A Modern Man's Guide to Smart Casual Dress in 2023
Updated: Apr 29
Nobody wants to see the dress code on an invitation. Even the most sartorial experts find it perplexing and that it raises more questions than it does answers. Of course, it's smart casual, and regrettably, it's not going anywhere anytime soon.
However, the smart casual dress code need not cause dread and worry. It might be advantageous. When done right, smart casual conveys confidence to the wearer and appreciation from those around them. It can take you from the office to a date without making you second-guess yourappearance.
But - there's always a but - it might seem uninteresting and, at its worst, like you've thrown your suit jacket over a pair of jeans if it's not done effectively. If you're stuck or searching for some high-low inspiration, here's all you need to know about nailing this constantly challenging dress code. Smart casual attire is very simple to get wrong.
Smart Casual: What Is It?
Above all, smart casual is perplexing. That will be the first thing we say. It mixes two words that are fundamentally opposed to one another and asks you to understand the difference. Should you emphasise "casual" clothing more than "smarter" clothing? Who knows, but you can count on a lot of interpretations when classy joggers and casual tailoring are included in the same category.
But it doesn't have to be difficult. Smart casual can be viewed as a stylistic blank check that can be used in any way. You can also take it literally and combine the best elements of both styles by wearing smart attire with more casual items to create the look of smart casual. Consider wearing a (the correct kind of) blazer and jeans or a T-shirt with a pair of fitted pants.
The smart casual dress code is frequently employed for occasions that call for some amount of smartness but are more laid back. Consider a laid-back wedding event, a graduation, or a luxury restaurant where attendees are expected to act in a dignified manner. However, to successfully wear smart casual, you need to wear the proper pieces that complement one another and don't appear too startling. It's not as easy as just placing a blazer on top of your jeans.
The Various Forms Of Smart Casual
The term "smart casual" can imply many different things to many different people, depending on the occasion and where you're going. Smart casual on a dating night and smart casual at a graduation are going to mean quite different things.
So it's necessary to think about where you're going and who you're going with when dressed for this unclear dress code. This will reveal your level of sophistication or laxness. For instance, a blazer is an ensemble must-have if you're going to a graduation. You most definitely wouldn't be overdressed for a graduation because they tend to be quite regimented and traditional affairs where everyone attending will be wearing gowns and hats. Wearing attire on the more sophisticated end of the range also serves as a statement of respect for individuals graduating because it conveys your understanding of the importance of the occasion.
However, depending on where you're going, donning a blazer can be a bit much for a date. You may want to dress fairly smartly on the lower half, with tailored pants and desert boots, but keep things more casual on top, with an Oxford shirt left out and a bomber jacket.
What Separates Casual From Smart Casual
Smart casual has many nuances, yet it's quite simple to tell it apart from casual attire. There aren't really any rules when it comes to dressing casually, so it doesn't take much consideration. Casual attire can include sweatpants, sneakers, and a sweatshirt or jeans and a T-shirt. When working from home or going out with pals to the pub, you might dress casually.
A little extra is necessary for smart casual attire. It requires a piece of attire that improves the appearance and prevents it from leaning toward the scruffy, such as a pleated pant, a button-down shirt, or a cashmere sweater. While casual attire is suitable for everyday wear, smart casual is a dress code and as such requires a little more care and planning.
Tips for Smart Casual Dress
Always bear in mind where on the spectrum of the smart casual dress code you want to fall while putting together an outfit.
Simple is best, stupid
Avoid going overboard if you're unsure. Keep to tried-and-true wardrobe staples like dark denim trousers, chinos, Oxford shirts, unstructured blue blazers, and straightforward knits. Often, smart casual looks best when kept simple.
If you're wearing smart casual attire, pieces could be worn in place of a traditional suit. which obviously entails wearing a mismatched blazer and pair of pants. If you choose to do so, it's best to stay with subdued, complimentary hues. For example, consider wearing traditional grey wool pants with a navy blazer and a white shirt. Try earthy colours like green, stone, and brown for something less overt.
Perfect The Details
We would suggest keeping things straightforward and recommending that you master the finer points of smart casual attire because they truly do make a difference. That requires paying attention to the little details, such as making sure your trousers aren't too long (if they are, have them tailored to finish just above your shoes), that your shoes are clean or polished if they are made of leather, that your leathers match so that your belt and shoes don't clash, and so on. Details are important.
