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The seemingly all-round dress code „smart casual“ was invented to relax the stiff rules of formal business attire. But unfortunately, this had not made things any easier. An attempt at clarification.

Jeroen van Rooijen

The zeitgeist has liberated men from suits and neckties – all the more so since we are currently almost all WFH. Today, leisure time casual wear (jeans, shirts, sweaters) have become the standard and for a look that is a bit more groomed, there is “smart casual”. This popular hybrid dress code comes to bear where classic office attire no longer seems to be quite fitting. It combines the useful with the pleasurable, thus serving as a middle course between business and leisurewear. And this is also precisely where the problem lies : where does this demarcation line run through and where do the slippery zones begin?

Practically everyone knows what business attire is, even those who hardly ever wear it, i.e. suit, shirt and tie, elegant shoes; or blazer and skirt or pantsuit with a blouse, pumps or ballerina flats for the ladies. Leisure time wear hardly requires any explanation, it’s simply everyday clothes that look the same for both sexes. Not everyone looks good in it, but that’s a different story.

So is smart casual a kind of “downsized” business wardrobe? Or is it more like a more sophisticated form of leisurewear? As so often in fashion, there is no actual manual to go by. If you look for definitions, you’ll find hundreds of recommendations – some contradictory. As so often, if you google too hard, you’ll end up more confused than prior to your search.

Therefore, let’s briefly take the term apart: “smart” means “clever” and refers to the laidback look of contemporary brainworkers whom you’re more likely to find in front of their laptops in coffee shops than in large office spaces. You want to appear as clever as someone who has made it to the top thanks to his or her creativity – and not because of an expensive suit. “Casual” stands for “adapted to the situation”, i.e. reserved, placid, moderate.

Thus, smart casual stands for an inconspicuous, relaxed and universal outfit that works just as well for a date as for an informal business meeting or for a job appraisal with your boss.

If you’re wearing a suit, then without a tie. And leave the top button of your shirt open. You’ll, however, be more likely to choose a combination of pants and jacket. Modern jackets are cut slim and tailored soft. In lieu of classic trousers, you could opt for chinos or dark denim – just avoid pale or destroyed versions.

With the shirts – long sleeves please! – there are fewer alternatives. T-shirts, sweatshirts and hoodies are not part of this look. Warm weather allows for polo shirts; cold weather for dark turtlenecks and possibly even a high quality cardigan – not patterned. Only wear a tie with your smart casual outfit if you are sufficiently stylish and self-assured – otherwise, you’ll risk looking insecure and undecided, which is anything but “smart”. A pocket handkerchief on the other hand, could work – provided it wasn’t folded too properly. And your shoes should have laces – which means even classy sneakers work. Possibly even loafers or moccasins in paler colors. Sandals are a no-go for business – even in the post-corona era.

Jeroen van Rooijen is a style critic and was one of the founders of the Alferano concept store.
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