The single best fashion tip for dressing better: how to incorporate smart casual outfits and elements into your wardrobe so that you’re the best dressed guy – wherever you go.
By Brenden Gallagher
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There was a time when the bulk of a man’s style was dictated by what he wore to work. The next time you watch an episode of Mad Men, look at how the advertising executives wear suits that are just a little more casual than lawyers and accountants they deal with, but a bit less casual than what the copywriters and artists wear. You can tell what every man does for a living simply by their style.
Today, men’s fashion is about a lot more than the office. Men have freedom to build their own personal style. We now live in a world where it is possible to have a wardrobe that is equally appropriate for a day at the graphic design firm, a night of cocktails, or an evening at the theater.
If you’re free to create your own look, why not create a wardrobe that can work in almost any situation? This desire to create a sharp, versatile wardrobe has given rise to smart casual.
Where Does “Smart Casual” Come From?
The first known usage of the phrase “smart casual” was in 1924. The writer was describing a “sleeveless dress with three-quarter overblouses, in smock appearance completing it for streetwear.” The women’s look, somewhere between flapper chic and office modesty, was conceptually similar to what we consider smart casual today.
In the 1950s, you started to see the term used in menswear. At that time, the term was simply used to describe a suit that was more casual than what you would wear to the office. Even though the look was different, the concept was the same. A smart casual suit was something a man could wear in almost any situation and feel good.
Smart casual as we know it today first emerged in the 1980s. Shifting standards of formality and the rise of informal workplace attire blurred the line between work wear and street style. It was now possible to create a look that was entirely personal and extremely versatile.
The modern version of smart casual was born.
What is Smart Casual?
First, examples of what it’s not.
Before we can define smart casual, we need to talk about how the term emerged. Despite ever-changing men’s style standards, we can define three broad types of men’s style that have dominated the fashion conversation for decades. These categories grew out of the initial relaxing of the precise Victorian sensibilities about how men ought to dress and evolved through the twentieth century.
This is the clothing you wear on special occasions or if you have a career that still requires a daily suit. When you are “dressed up,” you are matching your attire to specific standards, locations, and conventions. We all know how you dress for a job interview, a wedding, an anniversary, or a funeral. Each of these events comes with social expectations, and we have a shared style language around these important occasions.
Business Casual Style
Though some workplaces have moved to a more relaxed environment, many offices still have a business casual dress code. Business casual probably doesn’t mean a suit; touches of formality like blazers, khaki pants or suit pants, a button-down shirt or polo, and dress shoes are hallmarks of the classic business casual look.
Casual, of course, is your most relaxed look. It isn’t necessarily as simple as wearing whatever you want. If you receive an invitation that reads “casual attire,” you probably shouldn’t show up in gym clothes. For our purposes, “casual” means no pretense of formality.
Smart Casual Dress Code: Defined
Smart casual is a pair of dark, slim jeans, a blazer, and desert boots. Smart casual is also chinos, a patterned shirt, and a bomber jacket.
Done right, a smart casual look can work in “casual,” “business casual,” and even some “dressed up” environments while still standing out from the crowd. At a casual bar night, you’ll look sharp. In a low-key business meeting, you’ll look bold but professional. No matter where you go, you’ll have the confident look to impress.
These days, almost everything you do in life doesn’t have clearly defined style expectations. Treat this as an opportunity. You have a chance to plant a flag with your fashion intentions.
What does a smart casual outfit look like?
Some say smart casual is anything dressier than a sweatsuit, but less formal than a business suit. That doesn’t give us much to work with. You could also get hyper-specific, checking off a box to create your smart casual outfit: a blazer, dress shirt, neat jeans and brown loafers. Looking at it that way is far too confining.
It’s better not to look at smart casual as a set of rules or a list of particular items. Your intention is to look great in any environment. A smart casual outfit should feel versatile, sharp, and ready for anything.
Smart casual can even mean the right t-shirt (perhaps accompanied by a blazer) or even the right sneakers (probably solid colored and higher-end). A pressed t-shirt or a crisp pair of jeans can fit the bill just as well as a tailored blazer.
Smart casual is like art: you know it when you see it. Or rather, you know it when you feel it.
Examples of Smart Casual Outfits
Smart Casual Style: A Feeling
This room for creativity is what makes smart casual so great. Rather than defining smart casual by specific items, think of smart casual as a feeling.
What is that feeling?
When you’ve done smart casual right, you should feel like you can walk into any room and have people think, “Damn, he looks good.” With a few exceptions, like a trip to the courthouse or a wedding reception, smart casual will work in any situation.
The best advice we can give for perfecting a smart casual look is allowing space for experimentation. If you’re feeling too dressy, a lighter color jacket or simple switch to a more casual shoe might do that trick. If you look in the mirror and feel like the look is too casual, swap out your bomber for a blazer or your jeans for some slim wool trousers.
