Confused by what smart casual means? Is it more or less formal than business casual? What kind of clothing does it include? This in-depth guide will explain everything both men and women need to know to ace the smart casual dress code, including pictures of smart casual attire you can easily recreate.
What Is Smart Casual? How Is It Different from Business Casual?
Smart casual is a difficult dress code to define because it mixes elements of formal and business casual styles. While business casual implies simply dressing to fit in at your company, smart casual implies adopting a similar level of neatness and formality while allowing your fashion choices to stand out from the crowd a little more. That’s because it’s not just applicable to work environments – often upscale restaurants or theaters adopt smart casual dress codes. Smart casual outfits are essentially business casual outfits that are elevated by incorporating a little more of your personality and individual style. Smart casual is more formal than business casual, but less formal than traditional business wear.
In smart casual, men can wear a nice pair of jeans or corduroys with a sports coat and a button up or go with a more traditional look with khakis or slacks. You could even throw in a bow tie, normal tie, or vest to create a more unique look.
For women, the options are more varied, but there are similar guidelines. Some nice dark wash jeans or slacks with a dressy top and a fashionable jacket (blazers and classy leather jackets work well) are acceptable. Skirts, blouses, and dresses are also OK, depending on the style (discussed later). Sweaters are another option for both men and women.
5 Smart Casual Rules to Live By
Follow these simple rules and your smart casual choices will always be on point.
1. Don’t Overdo It
Even though smart casual looks can incorporate some of your personal style, they shouldn’t be too distracting and out there. The point of smart casual is to be stylish but not overly trendy or garish. You want to look neat, professional, and put together with one or two splashes of fun thrown in. You should also feel comfortable in your outfit.
2. Dress Aspirationally
Observe the smart casual outfits worn by others whom you perceive as having good fashion sense and/or professional success. What are their go-to looks? Can you find a way to superimpose them onto your own wardrobe to create a similarly polished appearance?
It’s never good to copy someone else’s outfit completely, but you can definitely follow their model while changing it slightly to make yourself look unique. For example, you could choose a different neutral color base, a different style of pants that happens to be more flattering for you, or different types of accessories.
3. Stick to One Bold Color or Pattern
Smart casual outfits are fairly dressy, but you can make them slightly more fun than just your typical bland office wear. When formulating outfits, choose one brightly colored or patterned piece that will pop against neutral colors. Having one exciting, unique piece in your look will make you stand out without seeming too in-your-face.
4. Shoes Matter
Wearing shoes that aren’t formal enough can ruin your smart casual look. Make sure you choose footwear that complements the rest of your outfit rather than bringing it down. This means avoiding sneakers and flip flops for men and women.
Options for men include boat shoes, loafers, oxfords, brogues and boots. Women can wear dressy boots, flats, pumps, and most other types of heels. Sandals are usually OK as long as they’re not excessively worn or cheap-looking.
5. Accessorize Wisely
For women: Accessories can tie a smart casual outfit together while making you look even more polished and sophisticated. However, they can easily be over-used. Stick to one or two accessories initially, especially if you plan to wear a piece of very bright or conspicuous jewelry. It’s better to have just one focal point.
Some ideas for appropriate accessories include:
- Jewelry (nothing too plastic or clunky looking)
- Light scarves
- A nice watch
- A belt
For men: Probably the most popular accessory for men is a nice watch. Cuff links are also an option, as are different types of ties if you’re wearing a collared shirt and even pocket squares. Hats and scarves can be risky, so if you’re not totally confident in your fashion sense, I’d avoid complicating things by adding them into the mix.
Smart Casual for Men: 3 Go-To Outfits
This next section gives three common smart casual outfit combinations for men, along with several pictures for each one so you can get a visual of what these styles look like.
Combo 1: Dark Trousers/Long-Sleeve Button-Up/Sport Coat
This first combo is a classic smart casual outfit for men, and it’s easy to recreate with your own pieces. Slacks are somewhat more formal than dark jeans, but both fit the requirements of smart casual for most occasions. A sports coat quickly makes the outfit more formal.
A photo posted by Bruno Mario Micchiardi (@bruttone) on Aug 26, 2016 at 10:22pm PDT
Combo 2: Dark Jeans/Sweater
This is a great combo if you’re looking for a smart casual outfit that’s still comfortable to wear. It’s also a great choice for colder months.
A photo posted by Mr Robinson’s Menswear (@mrrobinsonshop) on Sep 6, 2016 at 4:31am PDT
Combo 3: Khaki Trousers/Long-Sleeve Button-Up/Blazer
Khakis are a staple of men’s smart casual outfits. A blazer bumps the style up a notch, but you can always just pair it with a long-sleeve button-up shirt.
A photo posted by STINSHIRTS | Mens Apparel | ?? (@stinshirts) on Sep 5, 2016 at 10:32pm PDT
Items to Avoid
- Denim jackets
- T-shirts without collars or with conspicuous logos
- Ripped jeans
- Baseball caps
Smart Casual for Women: 3 Easy Outfits
This section includes common smart casual outfit combinations and accompanying photos for women to create their perfect outfit.
Combo 1: Slacks or Dark Jeans/Dressy Top/Blazer
Like men, women can dress up a bit by pairing a nice pair of pants with a dressy top and possibly a blazer. It’s more formal than just jeans and a t-shirt, but it still allows you to be comfortable and wear some staple pieces from your closet.
A photo posted by Sonia Bychkovska (@sonia.bychkovska) on Sep 5, 2016 at 6:04am PDT
A photo posted by Related (@relatedapparel) on Aug 31, 2016 at 5:15am PDT
Combo 2: Mid-length Skirt/Button-up Blouse/Sweater or Jacket
Skirts (as long as they are not mini skirts) are a great smart casual staple. Pair one with a nice blouse or sweater and top it off with a jacket if you’d like.
A photo posted by DressPublisher (@dresspublisher) on Sep 5, 2016 at 10:16pm PDT
Combo 3: Mid-length Dress/Jacket
Finally, a dress you love is a simple and classy way to be smart casual. Pair it with a jacket if you’d like, but it isn’t required.
A photo posted by Anna-Maria Galojan ??? (@annamariagalojan) on Sep 5, 2016 at 6:59am PDT
Items to Avoid:
- Mini skirts
- T-shirts and tank tops
- Ripped/faded/distressed jeans
- Jean jackets
Staples of a Smart Casual Closet
Now that you’ve seen examples of what smart casual looks like, how can you go about creating your own outfits? Below are staples you should always have in your closet if you need to dress smart casual. If you’re wondering what to buy, go with these items first.
- Dark jeans (not worn or baggy)
- Button-down shirts (neutral colors are the most versatile)
- Solid-color sweaters or those with a simple pattern
- Loafers or similar shoes
- Neutral-colored belts
- Dark jeans (well-fitted and not worn)
- Mid-length or full-length skirts
- Button-down shirts
- Solid-color sweaters or those with a simple pattern
- Flats, heels or sandals
- Scarfs and/or jewelry