Welcome to Dress Code Decoding 101. Today’s lesson will address the most confusing two words you will ever read on an invitation: smart casual.
The phrase sounds like a paradox, so it’s easy to see why this particular concept of dressing can be so confusing. Are you supposed to go sweats on the bottom and suit jacket on top, like a sartorial version of a mullet? Thankfully, no. But mixing and matching is a part of the process. It just needs to be a bit more intuitive.
When an event calls for smart casual attire (think: an after-work mixer, a fancy brunch or even a job interview at a “cool” startup), it requires you to look sharp and put-together (smart) but not too formal or businesslike (casual). You should be aiming for that perfect, though dauntingly large, middle ground. But don’t be intimidated! While that does leave some room for error, the good news is that it provides a lot more space to get creative, colorful and show off your fashion personality. It also means that you don’t have to drop a lot of dough on a whole new outfit—you can usually work with what’s already in your closet just by adding the extra pizzazz of a signature piece or fun accessory.
So, what is smart casual? Well, it might be easier to start with what it’s not. The general gentleman’s consensus is that it is not a suit and tie, nor is it that menswear mullet we mentioned before. Black dress shoes are way too formal, but a T-shirt is too casual, as are loose, light-wash jeans and most sneakers (sorry, guys).
Now for the items that should be on your checklist. First up: blazers. Blazers are major. They’re smart without being stuffy and are easy to pull off in a bold color or unique texture if you’re looking to make an impression. If you’re more comfortable being understated, you can liven up a classic blazer with a colorful pocket square (folded, however, into anything but a square—too business!). A quality knit cardigan can also be swapped in as your outer layer.
As for what goes underneath? You can never go wrong with a button-up shirt. Solid white is acceptable, but come on, it’s boring. Smart casual calls for some patterns: gingham, perhaps, or something not too overpowering, like thin stripes or tiny polka dots. You can also opt for a polo or a cashmere sweater. For pants, casual trousers or chinos are usually the go-to for traditionalists, but more modern dressers will find a pair of dark fitted jeans acceptable. Phew.
Unfortunately, you’ll have to leave your #fire new sneakers at home. Favored footwear for a smart casual occasion includes loafers, Derby shoes, sleek leather boots or even boat shoes in brown or burgundy. Still, you could totally use this opportunity to add an exciting pop of color to your look. If you absolutely, positively need to wear sneakers, stick to minimalist styles in solid, subtle colors.
By now, you should have a handle on the smart casual dress code. But, if you’re still unsure, worry not. We’ve got your entire shopping list spelled out below.