Solving the smart casual conundrum

Man in fashionable coat on street
Let’s talk the world’s vaguest dress code…

The most popular go-to dress code these days is smart casual. You’ll find it applies in so many places from weddings and birthday parties to nightclubs and even funerals.

But is one person’s smart casual another person’s beach wear and when is smart casual too smart or too casual?

It can be exceedingly tricky to navigate the path of the smart casual dress code, so here’s some of our trusty tips, naturally.

The definition

Fashion highlighted in green highlighter in dictionary
Image source: Feng Yu
When in doubt get the dictionary out!

So let us start with researching the great dictionaries as a means of defining the term in question. The authoritative Oxford states, ‘neat, conventional, yet relatively informal in style,’ which complicates it a little more. The Urban Dictionary tells it how it is: ‘a nonsensical dress code people slap onto parties and workplaces,’ excellent, but what is the dress code exactly?

Seems there’s only one place we can rely on, the fountain of all knowledge and power: Wiki. Wiki simply describes smart casual as ‘ill-defined’. Nice one Wiki – that was almost Zen. So we have learnt nothing really about what to wear at a smart casual function, but we do know that it’s hard to define and is very subjective.

Back to basics

Man in smart casual outfit outside against a wall
Image source: g-stockstudio
You can’t do smart casual without some key basics.

The best way around this conundrum is to play it safe. You’ll need a couple of pairs of casual men’s trousers, a couple of casual shirts, a pullover or two and a pair of smart shoes. But hold on! What’s casual and what’s smart? Well it’s not what you wear but how you wear it so either opt for smart clothes worn casually or casual clothes worn smart. Uh?

For instance a pair of ironed black jeans look smart with a nice shirt or quality jumper, as does a pair of chinos with a tennis shirt. You can take casual clothes like jeans and T-shirts and they can do a job for you at a smart casual gathering. But old trainers and stained t-shirts are too casual and tuxedos and ties are too smart. If it doubt, go for chinos or black jeans with a shirt and/or a neutral blazer depending on the weather. That’s your old faithful outfit right there.

Read the invitation

Suave looking man in checkered shirt and blazer with old fashioned cars
Image source: javi_indy
Context is key when considering smart casual.

Smart casual at a wedding is going to be a whole lot different to smart casual at Big Barry’s Nightclub, so be careful with invitations that are most probably formal, but are trying to be cool. If it’s a wedding then do make an effort – obviously — but don’t go too smart.

The best bet for functions nudging towards formal would be to go for polished shoes, trousers (not jeans) and either a shirt without a tie or a pullover with a relaxed blazer (a relaxed blazer is one you’d wear out to the pub).

Common mistakes

Man wearing shorts and a blazer
Image source: Elena Rostunova
No more shorts and blazers, please.

Digging out a classy blazer and mixing them up with a pair of Bermuda shorts isn’t smart casual that’s more geek-chic (check the Urban Dictionary for that style). It’s also translating the brief literally which doesn’t apply here. The clue is in the name really and the formation of the words: first ‘smart’ and second ‘casual’, so if in doubt always weight towards the smart side. Just not too far.

Break the rules (kind of)

Man in suit with bow tie
Image source: Costa Studio
Now you know the rules – go wild!

Like with most art forms, once you’ve picked up the rules, then you can experiment and add some creativity to your look. The heart of being smart casual is simple — stay comfortable and you’ll feel comfortable. The overall objective is to look and feel great in your clothes, so be warned as you’ll lose the casual persona if you overdo it.

There are endless choices to tweak your look and you can add chino shorts, cravats, sunglasses, loafers, hats and whatever else you can think of, but don’t forget one simple rule: stay comfortable. You are what you are wearing after all.

Check out the Samuel Windsor men’s dress code infographic for a visual explanation of white tie, black tie, business, smart casual and casual dress styles.

Wondering what to wear in warmer weather? Be sure to see the summer dress codes guide for men.

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