. I’ve been through my fair share of fashion dilemmas before, so here’s what I’ve learnt.

Smart Casual in a Nutshell

When it comes to smart casual attire, we’re talking about a look that’s a step above your regular casual wear, but not quite as formal as a business suit. Think of it as dressing to impress without going overboard. You want to look stylish and put together without sacrificing comfort.

Throw on a nice pair of dark jeans or chinos, paired with a button-down shirt or a polo. Add a blazer or a cardigan if you’re feeling fancy. Finish it off with some clean, polished shoes, and you’re good to go. Smart casual for men specifically gives you the freedom to express your personal style while still looking sharp.

Business Casual

Now, let’s switch gears to business casual attire. This is the dress code you’ll commonly find in professional settings where a full suit might be a bit too much. The key here is to maintain a professional look, but with a slight relaxed vibe.

Opt for dress pants or khakis, paired with a dress shirt or a collared polo. Throw on a blazer if you want to step it up a notch. As for shoes, go for something polished and sleek, like loafers, oxfords, or Chelseas.

So, what’s the big difference between the two? Well, smart casual for men gives you more room to experiment with your style. You can play around with different patterns, colors, and textures. It’s all about making a statement while keeping it casual. On the other hand, business casual is more about sticking to the tried and true classics. It’s about projecting a professional image without going too formal.

Smart Casual for Men In Context

Smart Casual For Men Going to the Office

Among all factors, quality comes high on the list. Specifically, you want to find 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. But that 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 – should be left in your bag for the gym.

With these points in mind, ironing your clothes definitely makes a difference. It’s likely a reason no-iron garments – usually containing a touch of polyester – have taken off in recent years.

So, 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.

men wearing white polo shirt and black pants

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.

Though you don’t have to stick strictly to navy, khaki, white, and dress-shirt light blue, stay within neutral grounds and go for the understated: Burgundy over royal purple, and olive and sage over turquoise.

Patterns and prints, to some degree, fall in this camp. But you don’t have to stick with solids, keep the colors neutral, and the size small to medium.

Also, veer toward more established combinations than a straight-from-the-runway pattern. For example, plaid, stripes, and even florals fit the bill. That pop art cartoon print, on the other hand, might seem too garish.

Smart Casual Dressing for Men

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.

men wearing sweatshirt gray and green pants

Smart Casual for Dinner

Don’t think your entire wardrobe has to rest upon neutral shades and those alone. Today, dating and even nice dinner attire runs more casual – but not to the point you’re showing up in ripped, faded denim and a T-shirt. Instead, the prints and bright colors can come out – just as long as you don’t go too overboard.

Here’s the point when that camp collar shirt can come out and radiantly contrast against your navy chinos and black bomber jacket.

Or, it’s the opportunity to try out those dust-pink hued pleated pants, assuming you’re wearing them with a grey knit polo and lace-up boots. The key, in splashing just a bit more personality into your wardrobe, is knowing just what to accent. Stick to one bold shade or pattern, and tone down the rest.

Added to these aspects, stick with simpler fits: think slim or tapered chinos, bombers or unstructured blazers, button-fronts, fitted tees, and polos, and a dressier sneaker or classic dress shoe. An accent or two here – think pleats, contrast trim, or a raw hem – shakes things up, but only a tad.

How to Put Together a Smart Casual Outfit

So, let’s look at some outifts that fall into the smart casual for men segment. It’s all about striking that balance between looking put together and being comfortable. I’ve got a few ideas that might help you nail the smart casual look. To make some sense out of smart casual’s convoluted rules, begin with:

Suit Separates

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. Because of this, consider having a couple of suit sets in your closet that match your button-fronts and other blazers.

Smart Casual Dressing for Men

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 sports-coats is a step in a friendlier, freeing direction.

men wearing blue blazer

Footwear

On your list of footwear don’ts? Athletic shoes, sandals, and skate shoes.

That being said, the style, smart casual for men, 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.

Let’s look a little closer at Chelsea boots. These babies are a must-have for any guy looking to rock the smart casual style. They’re sleek, versatile, and add a touch of sophistication to any outfit. Pair them with some tailored chinos or dark wash jeans, and you’ve got yourself a killer ensemble. Wear this combo to a dinner date or a semi-formal event, and you’re guaranteed to turn some heads.

gray shoe

Button-Front Shirts

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. So, 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. 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 styles are specifically on the shorter side. It’s still expected that you tuck them in and add a belt.

Smart Casual Dressing for Men

Knits

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.

Casual Shorts

Next on my list is smart casual shorts. Now, I know what you’re thinking – shorts can’t possibly be smart casual for men, right? Wrong. With the right pair and the right styling, you can absolutely pull it off. Opt for a tailored pair in a neutral color, like khaki or navy. Pair them with a well-fitted button-down shirt and some low-top sneakers, and you’re good to go. This look is perfect for a summer rooftop party or a casual lunch with friends.

Casual Jeans

Finally, I can’t leave smart casual jeans off this list. Denim is a staple in any guy’s wardrobe, and when done right, it can be the perfect choice for a smart casual outfit. Choose a dark wash pair with a slim or straight fit. Pair them with a crisp white shirt, a blazer, and some leather loafers. This ensemble is ideal for a business casual office setting or a fancy dinner out.

Final Thoughts

Smart casual for men and business casual are indeed similar in that they both bridge the gap between casual and formal attire, but they do have distinct differences. Smart casual allows for more flexibility and personal expression, while business casual tends to be more reserved and professional.

Both dress codes aim to create a polished and put-together look, but with different levels of formality. Remember to consider your specific workplace or event requirements when choosing your outfit, and always aim to feel confident and comfortable in what you wear.

So there you have it – a quick rundown of some smart casual for men outfit ideas for men. Remember, it’s all about finding that balance between looking polished and feeling comfortable. The most important thing is to feel confident and comfortable in what you’re wearing.

So go ahead, embrace your personal style, and show off your fashion game. Experiment, have fun with it, and rock that smart casual style with confidence.

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master the smart casual look
Writer

Ivan Yaskey is a Philly-born menswear fashion blogger and copywriter. When not writing about men's style he's also an EDM and synthpop enthusiast.

Smart Casual for Men: How to Build the Perfect Wardrobe