At the end of the day, smart casual is about empowering yourself with your best look.
How To Dress Smart Casual: The Getup
For more advice on how to build a smart casual look, check out Primer’s long-running outfit inspiration series, The Getup. We’ve been running the series for years, as we attempt to offer great looks for a variety of occasions and seasons. Whether you’re trying to dress for a smart casual office,prepare for a “spring weekend adventure,” or your just want to find your “smart summer casual” look, we’ve got you covered. With the Getup, we won’t just tell you about a look, we’ll tell you how to make that look your own.
This outfit is a great example of a more casual style within smart casual. A white t-shirt and light denim jacket are certainly very casual, but when combined with the navy dress pants, dress socks, and clean white leather sneakers the lines
A clean, minimalist leather jacket is a long-term piece that can span casual and smart casual attire.
At first glance, this outfit could be business casual, why isn't it? The grey monotone leather sneakers look killer with the dressier items without feeling out of place. On top of the that, we're using more hearty fabrics: The knit crewneck sweater, the chambray shirt, and wool trousers all provide texture; decreasing “how dressed up” the outfit is while feeling masterfully coordinated.
Here, the casual light wash denim jacket and black pocket t-shirt are dressed up by the slim, no-break chino pants and brown Chelsea boots.
Leaning on neutrals is an easy way to put together a smart casual style that feels purposeful.
Ties can be worn with more casual elements like jeans when the fit of all the components match. Here the jeans are trim and read like dressier trousers even though they are still light denim.
Smart Casual FAQ
Can you wear jeans in smart casual?
Yes, as long as they skew more smart than casual. This primarily means a slim or tapered silhouettes and typically means darker rinses (although lighter hues can work in warmer weather) without any rips, patches, elaborate logos/stitching, or frayed areas (deliberate or unintentional). The right jeans will pair well with a collared shirt and blazer, or even a fine-knit sweater.
What is the difference between casual and smart casual attire?
Casual is laid-back and comfortable. Casual can still be stylish and intentional, but it lacks any nod to or need for formality. This typically means more relaxed/unstructured silhouettes, like T-shirts, henleys, baseball tees, and slightly more relaxed-fit jeans. Maybe even jogger sweatpants if you’re really dressing down.
Smart casual can still be comfortable, but there’s an added layer of attention and *intention*. You’re thinking of smaller details and adding layers. Maybe you’re still in jeans, but you’ve chosen a fitted T-shirt made from a finer cotton without any graphics on it. Or you’ve swapped out the tee for a short sleeve button-up shirt and slipped on some higher-end sneakers. Speaking of…
Can you wear sneakers for smart casual?
Yes! However, they have to be dressier–think classic or minimalist styles that you’ve kept looking fresh and new. If they’re worn-down or grimy, they’re just casual, not smart.
Is a polo shirt smart casual?
Generally speaking, a traditional pique polo is not smart casual. The collar gives it a whiff of business casual formality, but evaluate the way you would a T-shirt to determine if your favorite polo is “put-together” or “informal”. Pique polos are generally a little looser, with a robust weave and an uneven–or ‘tennis tail”–hem, stylistic nods to the shirt’s sporting roots.
If you want to incorporate a polo shirt into your smart casual wardrobe, choose a dressier, more refined style like the knit polo. Look for details like a more structured silhouette, finer materials (such as silk or linen), and a clean hem. And never, ever, for the love of tiny baby ducklings, pop the collar.
What should you wear to a smart casual wedding?
Smart casual weddings are the perfect time to inject a little bit of fun into an otherwise more traditional event. That means dressier sneakers or loafers, dressing down a suit with a t-shirt or short sleeve button up, or if it's in the summer, embracing the more colorful (and heat appropriate) Garden Casual.
We’ve told you what smart casual is, we’ve given you advice on how to build your smart casual look, and we’ve showed you where you can find style inspiration. Now it’s time to figure out what smart casual looks like for you.
It’s time to to build that sharp look that can work no matter where life might take you.
What Is Smart Casual Attire? Smart casual attire is a dress code that combines well-fitting, polished business wear with elements of casual attire—think blouses, polo shirts, button-downs, chinos, dress pants, dark-wash jeans, and polished, practical footwear.What is smart casual for interview? ›
Dress pants, jeans, or khakis are appropriate for a smart casual dress code when paired with a blazer. While the look could be just a touch too casual for a job interview, it's a good place to start.Can I wear T-shirt for smart casual? ›
A T-shirt can qualify as smart casual, provided that it's plain, good quality, well-fitting and not washed to death.Can you wear jeans in smart casual? ›
Yes, you can wear jeans
Contrary to popular belief, jeans are absolutely acceptable as smart-causal attire. If in doubt, go for a darker wash and a tailored fit. Add a heel to dress them up and add a white shirt for a classic pairing.
