How To Master Smart Casual: The Ultimate Guide

Have you ever received an invitation to an event and been stumped at the words “smart casual”? If so, you’re not alone – this dress code proves confusing to a lot of men.

If you’re looking for some guidance on the smart casual dress code, you’ve come to the right place. Follow these simple rules and you’ll get it right every time.

Smart vs casual: what does it mean?

The concept of a smart casual can be confusing to some. It is, in fact, an oxymoron; the two words do not go together harmoniously. So, what exactly does this vague dress code mean in terms of men’s clothing online?

This dress code is an instruction that covers a lot of occasions – job interviews, drinks, wedding receptions, weddings, etc. Smart casual – a dress code which typically applies to men, not women – can be defined as pairing items together that are “not too formal” as well as “not too casual”. It means striking the right balance between casual-wear and not being “underdressed”. It’s looking smart, without overdoing it.

If you’ve been asked to dress in “smart casual” and it has left you bewildered, consider this your ultimate guide.

Smart casual: the jacket

When it comes to constructing a proper smart casual ensemble, it’s wise to start with the jacket. There are a number of jackets that can work in this scenario, including blazers, bomber jackets and safari jackets – even thick cardigans. While the latter three jackets can be dressed up when paired with smarter pieces, the blazer is a staple and is guaranteed to set the smart casual outfit off to the best start.

A deconstructed blazer is the best option, and this can be defined as one that is more relaxed in its style: no shoulder pads, shorter in length and perhaps with a linen blend or cotton-twill. Unlike a suit jacket, this style of blazer doesn’t have the formal edge, thus making it the perfect central point of a smart casual outfit.

For example, a relaxed navy blazer can be paired with smart-looking jeans, a cashmere jumper (perhaps a roll-neck) and shoes like brogues or loafers for the perfect smart casual outfit.

Smart casual: the trousers

Once you have got the perfect smart but casual jacket, it’s time to find the perfect pair of trousers. Jeans are a common companion to the blazer, but there are other trouser options, too. This is what’s on offer:

Chinos: Chinos are the ultimate combination of smart and casual. The preppy-style trousers are classic-looking, and they come in many colours: beige, navy, black, green, purple, green, sandstone, etc. To play it safe, pair a blazer with a pair of tapered navy chinos and you will nail the dress code.

Jeans: Jeans are considered to be casual, especially when worn with a sweatshirt. However, they can be dressed up, and are actually a good option when it comes to putting together a smart casual outfit. As a general rule, stick to black or dark-coloured slim fit jeans with clean edges (i.e. no rips, scuffs or frays).

Avoid suit trousers when putting together a smart casual outfit. You will look overdressed, so save the full suit for a black-tie dress code.

Smart casual: the shirt

When you have decided on the jacket and on the trousers, it’s now time to consider the shirt. The shirt is important as it indicates the formality and casualness of the outfit.

Steer clear of t-shirts with blazers and opt for a button-up shirt instead. While a crisp white cotton shirt is a tad too formal, you could consider a softer, linen-blend white shirt underneath a navy blazer. Or, if white shirt still feels too formal, a light blue shirt with a navy blazer and dark-coloured jeans will look good and hit the dress code perfectly.

Smart casual: knitwear

If the occasion calls for it, or you’re unsure about shirts and t-shirts, you may decide to opt for a knit jumper. If you feel that you can pull off a v-neck cashmere jumper over a button-up shirt with tailored patterned trousers and leather loafers, go fo it. But, if that sounds a little too formal, stick to a slim-fitting plain cashmere jumper in navy, dark grey or beige.

Smart casual: shoes

Once you have your jacket, trousers and shirt sorted, you need to decide on the shoes. The wrong shoes have the ability to break an outfit and unbalance the smart/casual vibe.

Casual shoes like trainers can complete a smart casual outfit, as long as they are luxury in style (not running shoes) and not scuffed or dirty. Or, to play it safe, stick to black, brown or burgundy shoes (but not brown shoes with navy trousers), such as penny loafers or brogues in either leather or suede.

With the shoes decided, it’s important to not forget the socks. With socks, you can be as colourful as you wish, as socks are the only element of a smart casual outfit that should be bright and bold. So, take it as an opportunity to express your individuality, and if you’re wearing a blazer you can pair your socks with a matching pocket handkerchief. If you get this right, your ensemble will be on point.

Final notes:

The smart casual dress code is not easy to master; it takes a lot of experimenting to find out what works for you, and what you’re comfortable in.

Here are the rules you should remember when putting together an outfit:

  • Start on the jacket and build upon it. Once you know what jacket you want to wear (blazer, bomber jacket, safari jacket or cardigan) the rest will come easy.
  • Avoid too much colour, but match it where it counts. Smart casual does not call for bold colours, but injecting a pop of colour in the smaller details will add some personality to the look.
  • Slim-fitting trousers is key. Slim-fitting jeans, for example, will elevate the look and make it look more formal overall. Avoid jeans with rips and scuffs.

If you can follow these simple guidelines, you will have the perfect smart casual outfit.

Peter