Start off mild
Start on the more casual end of the range to create a smart casual look quickly. Put on your usual casual attire and then replace one or two items with something more formal. Start with a straightforward ensemble, such as jeans, a T-shirt, a sweatshirt, and sneakers. This is a classic casual appearance that can also be easily dressed up.
All you would need to do to transform it into smart casual is replace the hoodie with an unstructured blazer. Alternately, wear a slim bomber jacket in place of the hoodie and Derby shoes in place of the sneakers.
Oxford Button-Down Shirt
Essential Item for Smart Casual
The Oxford button-down is the go-anywhere, do-anything shirt and a true icon of menswear. The button-down started out on the polo field and has since been worn by some of the most fashionable men of all time, including Miles Davis Jr., Paul Newman, and James Dean. Polo players in the 19th century had trouble keeping their shirt collars from flapping, so buttons were added to keep them in place, allowing the riders to look sharp without sacrificing their game as they punted balls about on horseback.
The button-down has since gained in popularity after being a favourite among the Ivy League elite in the 1950s and 1960s before becoming a Ralph Lauren mainstay in the 1980s and 1990s. It is a more relaxed version of the classic collared shirt and is ideal for wearing as part of a smart casual ensemble.
A typical suit jacket is considerably different from an unstructured blazer. It has little to no padding in the shoulders and chest, in contrast to the latter, allowing the cloth to drape over your body rather than mould it.
Traditional blazers frequently have highly knotted shoulders, which produce angular, imposing lines that are innately formal and linked to business attire. Conversely, an unstructured jacket looks more relaxed and natural, so it goes well with casual clothing like chinos, T-shirts, polo shirts, and knits. Make sure the blazer is unstructured if you plan to wear it with a smart-casual ensemble.
Drawstring pants weren't really a thing until a few years ago. But they've undoubtedly become the trousers to choose due to the casualization of fashion (which escalated throughout the pandemic).
The drawstring, which expands and contracts with your body like sweatpants do, provides more comfort over a typical, fixed waistband. Nevertheless, they are composed of classier materials like cotton and wool, giving them the appearance of standard fitted pants at least from the exterior.
Wear them with loafers, merino knits, an overcoat, and other essential pieces of menswear as you would a pair of chinos.
Although minimalist sneakers are nothing new, they are still among the top choices for sophisticated casual footwear. Few shoes can make this claim, but a pair made of leather with a simple, understated design will go with denim jeans just as well as they will with tailoring. Common Projects may have been the first to popularise the look, but today there are several companies and price points producing their own interpretations, so no matter what your budget, you'll be covered.
Perhaps an obvious smart casual staple, but one that's simple to get wrong, are jeans. In order to achieve sharper looks, aim for a dark pair in either black or unwashed indigo. (Dark colours are the easiest to wear and tend to be on the smarter side of things.)
Dark jeans go well with Oxford shirts, Derbies, sneakers, and pretty much every other item of traditional menswear. Aim for something in the medium, that is, neither too slim nor too wide, for the fit. A straight or normal fit looks fantastic no matter what. Just be careful to roll the hem so it creates a crisp, uninterrupted trouser line and ends just above your shoes.
Dark brown Derby hats
Derby shoes are the Oxford's more informal cousin; the laces are what differentiate them. The eyelets on oxfords are sewed under the front portion of the shoe, giving them a sleek appearance that is more suited for wearing with formal tailoring. This lacing system is known as "closed lacing." Conversely, derbies have a "open" lacing design with the eyelets attached to the top of the vamp, making them easier to put on and more comfortable.
In summary, Derbys go well with denim jeans and fancier trousers alike because they are neither too smart nor too casual. Watch out for Derbys with a little chunkier rubber sole, which has a more modern appearance and provides lots of traction in slick conditions.
For individuals who want to seem put together without being stiff, chinos have long been the preferred option. Although they are technically tailored trousers with side pockets that are slanted and a zip fly, the material makes them stand out. The term "chino" refers to a cotton twill fabric that was created in the 19th century for the British and French armed forces and was intended to be strong and pleasant for soldiers to wear while exercising. Although it used to be coloured khaki, it is now available in practically any colour, many of which would appear completely out of place on the battlefield.
Since becoming one of the most popular men's pant styles outside of jeans, the chino has shed its military associations. Look for a pair that has a roomy thigh but narrows toward the hem and is cut with a standard tapered fit. We believe that tight or skinny-fit chinos have outlived their usefulness.
