If our recent guide on how to not look boring at work proved anything – aside from the power of chambray shirts and the importance of owning a good pen – it’s just how easy it can be to fall into a style rut, particularly in a corporate environment.
However, it isn’t just those that do 9-to-5 hours in 9-by-5 cubicles for whom the style light bulb can stop flickering. Work place dress codes, much like the rules of menswear themselves, have been relaxing for several years now. This means that outfit fatigue can even extend to open-planned-desk-share-cum-ping-pong-breakout-space companies.
And so we got to work immediately – and smart-casually – on a follow-up that was more tailored (or should we say less tailored) to these environments. Here’s How To Not Look Boring At Work – Part 2: Business-Casual edition.
Restructure Your Officewear
Sure, a blazer worn as a separate is less formal than a full suit. However, keep in mind that a double-breasted, gold-buttoned number is still way too stuffy for smart-casual.
Aim for something more relaxed: unstructured, that is, with little or no padding in the shoulder. A slightly shorter length also reads more casual, not to mention contemporary. Italian brands such as Boglioli, Barena and Aspesi have this game on lock, but you can find solid examples at the premium end of the high street with the likes of Reiss and J.Crew.
A good unstructured blazer is so soft – made from pliable materials like boiled or Merino wool – that it’s practically a cardigan, and indeed some versions are knitted, or even in jersey. They’re more casual still, but nevertheless smarter than a hoodie.
Take note, Zuckerberg.
Jack In Your Jacket
If even the most relaxed form of tailoring feels too uptight, a shawl-collar cardigan is a viable business-casual alternative. Just avoid chunky ribbing, outdoorsy toggles or folksy patterns – you are still there to work after all.
While it’s a different interpretation of ‘workwear’, a chore jacket is a little more like a blazer and therefore smarter than a denim jacket, which can also work, particularly if it’s a dark wash version and not distressed.
With its connotations of military and therefore uniform, a lightweight bomber can do double duty as a blazer. The key here is opting for a dark colour such as navy, in a less utilitarian fabric like wool, cotton or linen instead of the usual shiny nylon.
Note: You might want to balance the casualness of these options out with a smarter button-up shirt rather than a T-shirt, and trousers or chinos instead of jeans.
Be A Team Player
Nothing screams ‘catalogue model’ like a V-neck jumper and an open-collared shirt. A crew-neck style is eminently more modern, and sportier. Besides, you don’t need space for a tie. You can even play up the sportswear vibes with a knit that copies the traditional ‘V’ stitched at the collar of a sweatshirt. Or, provided that it’s slim enough, sub an actual jersey sweat for a knit to make your blazer and chinos feel more jock than nerd.
On a similar note, you could also deploy a knitted bomber or zip-up track top. The fabric makes them feel more refined and therefore more formal, while the military/athletic silhouette and hardware gives them – and you – just that little bit of an edge.
Dress Down Everyday
In the same way that a rigidly tailored blazer is smart-casual overkill, a stiff-collared Jermyn Street shirt is too, well, stiff. A soft-collared button-down is a much better option, in a fabric such as Oxford rather than shiny poplin.
Again, button-down shirts can look a little bit too stock photo; swapping Oxford cloth for chambray or denim adds a touch of ranch-hand roughness, and visual interest. A grandad or collarless shirt meanwhile looks modern, and not like you forgot your tie. Either way, ensure that your shirt’s tails aren’t too long if you want to wear it untucked.
Falling between a shirt and a T-shirt, a polo is another solid alternative, especially if it’s long-sleeved and in a more premium fabric such as merino wool. This can also be worn under a blazer as an alternative to a traditional button-down.
Then there’s the most casual of smart-casual options – a T-shirt. Finding the right kind to wear with a blazer can be tricky: suitable quality, neither too thick nor too sheer and with a neckline that’s more undershirt than Geordie Shore. If in doubt, stock up on Uniqlo’s excellent, yet affordable, Supima cotton versions.
