How to put the smart into smart casual

This story was originally published on D'Marge.

 Stylish men ask themselves many questions. Does this belt match my shoes? Which tie should I wear with this blazer? Is this too many accessories? Can I rock this Fedora? (Spoiler alert: probably not.) And what the hell is this “smart casual” thing everyone's going on about?

The definition

The Macquarie Dictionary defines smart casual as “well-dressed in a casual style”. Oxford defines it as “neat, conventional, yet relatively informal in style”. calls smart casual “somewhat informal but neat.” Urban Dictionary calls it “a nonsensical dress code that people slap onto events, parties, and workplaces” that is “completely down to interpretation” and “always causes confusion and often spectacular results”. Even Wikipedia shrugs its shoulders and simply describes it as “ill-defined.”

So what does smart casual really mean? Hang onto your hats, gentlemen … today we attempt to demystify fashion's most puzzling dress code.

In reality

First things first: smart casual does not mean slapping a blazer over a pair of jogging bottoms, so get that image out of your head right now. Smart casual may be confusing, but confusion is no excuse for looking like an idiot.

Now that we've gotten that out of the way, let's talk about what really matters. Yes, as the name implies, this contrasting obstacle of a dress theme blends both the formal and the informal into one neat package. It sounds like quite the conundrum, but we promise it's an achievable look. Balance is the key.

To cross the smart casual divide, start by taking a cue from the name itself: smart casual. Smart first, casual second. When in doubt, the safe move is to err on the smarter side of the style spectrum. There's a reason “better overdressed than underdressed” has become conventional fashion wisdom. What you're looking for is a point of harmony in the middle of the smart/casual dichotomy, a place that allows for both comfort and elegance.

Certain pieces are key to building a respectable smart casual wardrobe. To make things simple, we've rounded them up into a quick head-to-toe guide of what to wear in order to nail men's fashion's favourite buzzword.

What to wear on top

The blazer


A blazer is an easy way to add individuality and style to an outfit. Go for something like cotton/linen or lightweight cotton in the warmer months, and opt for something heavier (like wool) when it's cooler out. Where colour is concerned, you have options. A neutral blazer is versatile and can be used in many looks, and can complement colour injected elsewhere in your outfit. Alternatively, a blazer in a statement colour or pattern can be the focal point of your ensemble. Always go for something well-tailored – fitted always looks smarter than loose. If you can, go for a patch pocket blazer, they're a staple of Italian smart casual.

The shirt

A single-colour shirt in a traditional hue is a safe option, but it certainly isn't your only option. Patterned (stripes or fine houndstooth) shirts bring personality into a look and can be balanced out with more classic pieces elsewhere if you're concerned about going over the top. In keeping with the “casual” half of the smart casual theme, leave the tie at home and keep the top button undone.

The t-shirt

You can also ditch the button-down entirely. A t-shirt is a perfectly acceptable part of a smart casual wardrobe, but be sure you stick with the basics only. Anything more daring might look great elsewhere, but will likely clash with the smart casual look you're trying to achieve.

Ties and accessories

Ties and bow-ties are a dandy optional. Sunglasses are a must, as too is a winning smile.

What to wear on the bottom

The trousers

Beware of over-tailoring. This is not the time for a satin stripe. Chinos are a good bet because … well … they're smart and they're casual. Simple as that. Like the blazer, your chinos can either be kept neutral or used as a pop of colour. Denim is appropriate too, but you're best off keeping it dark and well fitted.

The shorts

For smart casual shorts, it's all about the structure. You want something tailored, or you'll veer into beach bum territory. Ditch the loose and long look for something fitted and slim that hits above the knee. Board shorts and bulky cargos need not apply.

The shoes

You can get away with a lot, but not quite everything, when it comes to smart casual footwear. Tasselled loafers, monk straps, brogues, boots, Oxfords, and boat shoes are all viable options. Bold tones or unique details can be a fun way to make sure your outfit doesn't look like it strolled straight out of the office. More casual slip-ons or Converse-style street shoes can also work for less formal occasions, but save your trainers for the gym.

Bonus: a smart casual expert tip

“The key to putting together a great smart casual look is simple – stay comfortable. The aim is to look good and feel great in what you are wearing. We recommend a deconstructed jacket and trouser, in lightweight wool, cotton and linen – or a blend of these natural fibres, with a slim button cuff shirt and no tie. In terms of patterns, go for semi plain or a subtle check in the jacket/trouser, and a classic white, a navy/white stripe shirt or small micro design print (this printed look will be huge in the coming season). This will give you the right level of nonchalance, but not look like you've just come from the beach or the gym. For footwear, quality leather loafers are always a good idea.”

Matt Jensen, founder & CEO, M.J.Bale

D'Marge is one of Australia's most popular men's style and fashion blogs.

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