Important smart-casual attire
In all black
If in doubt, opt for an all-black smart-casual ensemble. Tonal black clothing is chic, elegant, and easy to wear. It almost always makes the wearer look thinner, which is a good thing. Additionally, it conveys a certain casualness that is frequently missed in more colourful attire.
Just keep in mind to include a variety of textural fabrics in your ensemble. Consider using fabrics like leather, moleskin, cotton twill, or lambswool to give some visual interest to your ensemble and prevent it from looking boring.
Jacket with Jeans
This timeless outfit is a go-to for smart casual, but it needs to be worn properly. You need an unstructured cut with unpadded, natural shoulders for the blazer. This keeps it more laid-back and prevents it from appearing as though you threw your suit jacket over the nearest pair of jeans you could find. In relation to that, the pants should be straight and dark—either deep indigo or black—so that they match the blazer's sophistication.
Superior Casual Wear
You can wear sophisticated casual clothing without actually changing your style. Simply keep an eye out for casual clothing that you already feel comfortable in but is made of more opulent materials. Bomber jackets made of leather or suede; merino wool T-shirts; and cashmere knitwear. All of these items are typically worn casually, but when constructed of these fabrics, they acquire a more sophisticated appearance that makes them ideal for pairing with chinos and Derbies.
Knit polo shirts
The knitted polo could be the smart casual dress code's best kept secret out of all the options on this list. Knitted polos look terrific over a sharp pair of denim jeans and are perfect for wearing with tailoring because they are more relaxed than a shirt but nicer than a crew neck thanks to their collar.
Look for one in a timeless colour like navy, brown, or olive green to pair with practically anything in your closet. They are really versatile and simple to wear.
Break The Tie
Wearing a suit without a tie is one approach to dress for a more formal smart casual affair. It sounds easy, don't you think? However, there are a few guidelines to follow as usual. Choose a single-breasted, unstructured suit to keep the look as casual as possible. Wear it with an Oxford, denim, or grandad collar shirt.
Put it on top of your boat shoes, chukka boots, Derbies, or loafers. These small changes will help you stand out from the other office slackers who spill out at 6 o'clock in the evening.
The turtleneck, once the domain of professors and comedic villains, has gained enormous popularity in recent years as more and more men have learned to appreciate its adaptability as a smart-casual staple. Simply combine your roll neck with whatever you would typically wear a shirt with for a style that is both polished and casual.
Divide it up
Making a suit more informal has long been a practise of splitting tailoring into distinct pieces. You can remove the suit's more formal, business-like implications by wearing two separate, mismatched pieces of tailoring, which allows for more creativity and smart casual flair.
Try a few different combinations to see what looks best. Some ideas include wearing cords with a textured blazer or a Riviera-inspired outfit of white pants and a navy jacket. Additionally, it allows you to get more use out of your current wardrobe.
Knits and shirts
Layering a shirt under knitwear is one of the most traditional smart-casual outfit combinations. Shirts always look stylish paired with knitwear, providing the required warmth during the cooler months whether you choose a crew neck, V-neck, cardigan, or cable knit.
Remove the shirt entirely to further mix things up (and dress down) the outfit. Shirts are frequently considered a means to finish off the suit, framing the face and properly balancing the formality of tailoring. However, if you take them out of the picture, the suit seems much more relaxed and easygoing. When worn over a thin, unstructured suit, a well-fitted T-shirt is difficult to top, but for autumn, a classic knitted polo or cricket jumper may also add a chic element of surprise.
A Synopsis Of Smart Casual
The origin of the phrase "smart casual" is unclear, however it is generally accepted that it was created in the middle of the 20th century. Men in western nations would proudly wear customised apparel every day during this time. The aggregate of its pieces was bigger than what suits represented. If you were a respectable person who looked after himself and his family, you would wear a suit.
Suits were the norm, so when the phrase "smart casual" first appeared and gained significant traction in the 1980s, it effectively meant donning a less formal suit than the standard business two-piece. It was also used at the same time as the phrase "business casual," which essentially meant the same thing. Since then, both phrases have generated a tonne of misunderstanding, but there is one crucial distinction between them: business casual refers to attire worn for work, whereas smart casual is a dress code (often) for social gatherings outside of the workplace.