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The Smart Casual Dress Code: What it is and How to Prepare

Well-dressed man in front of store

Most of us have been invited to a party or function with the dreaded smart casual dress code at some point in our lives. Just as many of us, if we’re being honest, have thought to ourselves “what the hell does that mean?” and go straight to Google in search of answers.

Well, now that you’re here, let’s do a rundown of what to wear and how to prepare.

What Does Smart Casual Mean?

To put it simply, the term essentially means “don’t go all out” while at the same time saying, “at least put a little effort in.” Basically, you want to look like you’re trying, but not too much. 

Smart casual implies that you're wearing something fashionable and which speaks to your personal sense of style, but which doesn't overdo it or get into the territory of formalwear. 

What Not to Wear for Smart Casual

Okay, so that’s still a little vague. Instead, let’s try learning from other peoples’ mistakes. Plenty of folks read the “casual” part and just throw on some baggy jeans, a pair of sneakers and maybe an old tee. Conversely, others read “smart” and put on their best jacket, some shiny leather shoes, and a tie.

Both of these outfits are equally faux pas for a smart casual scenario. Ideally, you'd want to be somewhere in the middle.

So, What Should I Wear Then?

Thankfully, smart casual menswear isn't too complicated, and you likely already have the pieces you need to pull it off. 

The First Step to Pulling Off Smart Casual Is to Consider the Context

A dinner event, work party, or beach wedding can all fall into the smart-casual category, and what you wear for each is going to vary a bit. 

Pants: Start with a Colored Chino

In any of the above situations, a pair of chinos is a good starting point. Just make sure you knock any wrinkle out of them with a steamer or iron first. Nothing makes an outfit go from casual to schlubby as quickly as deep wrinkles. 

What's great about modern chinos is that they come in a variety of colors, which can help with the smart aspect of smart casual. For smart casual, you don't want to wear something bland that you would wear to an office. Experiment with color in your pants. 

An exception to experimenting with color in your pants? If you're planning on wearing a patterned or brightly colored shirt (more on shirts in a minute), it's better to stick with solid-colored pants in colors like khaki, tan, or navy.

Alternative: Tailored Shorts or Nice Denim

If you're doing an outdoor event, jeans or shorts can work too. 

If you go the shorts route, there are a few rules:

  1. Wear an appropriate length. You don't want shorts that go down to your knees or which show too much leg. A seven to nine-inch inseam should work well depending upon how long your legs are. 
  2. Absolutely NO cargo shorts. For any occasion, really. But especially for smart casual. NO CARGO SHORTS. EVER. 

If you're wearing denim, just make sure it's a straight-legged fit and the wash is a solid color. For smart casual, it's unlikely that you'll go with ripped jeans, but I've seen some light distressing work fairly well, especially with black denim. 

Avoid bootcut jeans or skinny jeans for smart casual. 

Shirts: A Button-up That Balances Your Pants

As mentioned above, your shirt and pants should balance each other out. 

If you wear bold pants, pick a minimalist button-up shirt in a solid color or with thin stripes that pick up any accent colors in your pants. 

If you're wearing plain pants, feel free to wear a shirt that really speaks to your personal sense of style. For example, in smart casual settings, I tend to wear a lot of shirts that have unique floral prints, marble effects, or, one shirt in particular, durian fruit and dragon fruit.

Blake in a blue floral print shirt (1)

If you're dressing for cooler weather or a late-night event, you can layer a suit jacket, blazer, or chunky sweater over your shirt. Just keep in mind that you want to leave your top two shirt buttons and your jacket buttons undone if you're going with a suit jacket so that you can keep the look casual. 

What Shoes to Wear for Smart Casual? 

Smart casual leaves a lot of room for flexibility when it comes to shoe options. Basically, as long as you're not wearing flip-flops, combat boots, or your gym shoes, you're probably okay. That said, ideal shoes for smart-casual include:

  • Chelsea boots (if you're wearing full-length pants rather than shorts)
  • Classic Sneakers (fine for shorts or pants)
  • Brogue boots (They're not hiking boots, biker boots, or cowboy boots– just a plain boot; these work if you're wearing pants but not shorts)
  • Boat shoes (fine for shorts or pants)
  • Driving shoes (fine for shorts or pants) 
  • Chukkas (better for pants than shorts, but it's not the end of the world if you wear them with shorts)

Examples of Smart Casual Outfits

At this point, most of my outfits are smart casual or can easily be adapted as smart casual. For examples of smart casual outfits, I'm going to pull a few examples from StitchFix Men's website. Most of the clothes I've purchased in the last few years have come from StitchFix, and it's easy to see the individual pieces that go into each outfit. 

smart casual outfit for summer, option 2
This outfit is a great example of smart casual for summer. You can pair classic shorts with nice sneakers and a button-up shirt for a look that's great for outdoor gatherings.

Smart casual outfit for summer
This is another great example of smart casual for Summer. Rather than relying on shorts as a way to stay cool, this outfit uses seersucker-like materials and looser fits to keep cool while still looking fashionable.

 

smart casual outfit for autumn
I think this is my favorite outfit in this bunch, and it's a shame that I don't own it yet. The light khaki being offset with the deep warm tones of the shirt are okay on their own, but it's the denim jacket and sneakers that take this outfit from decent to smart casual.

smart casual for fall
In cooler weather, layering is your best friend for smart casual. Notice that the individual pieces for this outfit are fairly casual and easy to come by. When layered, especially if you accessorize with a nice belt and shoes, it comes together as a great smart casual outfit.

As daunting as it sounds, smart casual is actually one of the easiest dress codes to pull off due to the enormous variety of different combinations and flexibility it entails. Anyone with even a passing interest in fashion should already have a killer outfit in their wardrobe.

The key to smart casual is to dress for the occasion. A beachside BBQ engagement party is going to warrant an entirely different outfit than a work Christmas party at a cocktail bar, for example.

Likewise, think about the other guests in attendance. If they tend to dress well, err more towards the smart side. If not, a bit more casual will help you fit in.

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