The Modern Man’s 2023 Smart Casual Dressing Guide
From the key garments and failsafe outfits to the biggest dos and don’ts, we demystify menswear's trickiest dress code.
Dress codes are supposed to simplify the process of deciding what to wear, but that’s not always the case. Two words: smart casual. This seemingly self-contradictory term will cause most men a bit of confusion at some point in their lives. It’s so vague, so easy to misinterpret and so hard to pin down. It has also changed a lot over the past few decades, just to muddy the waters further still.
Smart casual style is all about looking put together without being overdressed. It’s about balancing two opposing menswear forces to create something new for those awkward in-between occasions where a suit would be overkill, and a T-shirt and sneakers too sloppy. But there’s a lot of room for interpretation, which is where most of the uncertainty around the smart casual dress code stems from.
To really nail smart casual, it’s important to understand it fully first. From the key garments and failsafe combos to the biggest dos and don’ts, knowing these things will allow you to approach smart casual dressing with complete and utter confidence – and when you’re confident, you look good.
With that in mind, this comprehensive guide to modern smart casual style aims to demystify the notoriously tricky dress code. Here’s everything you need to know.
What is the smart casual dress code?
Smart casual is a broad term used to describe garments and outfits that sit between the ‘smart’ and ‘casual’ extremes. It’s relaxed and informal, but with a subtly sophisticated quality that casual outfits often lack. It’s safe, versatile and easy to wear – making it an excellent default setting for most men, the majority of the time.
So, what types of things fall into this category? Generally speaking, garments like Oxford shirts, unstructured tailoring, suede shoes and knitwear. There’s also scope to throw in sporty casual pieces like sneakers, polo shirts and bomber jackets, as long as they’re counterbalanced with a few smarter elements. Casual pieces should have a bit of refinement to them too – if you’re wearing sneakers, for example, think clean, minimal leather versions, rather than battered old Converse.
The goal is to look as though you’ve made an effort, but not to the point of being obviously ‘dressed up’. Presentable, but stopping short of donning a three-piece suit and leather Oxford shoes. Get the balance right and it’s the perfect option for things like dates, dinners, evenings out, some job interviews, and even just day to day through the week.
The evolution of smart casual
There was a time when smart casual just meant swapping the sneakers for some leather shoes, throwing a blazer on and calling it a day. A lot of men still treat the dress code this way today, but to take this approach is to do yourself a disservice. There’s so much more that can be done with smart casual, particularly now that dress codes have loosened up and begun to spill over into one another.
It’s not exactly clear where the smart casual dress code emerged from, but what is certain is that it has changed a great deal over the years. Before the 1950s, the term was used simply to describe suits that were slightly less formal than those worn in the office. As the concept of casualwear developed, and garments like T-shirts and jeans became the norm, the dress code took on a slightly more relaxed, semi-formal feel, blurring the line between workplace attire and weekend wear.
It’s a trend that has continued ever since, with more casual and sporty elements creeping in over the years, to the point that it’s now perfectly acceptable to wear things like jeans, polo shirts and sneakers as part of the dress code… provided they’re elevated by smarter surrounding pieces.
Key smart casual pieces for 2023
There’s a countless number of garments that can be worn as part of a smart casual outfit, but there are a few key pieces that stand out and really embody what the dress code is all about. These are the most versatile, failsafe and timeless smart casual garments, and the ones no man should be out be without.
Oxford cloth button-down (OCBD)
The Oxford-cloth button-down shirt (or OCBD for short) is perhaps the ultimate smart casual garment. It features a similar cut and overall design to its dressier poplin counterpart, but with a textured fabric and additional details that give it a more informal feel.
It’s the sort of thing that can instantly pull an outfit together and make it look like you’ve made an effort. Wear it in place of a T-shirt to turn a bog-standard weekend fit from sloppy to sharp, or layer it under some knitwear to give a simple look a sense of depth.
Some blazers have padding strategically placed to make the shoulders appear broader. These should be avoided when combining the jacket with less formal pieces like jeans, chinos and casual footwear.
Instead, look for blazers that are ‘unstructured’. These offer a more relaxed alternative to traditional suit jackets, with no padding, minimal lining and soft, natural shoulders. They still have the power to dress a look up, but won’t look jarring when worn next to casual-leaning garments.
These preppy trousers occupy the middle ground between jeans and dress pants. They’ll happily comingle with anything from T-shirts and sneakers to soft tailoring, making them the ideal candidate for your go-to smart casual legwear.
