Smart-casual: two diametrically opposed terms, yoked together by a hyphen to mean… something located somewhere in the vast, nebulous gulf between the two poles.
An unholy matrimony of antonyms, smart-casual is ill-defined and even less well understood by most men. It’s an enigma of a dress code that seemingly requires Alan Turing levels of cryptanalysing to crack. On the surface, it sounds so easy, so relaxed, so… casual. Yet there’s the lingering, vaguely troubling presence of that word ‘smart’. It’s enough to make you beg for a black tie invitation: at least with that you know where you stand.
FashionBeans is here to cut this Gordian knot once and for all (if indeed smart-casual even requires a tie). But rather than attempt to pin it down precisely, smart-casual is best understood as a spectrum. That’s to say different elements of your outfit can sit at various points along the scale, but no one piece should veer too far in either direction. Smart-casual is a fine line, a balancing act – or a tightrope.
To help you tread the line, we’ve honed in on four key smart-casual mainstays. By understanding the guiding principles that make them at once smart and also somehow casual – and precisely to what degree – you can break the code, and not the rules.
A separate tailored jacket is more casual than a full suit. But it’s still tailoring, and therefore smart. With us so far? Putting the ‘smart’ in smart-casual, a good blazer will cover a multitude of informal outfit sins. But what makes a good blazer? Well, there’s no hard-and-fast rule.
It’s partly about softness – of construction. A more natural, less padded shoulder will sit better with chinos (see below) or jeans. Hence why most suit jackets, especially the traditional British cut ones, don’t look right worn separately. The Italians are past masters of this kind of soft tailoring, from Boglioli to Aspesi. The less structured it is, the more casual it appears.
Another key factor is texture. For smart-casualwear, you want a fabric that’s a bit… nubby, and on the matte side. Again, suit jackets tend to be made of shiny, smooth worsted wool, which is way too formal. You could even consider knitted blazers, which are practically cardigans – and as casual as this piece gets.
Finally, there’s length to think about: a smart-casual blazer will come up slightly shorter than a standard suit jacket (we’re talking just an inch or two, mind). Colour is also important to consider: lighter shades skew casual, as do patterns (with the notable exception of pinstripe). Ditto details like patch pockets – which look like they’ve been sewn onto the outside of the jacket – and contrast buttons. Unless they’re gold.
- Boglioli Navy Slim-fit Stretch Cotton-corduroy Blazer
- Aspesi Grey Slim-fit Unstructured Boiled Wool-blend Blazer
- Etro Unstructured Checked Wool-blend Blazer
- Paul Smith Jeans Two Button Casual Blazer
- River Island Jersey Slim Blazer
- Selected Homme Firenze Knitted Blazer
- Reiss Cassius Patch Pocket Blazer
- Racing Green Blake Unstructured Blazer
- Beams Plus Sand Slim-fit Unstructured Cotton-blend Suit Jacket
- Wings + Horns Knit Blazer
- He By Mango Textured Unstructured Blazer
- Topman Selected Homme Sand Blazer
The Oxford Button-Down
Sure, you could wear a plain tee as part of a smart-casual ensemble – but you’re tipping the balance heavily in the direction of casual. A polo is a happier medium: it’s got a collar, so is more shirt-like and therefore smarter. But it’s still more casual than an actual shirt.
An Oxford button-down shirt, on the other hand, is a smart-casual fail-safe. For starters, it’s, you know, a shirt, so inherently smart. But like the blazers we mentioned above, it’s softer in construction than traditional stiffer-collared alternatives, and more textured, so it’s therefore more casual. Making sense yet?
The terms ‘Oxford’ and ‘button-down’ are often used interchangeably. But strictly speaking, Oxford is a type of thick cloth, which is both literally and metaphorically not ‘fine’. You can have a button-down shirt in, say, a fine, shiny poplin, and the overall effect is very different – and much more formal. Because of this, the appearance and texture of Oxford button-downs often cause them to jar with smarter suits.
Tie or no tie? That depends on how smart the occasion is, and how smart you want to be. In accordance with the principles of texture, a knitted tie is the ultimate smart-casual neckwear option: more casual than a smooth silk design (just how much depends on the shininess), but smarter than no tie at all.
