How to wear ‘smart casual’

Man with striped top and blue jacket

Smart casual is a look for all seasons.
Image source: Shutterstock

‘Smart casual’ is the sartorial middle ground between the work week’s full suit, and the jeans and a t-shirt you pull on at the weekend.

It’s a considered, but informal look. It’s chic, but easy-going. Want to wear jeans? Go ahead. Think a handkerchief in your jacket pocket would be a jaunty addition? Feel free!

But with so much freedom, it can be daunting to know what’s possible and what perhaps is thinking slightly too far out of the style box.

Fear not. You’re not alone in the dress code wilderness. Here’s our guide to putting together a smart casual outfit.

Rudimentary rules

Man buttoning up white shirt

A well-ironed Oxford shirt is a great place to start.
Image source: Shutterstock

While “smart casual” is a more informal mode of dress, it’s important to remember that ‘informal’ doesn’t mean ‘scruffy’ or ‘no effort’.

There are three key rules for mastering the smart casual dress code:

  1.  It’s always better to err on the smart side of smart-casual. You can always remove a tie to make a look more casual, if need be, for example. So reach for the brogues, not the trainers. Wear a well-ironed button-down shirt, not a t-shirt.
  2. Stay comfortable.If you feel good, you’ll look good. And, as an added bonus, being comfortable will give you an air of nonchalance that will lend your look added style points.
  3. Quality is king. The smart casual look is best when put together with well-fitting, well-made pieces. It’s all about effortless style, and nothing says effortless like quality clothing.

Where to wear smart casual

The beauty of this style is that it works well for a variety of occasions. It goes as well with low-key, gallery openings or a restaurant lunch as it does with first dates or dinner parties. Basically, any event where you want to make a good impression, but not look like you’re trying too hard.

That means dress-down Fridays at work, charity events, birthday parties and even wedding rehearsal dinners; there are a myriad different events that suit a smart casual dress.

So here are some key items to keep in mind for assembling a smart casual outfit, no matter the occasion.

Jacket or Blazer

Man wearing blazer

You don’t need to match jackets and trousers with smart casual.
Image source: Shutterstock

Your jacket does not need to match your trousers. In fact, it looks great when it doesn’t. Try to avoid anything you’d wear for work. Your blue work suit jacket may not work as well as a tweed or linen jacket with a pair of jeans.

Make a statement with your jacket’s colour or pattern. Then arrange the rest of your outfit around it, like David Beckham at Wimbledon. Or, choose something neutral that lets you play with colour in the rest of your outfit.

A warm, lighter blue jacket or blazer works well with jeans or chinos. The same goes for brown. But in the warmer months, consider light grey or cream.

Spare a thought for texture, as well. Heavier tweed or wool are great for autumn and winter, and linen is a good summer choice.

Whatever you pick, just make sure it’s well-fitting. A baggy jacket has no place in a smart casual outfit.


A man wearing a white shirt and chinos

A classic white shirt can be dressed down with chinos
Image source: Roman Samborskyi

The easiest top to choose for a smart casual outfit is a well-ironed Oxford shirt in white or blue. This neutral base is a safe, classic choice that pairs well with whatever trousers or jacket you pick.

If you’re keen to try something a bit different, you could pick a patterned shirt or a neutral-coloured collarless shirt.

Knitwear is another option. A jumper can be worn over the top of your shirt when it’s cold; something in a light wool (like merino) would keep things classy, yet low-key. You can even wear it on its own for a cold-weather twist, especially with a well-structured jacket.

But as with jackets, any knitwear should be slim-fitting. Loose-fitting, shapeless clothes are decidedly closer to casual than smart on the sartorial spectrum.


jeans as smart casual

A dress code that lets you wear jeans? Happy days!
Image: Maridav

It might come as a shock, but you can wear jeans with a smart casual outfit. Wear a dark colour, and make sure they’re in good condition with no rips or holes. There is also a bit of wiggle room on the fit (literally); but nothing skin-tight or baggy. Straight leg jeans are your friends here.

Chinos are also an astute choice. The tailoring is similar to that of formal trousers, but they’re much lighter and comfier. They’ll also give you the option of injecting a bit of colour, if you’re playing it safe with the shade of your shirt.


Prestige Semi-Brogue

Brogues are a timeless choice, adding a dash of smart to the look.
Featured product: Samuel Windsor

Abandon your sandals and trainers, all ye who aspire to this look. But that still leaves you with plenty of choice. As fashion writer, Sam Brady, at A Gentleman’s Row suggests, you can choose from:

“…a chukka, desert boot, or maybe a chelsea boot. When you have the rest of the outfit right, men can have a much wider choice of footwear to choose from. Grubby trainers are not accepted in this outfit, or in life for that matter.”

Brogues are another classic option, as are boat shoes. But if you’re wearing leather shoes, make sure they’re well-polished. And remember that black tends to be a bit too formal for this look, and can stand out rather than blending with your look.

If you’re wearing jeans, footwear in a shade of brown or tan is appropriate. Chestnut-brown brogues, blue-and-brown boat shoes, or tan Chelsea boots will all co-ordinate well with denim. Your belt, of course, should be in the same colour family as your shoes.


Men's accessories flatlay

Classic accessories add the smart edge to ‘smart casual’
Image: slava17

To tie, or not to tie? That is the final question of a smart casual outfit. As Matt at Fashion Beans points out, Oxford shirts manage to look “smart enough without a tie and, at the same time, retains a sportier downtime feel when worn with one.” So it’s up to you.

If you insist on a tie, that’s fine. But keep the words of the Idle Man in mind:

“You may not of thought that you could wear a tie casually, but I’m here to tell you that you can… opt for a knitted version instead as this instantly makes the look as a whole more casual. Go for a neutral tone that you can easily pair with a variety of shirts and looks.”

Try to step away from your work-week choices, and wear brighter coloured and bolder patterned ties. But feel free to abandon it altogether, and leave your top button undone, as long as your shirt is ironed.

While accessories can enhance this look, keep it simple. Wear a great watch. A pocket square in your jacket. Or a sleek pair of sunglasses for summer events. Accessorising your outfit is a good way to make your look more individual, but too many accessories can make your look too busy.

What are your smart casual secrets? Are you the smart casual king, or do you just choose between suits and scruffs? Share your sartorial stories with us over on our Facebook page.

Posted in How To - Style.