Wear them with a fine-gauge turtleneck, an overshirt and loafers for a contemporary take on smart casual, or team them up with an OCBD, deck shoes and a cardigan for a bit of mid-century Ivy League cool.
When it comes to layering, knitwear is the perfect smart casual alternative to casual jersey mid layers like hoodies and crew-neck sweaters. Fine-gauge knits work well with tailored pieces like dress trousers or an unstructured blazer, while heavier, textured knits are great for wrapping up in the winter months.
Try wearing a fine cashmere or merino sweater in place of a shirt with a blazer – it’s still smart while lending the look a more relaxed, modern edge. And don’t forget knitted polo shirts, which can be used in a similar way.
It’s only really in the last decade or so that sneakers have become truly accepted as part of the smart casual dress code. Still, in order to work, they have to have certain qualities about them. We’re talking a clean minimalist design, premium materials and a subtle, low-profile silhouette.
Suede can work, particularly in dark colours, but something leather in black or white tends to be best. Think Adidas Stan Smith if you’re on a budget, Common Projects Achilles Low if money’s no object.
Loafers are comfortable, easy to wear, versatile and have a special ability to dress casual outfits up while bringing tailored looks back down to earth. They’re an invaluable tool in any man’s smart casual footwear line-up and work equally well in suede or leather.
Loafers come in various styles, all of which are perfectly appropriate, but to keep it classic, a traditional penny loafer is our slip-on of choice.
Smart casual dressing tips
Smart casual is one of the easiest dress codes to misinterpret, but following a few key tips and guidelines will help you to nail it every time. Below are the most important points to keep in mind when you’re putting your next smart casual outfit together.
Give both words equal attention
When styling a smart casual look, it’s best not to lean too far in either direction. Place equal emphasis on the ‘smart’ and ‘casual’ elements of the outfit to achieve a balanced whole. That means throwing a blazer over a tracksuit isn’t going to cut it. Similarly, wearing a three-piece suit with loafers in place of Derby shoes doesn’t quite hit the brief either.
Aim somewhere in the middle of those two extremes and you should be bang on target.
Keep tailoring soft
Forgo the sharp, angular lines of traditional tailoring in favour of a softer look. This will give outfits a more relaxed feel, and won’t contrast uncomfortably with less formal pieces. A padded suit jacket with jeans looks awkward and unnatural.
Swap it for an unstructured blazer instead and the whole thing becomes much more cohesive.
Darker = smarter
Take this one with a pinch of salt, but as a general rule of thumb it tends to hold true. Take jeans, for example: stonewashed denim has a much more casual feel to it than crisp raw denim. Darker denim just looks smarter.
It’s not just jeans either. With the exception of shirts, darker pieces – from shoes to knitwear – usually come across as slightly dressier, so it’s always good to factor that in when piecing outfits together.
Alternating textures is a great way to give your outfits a subtle touch of character and draw the eye in. It’s fine to have several textures going on within a smart casual outfit – nay, encouraged – but try to keep it balanced.
Generally speaking, rough, open fabrics lean casual, while flat, smooth materials look smarter. Try to incorporate elements of both for best results.
Don’t neglect footwear
Shoes can make or break a smart casual look, so pay them the attention they deserve. It should go without saying, but your footwear should be clean and well looked after. And that goes double if you’re going down the sneakers route.
Things like hats, jewellery and luggage should be in keeping with the smart casual theme. What’s the point in putting all of that effort into crafting the perfect smart casual outfit only to let it down by slinging a battered old drawstring bag over the shoulder of your blazer?
Instead, go for something like a sleek leather folio or canvas holdall – still practical and functional, but with a smarter feel that ties in nicely with everything else.
Refine the basics
One of the tricks to really nailing smart casual style is making sure the core components of your wardrobe are high quality.
Simple pieces like T-shirts, knitwear and jeans should be the best you can afford, and above all else, should fit immaculately. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, so make the effort to ensure that even the most basic garments don’t let you down.
Go-to smart casual outfits for men
Still struggling for inspiration? Stick to one of the tried-and-tested looks below and take the hard work out of it. These four interpretations of the dress code, while all quite different, have the perfect ratio of smart to casual, making them perfect for just about anything short of a full-blown formal event.