So, first up, what is smart casual? The term is basically about balancing your look with high-low pieces, which means you might wear something laid-back like jeans, but dress them up with smarter pieces like a shirt and blazer or heels.What should I bring for interview? ›
- The Hiring Manager's Contact Information, the Company's Address, and Your ID. ...
- Pens (Plural) and a Notepad. ...
- Several Copies of Your Resume (and Other Application Materials) ...
- Emergency Items. ...
- A Bag or Briefcase.
Appropriate business casual dress typically includes slacks or khakis, dress shirt or blouse, open-collar or polo shirt, optional tie or seasonal sport coat, a dress or skirt at knee-length or below, a tailored blazer, knit shirt or sweater, and loafers or dress shoes that cover all or most of the foot.Can I wear sneakers with smart casual? ›
Yes, you can wear sneakers as part of a smart-casual dress code for women, men and gender-neutral styles. You can pair sneakers with jeans, khakis and chinos. You may even wear sneakers with some skirts for a more athletic smart-casual look for women.Can I wear shorts for smart casual? ›
Shorts and thongs are casual; the same shorts with a wedge and a tailored jacket are smart casual. If the basic piece is simple, i.e. jeans, shorts ( not too skimpy), a denim skirt, a sundress, then it is well chosen accessories that will class it up.Can you wear jeans for smart casual female? ›
Jeans are usually considered smart casual when paired with smart items of clothing and styled accordingly e.g. when paired with a tailored blouse, jacket and smart shoes. However it is best to avoid ripped or faded jeans and if in doubt go for a straight or tailored fit and a dark wash jean.
Are Leggings Smart Casual? Rejoice: leggings are smart casual! This kind of dress code allows for clothes that are generally laidback, but not sloppy – so leggings and a pretty blouse are fine, but not that faded tee that you got for free at the car wash.How can a woman look smart? ›
- Wear Red. Who knew color could make such a big difference in your level of attractiveness? ...
- Show Off Your Hips. ...
- Make Yourself Look Taller. ...
- Highlight the Left Side of Your Face. ...
- Travel in Groups. ...
- Fill in Your Eyebrows. ...
- Put On Some Sunglasses. ...
- Walk With a Swagger.
Ideally, you always want to avoid looks at the extreme end of the spectrum, that means no jeans, no trainers, no hoodies, or no sweatpants.How should I wear my clothes to look smarter? ›
Always go with clean, well-fitting clothes such as a casual dress instead of baggy clothes like sweatpants and a hoodie. If you wear glasses, put them on to enhance your image and make yourself look smarter. Choose a pair of nice shoes that complement your outfit to tie your whole look together.How do you dress smart casual in the summer? ›
What do I wear for a smart casual dress code in summer? Summer is easiest for smart casual, as a polished dress can often suffice. For something different, go for a collared shirt paired with a sleek slip skirt and a pair of chic sandals.How do I make a casual dress look fancy? ›
Make any looser-fitting dress more formal looking by cinching the waist to accentuate and elongate your shape. For example, a flowy maxi dress for women can be made elegant and goddess-like by simply using a high-quality belt to cinch the waist. Wear with a pair of heels and some jewelry and you're good to go!Can I wear a dress with sneakers? ›
The short answer is yes, pairing sneakers with a dress is the latest fashion trend that is here to stay. When I first moved to Paris, I was stunned by the amount of people who were wearing sneakers and a dress. I was always the first to say, if you're wearing a dress you should wear wedges, heels, or flats.Can a dress be casual? ›
dresses are a quintessential item in any woman's wardrobe – not just for making a professional impression at the office or getting gussied up for a night on the town, but also for looking effortlessly chic and casual any time of day.What are 3 questions you could have prepared to ask in a job interview? ›
- Can you tell me more about the day-to-day responsibilities of the role? ...
- How could I impress you in the first three months? ...
- Are there opportunities for training and progression within the role/company? ...
- Where do you think the company is headed in the next five years?
- Bad Attitude.
- Reading Materials.
- Competitor's Products.
- Friends & Family.
- Be passionate. Have a positive attitude and be enthusiastic when talking about yourself and your career. ...
- Sell yourself. ...
- Tell stories. ...
- Ask questions. ...
- Ask for the job.
Should you accept drinks during an interview? Yes, accepting drinks during an interview is a good idea. The interviewer may offer a cup of coffee tea, water or even juice. There are many benefits of accepting a drink during an interview so it is worth it even if you do not finish your drink.What should you always do after an interview? ›
- Ask for next steps and contact information. ...
