Selecting an outfit for your first day of work, a networking event or an interview can be a challenge, especially if you're unsure about what is considered acceptable to wear. While it is certainly necessary to follow any existing dress codes for professional events, you should also feel comfortable and confident in your clothes so you can feel the same way during the event.
If you like to combine form and function in your workwear, smart casual dress can be an excellent choice as it combines comfort with a professional, trendy appearance. In the UK, many offices now have a smart casual dress code throughout the week.
In this article, we provide a guide to smart casual attire that will help you learn more about this dress option for your next professional endeavour.
What is smart casual?
Smart casual is a professional dress option that incorporates trendy pieces into an outfit to achieve a clean yet comfortable, stylish appearance. Smart casual dress codes allow people to portray a professional image while feeling comfortable in what they wear.
A smart casual wardrobe should include versatile clothes that are comfortable. Ideally, most pieces of clothing can work with one another to form a variety of outfits for your professional life. There is a wide variety of clothing options to choose from for smart casual wear including skirts, dresses, trousers, slacks, jumpers, collared shirts, blouses, blazers and jackets, depending on the occasion. In building your looks, pair complementary colours or choose one pop of colour to brighten up a neutral base.
Smart casual wear vs business casual wear
You may hear both 'smart casual' and 'business casual' when talking about proper workplace attire. Both styles give you a professional appearance without having to wear suits or other stereotypically 'professional' clothing. The main difference is that smart casual clothing incorporates more trendy, fashionable pieces including chukkas, patterned sweaters, polos or trainers (in some cases). Dress shoes, high heels, blazers and loafers are better as business casual options.
Related: The Essential Job Search Guide
Types of smart casual outfits
Smart casual dress code spans a spectrum of formality and a variety of events. Below are two broad categories of smart casual outfits to serve as a guideline for specific situations:
In general, you should opt for the most dressed up smart casual wear in more formal situations. These formal situations include office award ceremonies and important presentations. It's better to be overdressed than underdressed, so consider a crisp button-up shirt and blazer paired with chinos and dark boots for more formal situations.
Informal interviews, which often take place at a cafe or over lunch, typically call for a smart casual outfit. When choosing smart casual clothing for an informal interview, err on the side of caution and go for a dressier look. Dressier choices include fine-gauge cardigans, wool overcoats, blouses and button-up shirts. Choose structured handbags and satchels as better smart-casual options over backpacks at an informal interview.
Many companies have a smart casual dress code in place for their daily work, particularly for jobs that aren't customer-facing, like academia and corporate work. Networking events and company training days often ask attendants to use smart casual clothing. These scenarios are less formal than interviews or meetings with company executives, and you can opt for a more relaxed look to your outfit, incorporating patterned sweaters or polos. Jeans and trainers can also work when you need a less formal look.
Smart casual clothing for men
A few essential pieces serve as the foundation for a men's smart casual wardrobe. These can be mixed and matched to create a number of distinct outfits. The ideal smart casual look includes a balanced combination of complementary formal and informal pieces, including:
- Jackets and blazers
- Shoes and accessories
When building your smart casual collection, shopping for trousers is a good place to start. If possible, every smart casual professional should invest in a quality pair of non-ripped denim jeans with straight legs and a tailored fit. Dark wash jeans are best for smart casual clothing. Jeans provide a classic look that fits into numerous environments and can be dressed up as needed.
You can also invest in chinos or casual cotton trousers in several different colours, such as navy and tan. Chinos serve as a base for any smart casual outfit and look great in many different settings. If you're going for an interview and the employer requests smart casual clothing, wear chinos over jeans to present a more professional appearance.
Examples of smart casual shirts include short- and long-sleeve button-downs, Henleys and classic T-shirts. Because T-shirts can border on merely casual, opt for classic polo T-shirts without graphics or large, complex designs. You can also incorporate jumpers by dressing them up with the right pair of pants and shoes. If you feel comfortable with colours and patterns, you might also invest in statement pieces that can be paired with solid basics.
Jackets and blazers
Jackets are a great option to help mix up your outfits, and they look great in both formal and informal settings. An unstructured, dark blazer can create a smart, professional look without being too dressy. Shop for blazers that you feel comfortable wearing both at the office and out on the town. If possible, get a tailored blazer to keep it trendy and put-together.
Shoes and accessories
Make sure you have a couple of pairs of professional shoes such as Oxfords or loafers for more formal occasions and a pair of clean leather, canvas or suede trainers for casual situations. To complete the look, opt for classic accessories such as a leather belt and a wristwatch. As a general rule, you can keep your look cohesive by matching your belt to your shoes.
Smart casual attire for women
Women have many different options when putting together a smart casual outfit. From skirts to jeans and blouses to button-downs, choose versatile pieces you can pair with several others in your wardrobe. If you're unsure about more trendy styles, opt for basics that make you feel comfortable and confident. Examples of this type of clothing include:
Pants and skirts
To begin, give yourself a foundation of slacks, chinos or jeans. These pair nicely with a structured jacket or a nice blouse. You can also incorporate skirts into your wardrobe. Opt for longer skirts or those that hit just below the knee, such as pencil skirts. Such skirts come in a variety of different fabrics. Try experimenting with denim or corduroy to pair with basic tops and jackets. Dark pants and skirts that are solid in colour or have a subtle pattern pair well with a variety of tops.
Nearly any top works well in a smart casual outfit as long as it is clean, conservative and free of holes or wrinkles. Examples of smart casual tops include sweaters, Henleys, button-downs, blouses and nice T-shirts. Be careful when mixing patterns and make sure that any graphics are appropriate for the office.
Dresses are a good option for an easy outfit on days when you don't have much time or simply want to feel professional and comfortable. For a more formal outfit, combine a dress with a pair of low heels and simple jewellery. For less formal environments, you can pair your dress with more stylish jewellery, a denim jacket and casual footwear, such as flats or open-toe shoes.
Gender-neutral smart casual wear
There are also many gender-neutral options available to any person who wants to look professional and stylish. The most important thing is that your clothes fit well and you feel comfortable wearing them.
Some of the most basic and attractive smart casual outfits can be considered gender-neutral. For example, a pair of grey slacks, a white button-up shirt and a simple black jacket with loafers look great on anyone and can be worn in nearly any professional setting.
Here are several examples of gender-neutral smart casual clothing items:
- Button-down shirts
With the right mix of casual and formal clothing, you can create the perfect smart casual wardrobe. Prepared with these guidelines, you're sure to look great at the office, in your next interview or at your upcoming networking event.