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…


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