What does 'smart casual' mean?

Over the weekend I had the pleasure of attending the wedding of a relative. On the invitation it stated that the dress code for the day was to be smart casual. There was even a tagline to the effect that footwear was optional, as the whole event was being held on a local beach and sand is clearly not conducive to fancy footwear. Easy, I thought. Only apparently it wasn't.

I turned up wearing a pair of chinos and a collared shirt with deck shoes in hand, only to find that everyone else's version of smart casual was to still wear a suit. Their only acquiescence to "smart casual" was to ditch the tie.

Now, if there are two words I hate more than "alcohol-free" or "cash only", it would have to be smart casual. It's the organic water of dress codes. Not only does the term sound condescending but, as a concept, it remains deliberately ambiguous. Not even Wikipedia seems to know what it means. And the uncertainty surrounding it only continues when it comes to putting it into practice in the workplace.

The core of my angst when encountering smart casual as a dress code is its underlying subjectivity, and the potential differing in opinion between what my idea of smart casual means and my potential employer's.

For example, at the first job I ever worked at, jeans and t-shirt were perfectly acceptable under their banner of smart casual wear. Then, at my next job, jeans were OK but collared, long-sleeve shirts only. Then at yet another office, smart casual meant business pants with collared shirt, but no need to invest in a jacket. So which one is it? Confusingly, all of the above.

But in spite of this I admit that smart casual does have its good points. Firstly, it allows people to dress according to the season – anyone who has had to wear a suit in the middle of an Australian summer knows just how drenchingly uncomfortable they can be. Secondly, while one of the more obvious benefits of enforcing a more traditional corporate dress code lies in its reliability – a suit is a suit and there isn't really a grey area – it is still a form of uniform that can limit the level of self-expression and sense of individuality within a workplace.

Adam Roberts is an account director at Snakk Media in Sydney, one of the many companies that have embraced a more relaxed approach to what staff can wear within the work environment.

“I came (to Snakk) from a finance background,” says Roberts, “where suits, ties and polished lace-ups were mandatory. For me personally, I found that wearing a jacket and tie not only restricted movement, but absolutely had an affect on my attitude at work and implied more of a hierarchical atmosphere.”

And it's not only those who work in creative industries who have moved away from traditional sartorial guidelines in the workplace.


James Chuck is a project manager at a software development firm in North Sydney which has gone one step further on the casual scale, all but banning the presence of suits in the workplace.

“We don't actually have an official dress code of any kind in our office,” Chuck says. “We wear whatever is comfortable. For me, that's just jeans, a shirt, a jacket or jumper and some leather shoes. For others, it's their favourite footy team's jersey and some shorts. People are given the freedom to dress in whatever style they feel most comfortable in which, I think, creates a much more relaxed and pleasant working atmosphere.”

And while I still find the idea of a smart casual dress code a potential mine field, I must admit that it has gotten easier since settling on my career as a writer and hopeful academic. Because, more often than not, my office is my dining table, which means the only interpretation of smart casual is whatever I pick out of my wardrobe in the morning. Like the smart tracksuit pants I wore all last week.

What is your interpretation of smart casual for the office?