Smart Casual for Men: 10 Pieces That Nail the Dress Code

smart casual for men hero
Courtesy of Suitsupply

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.

Smart Casual Blazers for Men

1. Light-Blue Cotton and Linen-Blend Chambray Blazer

smart casual for men blue blazer
Mr. Porter

This Italian cotton and linen-blend chambray blazer is made of lighter materials and boasts a more relaxed silhouette than your typically buttoned-up options. It’s ideal for a daytime, warm-weather affair.

According to the Mr. Porter website, "Mr P.'s blazer is designed to be worn with the matching trousers but you'll find it goes with lots of other outfits, too. The butterfly lining keeps it feeling light and airy."

Mr. Porter, $350

2. Havana Brown Houndstooth Jacket

smart casual for men plaid blazer

Now we’re talking! A houndstooth featuring bolder colors is more than you could get away with in a formal or business setting, but it’s a dapper pick for smart casual. This blazer can be perfectly paired with a solid red sweater if you really want to make a statement.

The Suitsupply website says, "A bold pick for some commanding style, this slim-tailored Havana is cut from a soft alpaca wool blend by the Ferla mill. Crafted with a striking brown and red houndstooth check, it features patch pockets, a notch lapel and natural shoulder." 

And you can shop easy knowing that Suitsupply practices sustainable craftsmanship. "As a member of the Fair Wear Foundation, we promote thriving working environments and fair labor conditions throughout our supply chain," they claim.

Suitsupply, $599

Smart Casual Dark Jeans for Men

3. Charisma Relaxed Straight in Dark Comfort

smart casual for men dark jeans
34 Heritage

When you’re doing denim, the two things to pay attention to are wash and fit. These high-rise straight legs by 34 Heritage are dark enough to pull off, while the contrast stitching still provides the cool “jeans” effect.

34 Heritage says, "With a relaxed thigh and leg opening and a flattering straight leg fit, this pair is an effortless classic. Double belt loops that can accommodate thicker and thinner belts without any slack." 

Reviewers are ecstatic about their purchase. One claims, "These are the world’s greatest jeans. Comfortable, stylish, and perfect fit for me." Another says, "Jeans, even expensive ones, are often poorly constructed. However, this pair of Charisma jeans truly lives up to its name. I've only had them for less than a month, but they are already my favorite pair. The fabric is incredibly soft and comfortable—no chafing here. Seams are sturdy, and the fit is perfect. I love them so much that I could easily wear them as pajamas, too. I think I'll get another pair or two."

    34 Heritage, $165

    4. Flex Jeans in Slim Fit

    smart casual for men black jeans
    Eddie Bauer

    Super minimal black jeans are a must. You can easily dress them up or down, and from across the room, they won’t even look like denim. As an added feature, these jeans "are engineered to initially tighten after washing/drying, then conform to your body to give you a personalized fit after just a few hours of wear," according to the website.

    One excited reviewer says, "These are my first pair of EB jeans. They won't be last. They fit great, are super comfortable, wear well, and actually have real pockets! Most other jeans from other brands I've owned have dinky little shallow pockets that barely hold anything. These have real pockets that hold my keys, smartphone, and wallet."

    Eddie Bauer, $53

    Smart Casual Button-Up Shirts for Men

    5. Chess Gingham Dress Shirt

    smart casual for men blue button down 0

    A collared button-up sans tie always hits the mark. Twillory has some non-iron options (because wrinkles are so not smart) like this blue chess gingham that could work on its own or under a navy blazer.

    The website boasts, "We've engineered the world's most innovative non-iron fabric: SafeCotton. For years, shirting companies used a cocktail of chemicals (like formaldehyde) to create non-irons. Our process removes wrinkles and chemicals, all while improving softness to deliver a handfeel like no other."

    Twillory, $99

    6. Ludlow Stretch Two-Ply in Blue Floral

    smart casual for men jcrew
    J. Crew

    Experiment with subtle, small patterns like these tiny florals to give your look some personality.

    One reviewer says, "Bought this shirt for my husband for a wedding. It fits and looks great on him. It is a true slim fit, which he loves because, having long arms and a thin built, he usually has to sacrifice correct arm length for proper fit in the torso. Not with this one. The design is a nice extra touch."

    J. Crew, $30

    Smart Casual Shoes for Men

    7. Manchester Street Cap Toe Derby

    smart casual for men brown

    Black dress shoes and oxfords are considered too formal for a smart casual dress code, but Derby shoes are a traditional pick and one that every guy should have in their footwear arsenal. Go for a lighter color, and, once again, don’t be afraid to play with texture. Case in point: these suede kicks by Rodd & Gunn.

    According to the brand's bio, New Zealand-based Rodd & Gunn, established in 1987, creates classics that are imbued with contemporary style and designed to stand the test of time. Since this shoe comes in whole sizes only, order next size up if you're a half size.

    Nordstrom, $178

    8. American Classic Kneeland Bit Loafer

    smart casual for men leather
    Cole Haan

    A classic leather loafer also captures the vibe you’re after, and a little bit of shiny hardware, like the gold links on these Cole Haans, will go a long way.

    One reviewer writes, "Great looking shoe. Fits well." Another says, "I got this loafer, and I am very pleased with it." 

    Cole Haan, $300

    Smart Casual Cardigans for Men

    9. Light Blue Rib Shawl Cardigan

    smart casual for men cardigan blue

    You can be comfy! Cardigans are an acceptable swap out for blazers in this case, but the secret is in the quality, and which other clothing items you’re pairing with it. This wool-cashmere blend over a dress shirt is the look.

    Suitsupply's website says, "A stylish and practical choice for a relaxed seasonal look, this handsome light blue cardigan is cut from a soft, rich blend of wool and cashmere. Tailored to a comfortably slim fit, it features a texture rib pattern, short shawl collar and a 5-button closure."

    Suitsupply, $169

    10. Wool-Blend Shawl Collared Cardigan

    smart casual for men orvis

    Really just here for those suede elbow patches.

    With 304 reviews averaging 4.7 stars, customers are very pleased with this purchase. One review says, "I have not taken it off since it arrived. It is comfortable and we are in the 3-18 degree temps at the moment with the house fully heated day and night. Yesterday my wife came up and gave me a cuddle and said, 'I just wanted you to know that you look cuddly in the cardigan and it suits you.' So time will tell if it is value for money, but it is value for the soul, looks smart, feels great and fits very well. For me, it has already become a favorite." 

    Orvis, $179
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