What is smart casual?

This is an edited version of my column in June’s Platinum Business Magazine.

An invitation lands on the mat. You rip open the envelope and scan the details. Your heart sinks as you see the dreaded phrase ‘smart casual’.

What exactly is ‘smart casual’? It’s a question many of us have been asking for years, particularly men. These days, even occasions that were traditionally formal now strike a much more informal tone.Men-Casual-Office-Dresses-2015

‘Smart casual’ is subject to wide and varied interpretation. It won’t come as a surprise that the phrase originated in the US. Evidently, it was first used in 1924, in the Iowan newspaper The Davenport Democrat And Leader. The term ‘business casual’ emerged in the 1950s, but simply meant wearing an alternative to the traditional business suit, perhaps in a lighter cloth or colour. Work environments and casual wear have both moved on considerably, so what do ‘smart’ and ‘business’ casual mean for us today?

Debretts states: A dress code of smart casual requires that you look smart but not overly formal.  That in itself is not very illuminating. Unfortunately, they then add to the confusion, citing a division between ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ smart casual.

‘Formal’ smart casual ‘requires a jacket or blazer, flannels, needlecord trousers or chinos, a shirt with a collar and smart shoes, not necessarily lace-ups (but not trainers or sandals).’ You can wear a shirt and tie but an open collar is also acceptable. I would argue that a tie is not required, but it does depend on the occasion and your host.

‘Informal’ smart casual

Debretts permit jeans in their definition of ‘informal’ smart casual, but specify that they must be ‘smart, clean and dark in colour’.Smart_Casual_Dress_Example

In the office

I worked for a financial services firm for several years, which introduced the concept of ‘dress down Friday’ with disastrous results, particularly in the summer. Men (and some women) would come into work in shorts, flip flops, sandals and trainers, and all sense of decorum went out the window.

For casual days in the office, the key is to find the right balance. I would advise sticking to shirts or polo shirts with chinos or very dark jeans. And always, always with closed toe shoes (think suede brogues, chukka boots or release your ‘inner Italian’ and go for suede loafers in a vibrant tone).

A few golden rules:

  • Dark denim and chinos: these are your ‘go-to’ options for smart casual trousers. They work for a wide variety of occasions, and can be dressed up (or down)
  • Avoid ‘sportswear’: tracksuit bottoms, baggy sweatshirts and trainers (unless they are leather or dark trainers) are a definite ‘no no’. Wearing these evokes laziness, slovenliness – surely not attributes you want applied to you
  • I would part company with Debretts and say that there is no need to wear a tie, even with ‘formal’ smart casual. An open collar shirt and blazer can be a great look
  • Pay attention to the fit of whatever you choose to wear. I’ve said this before – so many men let themselves down with ill-fitting baggy shirts, jeans and trousers.

Keep it simple. If you are in doubt about the dress code at a particular event, ask your host. And remember, ‘casual’ does not mean sloppy. Keep your standards  high and take pride in your appearance. After all, you never know who you might run into…

 

Thierry’s uniform.

My beloved and I spent five days in France last month, staying in a beautiful guest house owned by Thierry and Guy. These two complemented each other beautifully. Guy had spent years in the hotel industry, and Thierry had been a hairdresser to the great and the good in Paris in the 1960s and 70s. Both love interior design, collecting art and antiques, books and quirky objets.

But there was one fundamental difference between them.

Thierry was incredibly stylish, in a way that his partner was not. I often advise my clients to create their own ‘uniform’ – a look that they feel comfortable and look great in. Doing so alleviates wardrobe stress and saves lots of time. Thierry had created the ultimate uniform, one which he has not deviated from in years….

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He only wears shirts and jeans by Comme des Garcons. Always. The jeans may vary in cut, but they are always dark denim. The shirts are white, blue , checked or striped – always sharply ironed and with interesting details on the buttons, cuffs, collar or hem. His shoes are an extensive collection of brogues and oxfords – mainly by Heschung (a longstanding French footwear brand), but also our very own Church’s. The jumpers are cashmere, in grey and navy. In fact, the whole palette is white, grey, navy and black. And every month, he travels to Paris to top up on culture, books and a new shirt or two.

This may sound severe and uncompromising, but Thierry always feels comfortable in what he wears and so carries it off with aplomb. It’s his look, and it works. Have you created your ‘uniform’ ?IMG_1160

Age is no barrier to style.

Are you over 40 ? 50 ? 60 ?

Yes, I too am on the ‘wrong’ side of 40. In fact, I am perilously close to 50. One of the reasons I gave up my ‘proper job’ and started style&grace was that I am in my 40s and I want to help my contemporaries (and older) who are struggling with shopping and dressing in our youth-obsessed age.

Many fabulously well dressed and elegant women around the world are in their 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond. And yes, I know, many of those women are blessed with wealth, height and teams of stylists (or all three). But that doesn’t mean that us mere mortals can’t look great too, whatever our age.

So let’s banish these three ageist fashion myths once and for all:

  • ‘I’m too old to wear jeans.’ No you’re not. It’s about finding the right fit, length and colour for you.
  • ‘I’m too old to wear leather.’ No one is too old to wear leather. I met Gerry Gerry for blog_13 May_1this week, who looked amazing in her skinny jeans (rolled at the ankle) black brogues, leather jacket and chic bob. I told her how great she looked and she said, ‘well, I suppose it’s not bad for a 70-year old’. Enough said.
  • Trendy and fashionable clothes look ridiculous on ‘middle aged’ or ‘older’ women’. Too trendy – yes. Fashionable touches – no – these can look fabulous. The trick is to find the elements that work for you and introduce them carefully.