Slack Off (Or On)
The constituent parts of a smart-casual outfit (and the parts of those parts) are like the levels on a DJ’s mixing console. If some are turned right up, then the others should be dialled down to balance everything out – but not so far that they’re out of harmony.
For example, if you’re wearing a blazer, shirt and brogues – tailored trousers might tip the balance too far in the direction of smart. Whereas if you’re wearing a bomber, T-shirt and trainers – tailored trousers can prevent you looking too casual. Swapping the shirt with a T-shirt, or the brogues with trainers, will also adjust the levels.
In terms of separate tailored trousers, exercise caution with any material that’s too thin or shiny. Something beefier, more textured and less suit-like will lend itself more naturally to being worn with casual pieces and fabrics, such as denim.
In between trousers and jeans, there’s the smart-casual chino. A flat front and roll-ups skew more casual; pleats and creases, smarter. Tapering will prevent them looking too dad-like. And thanks to the athleisure revolution, you can now get trousers and chinos with a jogger-style drawstring waist, making them more casual, contemporary and comfortable. These look best with an untucked shirt, polo or T-shirt.
On the other side of the athleisure coin, you can get dressier joggers that are more like trousers with a tailored waistband, no cuff at the ankle and even pleats or creases. But unless your game is tight, and your office dress code lax, play it safe with some actual trousers.
Work Some Workwear
Jeans sit firmly at the casual end of the legwear spectrum, but they’re not beyond the pale in a smart-casual workplace – so long as they’re dark (which makes them smarter) and not distressed (ditto).
Most style guides will typically tell you to buy dark blue jeans, preferably in unwashed selvedge denim. They’re not wrong, but blue can sometimes be a bit too sensible. Black is smarter because the stitching and rivets are usually tonal, but they are simultaneously more rock ‘n’ roll. Black and navy is also a surprisingly sophisticated colour combination.
Avoid jeans with too much extraneous detailing and stay off the ripped knee bandwagon; a clean, modern pair will fit more seamlessly into your minimalist, normcore uniform. As with chinos, turn-ups will make any jean, and indeed outfit, instantly more casual.
Check The Footsie Index
It’s often the case that the smoother, shinier and sleeker the shoe, the smarter it is, and vice versa. Brogues will therefore put you on a solid, smart-casual footing, but a chunky Derby can look more contemporary, and carries a hint of Dr. Martens attitude.
Like T-shirts, trainers can be tricky in a smart-casual context. Helpfully, like with joggers, there are more and more ‘dress’ trainers nowadays: usually combining a dark leather upper with a white sole. White sneakers can look smart, but only if they’re clean – in both a not being dirty as well as minimal sense.
As with any shoe, the other consideration is sleekness. Trainers are already inherently casual, so while you can get away with a chunky dress shoe, a high-top will be way too informal. Styles with minimal branding and stitching (which can quickly discolour) toe the smart-casual line (or hyphen) perfectly.
A soft leather briefcase, as described in part one of this guide, could work with any of the above looks. However, where a backpack might be too junior in a formal office, in a smart-casual workplace it’ll look more on-message than a messenger bag. Get a grown-up one in a dark colour, perhaps in leather to make it feel smarter, and with some decent hardware (i.e. sturdy zips).
If you’re a man who has to flip-flop between the smart and casual sides of smart-casual, a growing number of brands are offering hybrid carriers than can switch between different styles, or look for a bag that can be carried by a top handle to appear more like a briefcase or tote bag.
A handsome watch with a metal bracelet will elevate the most dressed-down ensemble – even T-shirt and jeans. Not only is it sportier and therefore more casual than a leather strap, but the sheer expanse of shiny metal gives your informal getup some much-needed sheen.
Equally, you could try a Milanese mesh strap, which sits somewhere between a bracelet and leather strap in smartness, and will have a similar effect. No matter if your wrist candy is just quartz.