How does smart casual work?

The supposed all-round dress code smart casual was invented to relax the rigid rules of business attire. But unfortunately it hasn't gotten any easier. A little clarification of terms.

By Jeroen van Rooijen

The zeitgeist has freed men from suits and ties – especially since they are increasingly working from home. People now wear leisure wear as standard (jeans, shirts, pullovers) and if they want something a little smarter, they go for “smart casual”. The popular hybrid dress code is used where the classic office outfit does not seem quite appropriate. It combines useful with pleasant, suggesting a middle ground between business and leisure wear. And that's exactly where the dog lies buried, because: Where exactly does this middle ground run, and where does its slippery edge zones begin?

Almost everyone knows what business clothing is, even if they wear something else themselves: a suit, shirt and tie, plus elegant lace-up shoes or a skirt suit or trouser suit with a blouse and pumps or ballerinas for women. What casual clothing is hardly ever needs to be explained - it is simple everyday clothing that looks the same for both sexes. Not everyone looks good in it, but that's another chapter.

So is smart casual a kind of "diluted" business wardrobe? Or is it more about refined casual wear? As is usually the case in fashion, there is no manual for this. If you are looking for explanations of terms, you will come across hundreds of recommendations, some of which contradict each other. As is so often the case, those who google too much end up more confused than before the search.

Let us therefore briefly recapitulate the building blocks of the term. "Smart" means "clever" and refers to the casual look of contemporary brain workers, who sit in front of their laptops in cafés instead of in open-plan offices. You want to appear as clever as someone who gets to the top thanks to their ideas, not because of their expensive suit. And the term “casual” means “adapted to the situation”. So reserved, calm and moderate.

If smart casual is required, you wear an unobtrusive, relaxed universal outfit. It works equally well for a date, for an informal business meeting as for a promotion interview with the boss.

If you wear a suit, you leave off the tie and leave the top button of the collar undone. However, the combination of pants and jacket is more common than a suit. The contemporary jacket is cut quite narrow and processed soft. Instead of classic trousers, chinos or dark jeans can also be worn - without abrasion or destroyed washes.

On the other hand, there are few alternatives to the shirt (with long sleeves). A t-shirt is just as unsmart as a sweatshirt or hoodie. On summer days, however, a polo shirt can be considered, in winter also a dark turtleneck, or at most a high-quality, non-patterned cardigan. And please: Only wear a tie with Smart Casual if you are stylish and sure-footed, otherwise you will look hesitant and undecided, just not “smart”. A handkerchief can work against this – but please do not fold it up too neatly. And the shoes should be laced, but elegant sneakers, loafers and moccasins in lighter colors are also conceivable. However, even in year one of the post-corona era, flip-flops and sandals are still not suitable for business.

Jeroen van Rooijen is a freelance style critic and co-founder of the Alferano concept store in 2014.