You can be stylish and elegant at any age. One thing to sort out first though – make sure your bras fit and support you properly (a common mistake among older women). It will change your shape and make your clothes hang much better. Now go forth and be stylish….. or call me !

Gerry for blog_13 May_2

Women: when considering accessories, listen to Coco

IMG_1102One of Coco Chanel’s most famous (and probably most ignored) pieces of advice was this: ‘before leaving the house, remove one accessory’. So many women either wear too many, and end up looking fussy and overdone, or not enough, and so look bland and lacking in any individual style. Focus is the key to success. Pick your point of focus and let it shine, whether that is your statement necklace, your fedora hat or your chandelier earrings. Heed Madame Chanel’s words, as it’s usually a rogue accessory that is the offender when you’re not sure if you’ve got it quite right.

Scarves are underrated in this country (which is always a surprise to me, given our unpredictable weather). They add instant polish and ‘je ne sais quoi’ to a casual outfit of jeans and simple cashmere knit, for example, but also add panache to a white work shirt or dark suit. Buy silk wherever possible, and consider the dominant colours in your wardrobe, as you want one that works with a number of pieces. When wearing a scarf, keep earrings and other jewellery to a minimum to avoid elements fighting for attention.

With jewellery, an elegant watch and a pair of diamond stud earrings will take any well-dressed woman a long way.   It’s also very modern to mix gold, silver and rose gold; don’t be afraid to combine and layer your pieces (without going overboard).IMG_1191

Brooches are often overlooked and can add a fun vintage vibe to hats, scarves or cardigans. Hats can make a stunning statement, but people tend to either be a ‘hat person’ or not (I am, by the way). If you want to give them a try, bring a friend and take photos to find the shape and height that works for you. Please, please avoid pastel-coloured stiff straw hats (the bane of wedding season) which look frumpy and are instantly ageing.IMG_1185

Belts can lift an otherwise plain outfit; think of a ponyskin belt with jeans and a shirt, or a chain belt with a black fluid shift dress. A monochrome suit for the office is instantly transformed by a skinny belt in a bright colour.

Turning to hosiery, nude matte tights or stockings are essential as we move from spring through to summer. And no shine please – you are not a showgirl (and they make legs look heavier). Invest in the best: Wolford Naked 8’s are fantastic (sheer and transparent with a sandal toe). If you do go bare-legged, exfoliate, moisturise and give your skin some help; MAC face and body foundation is great for this.

You can also add individuality through other accessories and small leathers, for example pens, notebooks, glasses cases and business card holders. All of these details say something about you and contribute to your ‘bigger picture’.

This is an edited version of my Platinum Style column in May’s Platinum Business Magazine.

 

 

Guys: the devil is in the detail…

American financier Sanford Weill once proclaimed that ‘details create the big picture’. Now, Sanford may have been talking about pounds and pence (or dollars and cents), but the same holds true for your wardrobe. The details – your accessories – are vitally important to your overall picture. Applied well, they contribute to the creation of a coherent whole, adding colour, texture and individuality. Worn badly, they can wreak havoc with your look and render elegance an elusiSC_Lookbook_AW14_0010ve pipe dream.

Accessories add much-needed colour, texture and personality to otherwise conservative clothing. I would go so far as to assert that adding carefully chosen accessories to a gentleman’s business or casual look can have more of an impact for a man than for his female counterparts, as he has fewer overall outfit options. At first glance, you may think that there are limited accessories to choose from. I would disagree. Let’s take a closer look.

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Watches are an obvious starting point. Even in these days of gadgetry, an elegant watch speaks volumes about a man. It’s worthwhile having more than one: a watch for daily business wear, a dress watch and a sporty version for weekends.

Socks (plain, striped or spotted) are an easy way to add colour and fun without undermining your professional credentials. Braces are another way to add interest – but you must be comfortable wearing them or you will not be able to pull off this look successfully !

The cufflinks market has exploded, and there are so many designs and materials to choose from. You can choose cufflinks that reflect your personal interests, hobbies and passions: horses, anchors, propellors, playing cards, etc.

Cufflink Darwin Lacewing

When considering ties and belts, it’s always best to go for contrast, so that at least one element stands out. If you’re wearing a striped shirt, go for a completely contrasting tie (a solid colour, or even a contrasting pattern). The stronger the contrast, the greater the impact. Newsreader Jon Snow lifts his overall look with bright ties and socks; they have become his immediately identifiable ‘trademark’.

I spent the morning at Simon Clarke’s Brighton boutique recently, and the team there told me that tie clips are also big sellers. They are another small way to add an element of individuality (and old-school elegance) to your overall look.

Wallets, although not often on display, can add pizzazz as you pay for your morning latte. Paul Smith and Aspinal of London make leather wallets with iconic British designs – union jacks and classic Minis – to liven things up a bit.

When selecting your accessories, choose carefully. Remember: invest in a few simple pieces that work with a number of items in your wardrobe.

Thanks to Simon Clarke Brighton for the images.