- Assess your interview performance. ...
- Write down anything you want to remember. ...
- Send a thank you note to the hiring manager. ...
- Reference a current industry event in the news or literature. ...
- Connect on social media business networking sites.
Casual: A Definition
This includes jeans, sweaters, t-shirts, sneakers, and much more. However, it usually excludes flip-flops, sweats or gym clothes, revealing clothes, stained clothes, heavily distressed or ripped items, and graphic shirts with offensive or controversial statements on them.
To dress casually, opt for comfortable clothes instead of tight-fitting pieces that you'd wear going out or to a formal event. For example, you could wear a pair of comfortable jeans or shorts with a soft t-shirt. Or, if you want to look a little more presentable, try wearing an untucked polo or button-down with jeans.What casual dress means? ›
Casual wear (or casual attire or clothing) is a Western dress code that is relaxed, occasional, spontaneous and suited for everyday use.Can I wear sandals for smart casual? ›
Wedges and some opened toed shoes can also work for a smart casual outfit if you are attending a more casual event. However, if you are dressing for work, stay away from these options. Avoid wearing sandals with a smart casual outfit; sandals are plain casual.Can a sweater be smart casual? ›
The smart-casual look allows flexibility for personal taste in fashion and includes jackets, outfit-enhancing jewelry, dress pants, dress shirts, skirts, tailored sweaters, vests, ties, matching leather accessories, and leather pull-on shoes and boots.What's the difference between casual and smart casual? ›
The key difference between casual and smart casual is that casual wear is only worn for informal occasions whereas smart casual can be worn for both informal and formal occasions.Is denim jacket smart casual? ›
As well as looking great with casual outfits, a denim jacket can also look good for smart casual occasions. To nail the look, just ensure that you choose a neat, fitted denim jacket with no tears or rips. Then, pair it with more polished pieces, such as an Oxford shirt and chinos.
In general, smart casual means neat chinos or a pair of dark-coloured jeans with a shirt, a blazer, and a pair of leather shoes. Your outfit should be well-fitting but slightly less formal than a business casual or business professional style.What is nice casual dress code? ›
At an event, “casual” typically means a nice outfit that looks put together and fashion- forward, but doesn't necessarily require formal slacks, a blazer, or a gown. A pair of nice pants and a nice, casual top (no t-shirts!) is a great casual outfit. A nice sundress is also a good option for casual attire.How can I look smart casual? ›
If you wear a suit with a T-shirt, it becomes smart-casual. If you wear dark, clean jeans with a blazer and a shirt, it becomes smart-casual. The key is to avoid anything with excessive pattern or logos and to ensure that everything is cut to fit, unimpeachably clean and infused with a touch of lowkey élan.Can you wear black jeans for smart casual? ›
For when the dress code is smart casual
Why this works: "Black jeans can look like trousers rather than jeans, which makes them a good smart-casual piece. These jeans' slim fit means they work well with smarter shoes (there's no flapping ankle material) and the jumper is equally neat and fitted.
Neither is the office the right place to experiment with trendy styles like acid-washed or “muddy” jeans, no matter what you paid for them. Sneakers, shorts, sports team jerseys, and anything too tight or revealing are also improper choices.Can I wear yoga pants to work? ›
Invest in high-quality yoga pants.
Sheer yoga pants are definitely something to avoid in the workplace. Yoga leggings offer the most outfit options and tend to look the best in a professional work environment. Yoga pants with a slightly flared leg can also work, just make sure they are not baggy.
In a business casual office, athletic shoes and sneakers, loafers, clogs, leather boat shoes, and dress heels or flats are acceptable and may be worn with or without tights or stockings as the weather dictates. Avoid wearing flip-flops, sandals, slippers, open-toed shoes, or eye-catching, blingy footwear to the office.Are leggings smart casual? ›
Are Leggings Smart Casual? Rejoice: leggings are smart casual! This kind of dress code allows for clothes that are generally laidback, but not sloppy – so leggings and a pretty blouse are fine, but not that faded tee that you got for free at the car wash.Can I wear shorts for smart casual? ›
Shorts and thongs are casual; the same shorts with a wedge and a tailored jacket are smart casual. If the basic piece is simple, i.e. jeans, shorts ( not too skimpy), a denim skirt, a sundress, then it is well chosen accessories that will class it up.Are sneakers smart casual? ›
Yes, you can wear sneakers as part of a smart-casual dress code for women, men and gender-neutral styles. You can pair sneakers with jeans, khakis and chinos. You may even wear sneakers with some skirts for a more athletic smart-casual look for women.
Ideally, you always want to avoid looks at the extreme end of the spectrum, that means no jeans, no trainers, no hoodies, or no sweatpants.