- He By Mango Slim-fit Cotton Oxford Shirt
- M&s Collection Pure Cotton Oxford Shirt
- J. Crew Vintage Oxford Shirt With Tipped Pocket In Heather
- Dockers Stretch Oxford Shirt
- Sunspel Button Down Oxford Shirt
- Topman Stone Oxford Long Sleeve Casual Shirt
- Reiss Aintree Oxford Shirt Soft Pink
- Officine Generale Striped Cotton Oxford Shirt
- Hugo Boss Checked Cotton Oxford Shirt
Unless they’ve been specifically forbidden, jeans can work in a smart-casual context. But they’re workwear, and textured, so like a tee they tip the balance towards casual. If you do go down this route, you’ll want them to be in a dark wash, slim-fitting and not distressed. Unless you’re Ralph Lauren at a black tie event, in which case you’re far too important to give a rat’s about dress codes.
For most smart-casual missions though, deploy chinos. Their roots are military, so they have a uniform element that lends them a certain smartness. But they’re ‘softer’ – that is to say, less structured – than tailored trousers, and so more casual. And while their cotton twill fabric is more rugged (read: textured) than smart wool, it’s less so than casual denim. That said, it’s a sliding scale of smartness since twill can be wrinkly (casual) or rigid (smart). Judge each pair on its relative merits.
As ever, Keyser Söze is in the details. Take pleats for example; as well as adding room around the hips, they add a sense of smartness, as does a tab closure (traditionally found on formal trousers) at the waist. You shouldn’t need an apoplectic drill sergeant though to tell you that a crease down the front of your chinos (i.e. pleat front chinos) is smarter than the absence of one (flat front chinos). Rolling your chinos up at the bottom, however, will make them look more casual. And weird if they’re also creased.
- J.crew Urban Slim-fit Cotton-twill Chinos
- River Island Navy Slim Chinos
- He By Mango Slim-fit Cotton Chinos
- Topman Stone Stretch Slim Fit Chinos
- Uniqlo Men Vintage Regular Fit Chino Flat Front Trousers
- Ted Baker Tintega Cotton Chinos
- Suitsupply Green Washed Chino
- Etro Washed Cotton-blend Chinos
- Reiss Bennett Straight Leg Chinos Burgundy
- J.w. Brine New Owen Cotton-blend Chino Trousers
- North Coast Cotton Rich Flat Front Chinos
- Next Slim Leg Stretch Chinos
As with a T-shirt, you can wear (clean, minimal) trainers in a smart-casual outfit. But you’re toeing the line and in serious danger of tipping into too-casual territory. Don’t go rogue: go brogue.
It’s all in the texture. Generally, the smoother and shinier a shoe is, the more formal it is. Oxfords, with their concealed eyelets and maybe a toecap seam, are smarter than brogues. And whole-cut shoes – made from one piece of leather with no stitching – are perhaps the smartest of all. Use this rule to gauge the smartness of your brogues: the more detail they have, the more casual they are. (By now, you should also have worked out that suede is more casual than leather.)
That’s not the sole factor though. Shape is vitally important: the pointier they are, the sharper they look. A sleek shoe with broguing can still be quite smart; a rounder shoe that’s totally plain – like a Derby – can be very casual. Ideally you want an in-between ‘almond’ toe. Also, chunkiness steps up the casualness: by the same logic, Nike Air Force 1s don’t work in a smart-casual getup. Or with a suit.
Finally, consider lightness of colour. Brown is more casual than black; light brown and tan are more casual still. This is why tan shoes don’t look right with formal and/or dark suits. Please stop this.
- Grenson Stanley Leather Brogue Goodyear Welt Shoes
- Churchs Newark Derby Brogue
- Sanders Bruno Gibson Brogue
- Reiss Mcallister Allen Edmonds Wingtip Leather Brogues Brown
- Selected Homme Latin Brogue Suede Shoe
- Trickers Brown Suede Brogues
- Bertie Cyrus Leather Brogue Boots
- M&s Collection Luxury Leather Welted Lace Up Brogues
- River Island Dark Red Leather Lace-up Wingtip Boots
- Grenson Fred Sand Suede Brogue Boots
- Oliver Sweeney Airton Lace Up Brogue Boots
- Ted Baker Sealls Leather Brogue Boots
Have you achieved smart-casual enlightenment? Or are you still trapped in the dress code Dark Ages?
Let us know in the comments below (and if the latter, we’ll try and explain further).