By Meghan M. Biro
When I was a recruiter for big tech in their explosion years, I saw a lot of candidates and a lot of styles of dress. The one that worked in that world has extended into many other arenas, and that’s smart casual. Smart casual has actually been around for a century or so: it was first coined in 1924. But it rose to popularity along with the rise of Silicon Valley (hello turtlenecks and black jeans) and then the Zoom era. Since then, it’s become one of the most standard ways to dress in today’s workplace, and you could say its trajectory reflects our changing attitudes towards how we work.
A pre-pandemic Randstad survey of a thousand full-time employees found that a full third (33 percent) would quit their jobs rather than have to adhere to a formal dress code. Since then, many companies have relaxed their attire requirements substantially. A February 2023 survey by Adzuna of over 1 million job ads in the UK found that 79.9% of ads citing a specific dress code mention relaxed attire. Organizations are not necessarily getting into the particulars: 5.2 percent specified “smart casual” and 2.8 percent specified “business casual.” But that may be more that job descriptions don’t want to get into the sartorial weeds.
Meanwhile, you’ve got to get dressed, and when it comes to hitting it right, smart casual may be the move. (“What is smart casual” is an incredibly popular search query.) So here are some answers to typical questions on smart casual attire:
What Is Smart Casual?
Smart casual is an approach to dressing professionally that mixes trendier pieces in with classic staples. The goal is an appearance that’s clean and professional but doesn’t look too formal. You want to look pulled together but a bit interesting and approachable.
For men, that might mean an outfit that pairs a knit polo shirt (no graphics or crazy prints) with a good jacket and a pair of dark, well-fitting jeans (no holes). For shoes you might go with high-end leather sneakers or Chelsea boots. A typical outfit for women might include a sleek, tailored blouse, softened with an unstructured jacket, flowing, pleated trousers, and a chunky-heeled or modern loafer. You’re dressing to make an impression without dressing to impress. The overall takeaway should be that you’re not trying too hard, but you’re not slacking either.
What’s The Difference Between Smart Casual And Business Casual?
Requirements on dress codes may seem arbitrary at first — isn’t casual casual? The easy answer is no: there is indeed a difference. You might say that the “smart” part is what makes this style different from business casual. Business casual tends to be a bit more formal, conservative, and more restrained. (Interestingly it’s on the rise as well:
You’ll often hear a dress code for big meetings described as business casual, particularly in sectors like finance. For men, that means you don a suit and a collared shirt but no tie (which immediately states “casual”) and opt for a good classic loafer. For women, a spiffy sweater over a tailored skirt (knee-length or longer) or slacks with a low heel pump or a dressy flat, all topped with an elegant silk scarf. The look still says business without being too buttoned-up.
To shift those outfits to smart casual:
For men, keep the collared shirt but ditch the suit. Wear dark chinos or dark jeans instead. Trade the loafers for a pair of suede Chelsea boots or brogues. That sleek dress belt you wore with the suit? Swap that out for a more rugged belt, say in a distressed brown — but if the belt has topstitching, make sure it’s muted, not a blaze of white thread.
For women, keep that sweater and the skirt but throw the sweater over a white button shirt with a longer hem for a modern but layered look. Ditch the silk scarf for a muted, linen shawl in the same color family. Trade those low heel pumps or flats for an ankle boot. Bingo: the look says confident, comfortable, and coordinated.
What’s The Difference Between Smart Casual And Casual?
Casual is casual. In the working world no one wants to look a mess, but I’ve been on video conferences where sweatpants, hoodies and t-shirts proliferate. From a work culture perspective, nothing says “We all work remotely and don’t need to watch our appearance” like a Zoom grid of sweatshirts. As business casual and smart casual have become the norm, casual has probably taken a step or two down towards the sports and loungewear side. The key differentiator is that with smart casual and business casual, you’re trying to make that impression. It may be low-key, but it matters.
What Should I Avoid When Dressing Smart Casual?
- Loud prints and patterns. Even though it’s casual, it’s not loud. Smart also means put together without making a big statement.
- Jeans that are heavily distressed or ripped. There’s casual, and then there’s too casual. The idea is that you can be in a professional setting.
- Revealing clothing. Cutouts, miniskirts, sheer tops, tank tops, camisoles, muscle shirts — nope.
- Tons of ruffles and pleats. Way too distracting and fussy for a professional setting.
- Flip flops or crocs — just don’t.
- Head to toe brights — way too distracting.
- Funky or flashy accessories — save those for the afterparty and go with more simple and clean pieces.
- Tracksuits, athletic wear or athletic shoes — way too casual. (And see more in sneakers below.)
- Hoodies and sweatshirts — generally these are going to seem too casual.
- Suit and tie — unless you dress it down with a pair of clean, spiffy sneakers or flats, avoid the corporate coordinated look
- Unkempt hair, dirty nails, and a generally unshowered look.
So I Can Really Wear Sneakers?
You can wear certain sneakers. Above all they should be clean. Classic, simple, white leather sneakers are a good bet. Same with black, or grey, or brown — so long as they’re not a whole mishmash of textures and tones or bright colors. Nylon running shoes with contrasting trim and a Day-Glo heel will not work. Funky platform sneakers probably won’t work either — same goes for most hi-tops and basketball sneakers. Go minimal. Go plain. Go unobtrusive. Go subdued. Above all, go not worn-out or dirty.
I’m Nonbinary. How Can I Do Smart Casual?
Smart casual works for any gender, including nonbinary. Just go for the pieces that inspire confidence and comfort and fit into a slightly more relaxed but refined silhouette. More and more workplaces are stepping up in terms of diversity and inclusivity and should be providing a comfortable work environment no matter your gender identity. And bear in mind you’re far from along: there are some 1.2 million LGBTQ Americans who identify as nonbinary.
Will Smart Casual Work In Any Workplace?
Of course, how you dress in your workplace is going to be dictated by your employer’s own guidance, and how you dress smart casual is going to be dictated as well by the industry you’re in. Smart casual in a record company might include huge hoop earrings and a jumpsuit, or track pants and a vintage rock T shirt — but that’s certainly not the norm. Some organizations are going to appreciate trendy pieces more than others: an iconic midcentury furniture manufacturer is likely to have far more room for experimentation than a legacy accounting firm.
Consult the dress code requirements and consider the context: if you’re going to a professional industry event, you may want to dress it up a notch, which dinner out with the team can call for a more relaxed approach. The thing about smart casual is that it’s also truly versatile, so long as you’re not coloring outside the lines of polished but relaxed, with a mix of timeless and trendy. It’s all in the mix.
Smart casual is a hybrid term —on the one hand it’s “smart” and spiffy, on the other it’s casual. It goes with this era of the hybrid workplace. I see it as a bridge approach — it can comfortably span both those who work remotely and those on-site; it suggests a more obvious understanding of work/life integration with its mix of polished and less formal; and it works for a whole range of gender identities. But if you’re in a situation where you’re not sure how casual to go with your attire, I’d err on the side of formal. In an interview with a company leader, for instance, better to be too dressed than not dressed enough. You can always unclip your hair or pull off your tie. But if you’re going to have a meet and greet with the team, that’s likely a perfect opportunity to rock the smart casual.