At the smarter end of the smart casual spectrum, we have suit separates. These are tailored pieces mixed and matched to create contrast within the outfit, which makes for a less formal look than being head-to-toe in one colour.
The word ‘contrast’ is key here. To get it right, the jacket and trousers should stand out against one another. If they’re too similar in shade it won’t have the same effect (and can look like you made a mistake when reaching for your suit).
Some colour combos that always work well include: navy blazer + off-white trousers, grey blazer + navy trousers, beige blazer + grey trousers, light grey blazer + charcoal trousers, and green blazer + beige trousers.
Preppy style is enjoying a resurgence at the moment, which spells good news for your smart casual ensembles. The Ivy League aesthetic is, by definition, smart casual, and so many of the pieces translate well when pulling together this sort of outfit. Think OCBDs, loafers, deck shoes, cardigans, polo shirts and chinos.
Another core part of the preppy look is colour and pattern. Bold stripes, madras checks and collegiate lettering are all signatures of the style, so incorporate them (sparingly) to help bring your smart casual attire to life.
One particularly simple way to nail smart casual is to start off with a traditional suit and introduce casual pieces to dress it down.
This can work with any colour, but for the sake of argument, let’s imagine a navy suit with a white poplin shirt and a pair of black leather Derby shoes. All that needs to be done in order to take this outfit from ‘smart’ to ‘smart casual’ is to swap the shirt for a tucked-in T-shirt or a knitted polo and trade the Derbies in for some minimalist sneakers or brown suede loafers.
By changing just those two details, the whole vibe of the outfit is completely transformed.
Stripped-back outfits can still look sharp. For a minimalist take on the dress code, stick to monochrome and neutral colours, keeping layering and accessorising to a minimum. Think grey wool trousers, black long-sleeve knitted polo and suede Chelsea boots.
To pull this off and make it look smart enough, the few garments you do select should be high quality and fit like a glove. If in any doubt, things like trousers, shirts and tailoring can always be taken to your local alterations shop to be tweaked by a professional.
Smart casual FAQs
Hopefully the information in this guide has already answered your burning smart casual questions. But just in case, here are the answers to some of the most common queries men have about the dress code.
Are jeans smart casual?
Yes, with a ‘but’. Jeans can be smart casual but only if they fit well, are free from holes or distressed detailing, and aren’t too light in colour. That said, lighter washes can work so long as they’re styled well and balanced out with smarter pieces.
Are joggers smart casual?
Categorically, no. Joggers are not smart casual. It’s true that dress codes have relaxed, but joggers are still very much in sportswear/athleisure territory. The next best alternative that’s smart casual appropriate would be a pair of tailored drawstring trousers.
Are shorts smart casual?
Yes, shorts are perfectly acceptable as smart casual in the summer, just as long as they’re not too sloppy. That means a big no to athletic shorts and swim shorts, and a resounding yes to chino shorts, tailored shorts and similar. Remember to invest in some no-show socks too.
Are T-shirts smart casual?
Not alone. However, a crisp white tee tucked into a pair of raw jeans and layered with an oxford shirt is unlikely to raise any eyebrows. It’s all about how it’s styled.
Does smart casual require a jacket?
No, absolutely not. This is one of the most common pitfalls men run into when approaching the dress code. Assuming a blazer must be worn in order for an outfit to be deemed smart casual will hold you back. That said, an unstructured blazer is a great tool to have at your disposal when it comes to crafting your smart casual looks.
Are suits smart casual?
They can be, but again, it’s all about how they’re styled. A two-piece suit dressed down with some knitwear or a polo in place of the shirt, and some minimalist sneakers or loafers in place of smart shoes will always be a solid option. It’s all about striking a balance between ‘smart’ and ‘casual’ without leaning too far in either direction.
Are sneakers smart casual?
These days, yes, but they need to be the right kind. Stay away from anything overly sporty, with too much detail or excessive branding. Instead, stick to clean, uncluttered, minimalist styles in premium materials. Again, make sure they’re balanced out by dressier pieces elsewhere in the outfit.
Are polo shirts smart casual?
Much like T-shirts, polo shirts can be smart casual if worn in the right way. Try tucking one into a pair of chinos or dress trousers and layering an unstructured blazer or overshirt over the top.
Are hoodies smart casual?
No, hoodies are not smart casual. If you need something to wear as a midlayer, focus on knitwear instead. A heavy gauge fisherman knit can do much the same job, albeit without the hood.