Smart VS Business Casual: Which One is Right for You?

Smart VS Business Casual: Which One is Right for You?

By Paulo Vallejo

As the culture in corporate America changes so does the dress codes of its members.  Although suits are making a comeback, the majority of today's workforce lean towards the business casual attire in the workplace. However, depending on industry and personal style, the definition of business casual becomes very hazy. So much so, that it begins to tarnish not only the professional image of the individual but also that of the company they work for.

In industries such as technology, business casual can range from a pair of chino pants, an oxford shirt, and lace up leather shoes to a pair of khaki cargo shorts, a ring tee, and sneakers. Because of the wide “in between” some companies have started implementing dress codes to present a consistent corporate brand, but also to maintain a level of consistency in what people wear in the workplace. As they do this, two terms that are interchanged are smart casual and business casual. The looming questions are:

  • “So what is the difference?”
  • “Can either of them be worn at my place of work?”
  • “What do I need to create either looks?”, a premier online job search engine, defines business casual as “dressing professionally, looking relaxed yet neat and pulled together.”  The key words here are professional, neat, and pulled together. Good judgment will tell you that shorts, a tee, and runners don't associate with any of these adjectives.

Generally speaking, if you are working in a business casual environment some of the more accepted combinations are:

  • Dress shirt, dress cotton/wool trousers, dress or casual belt, loafers or laceup leather wingtips
  • Polo shirt, a pair of flat front chinos, dress/casual belt, slip on leather shoes
  • V-neck sweater, white round neck under shirt, straight leg jeans, laceup leather dress boots


Business Casual looks from Banana Republic. All pieces are available on

“But I got an invite to go to a work event tonight, and the dress code is SMART CASUAL. What's that? Can I wear that to work as well?”  The elements that separate the business casual from the smart casual attire are usually the shoes and the blazer/jacket that one wears. I would define smart casual simply as “looking professional yet informal.”  The relaxed look of business casual can easily be amplified to smart casual with a fitted blazer. For a more modern twist, roll up your sleeves and put on a suit vest to create a very chic, professional, creative and comfortable look.

Smart casual at work is widely accepted now days as we see workforces catering to a younger generation. Denim is being seen in more offices than it was even 5 years ago. Suit separates are becoming more prominent in designer lines, primarily to cater to the smart casual crowd. So yes, it can definitely be worn at work and after work.  The key is to create a look that balances professionalism and social adeptness. Some smart casual looks that also work in a professional environment are:

  • Fitted suit blazer, slim-cut dress shirt, denim jeans (no rips please), dress belt, suede lace up shoes.
  • Military inspired jacket, silk-cashmere turtle neck, light colored denim jeans, casual belt, leather wingtips.
  • Tweed jacket, colored polo shirt, gray chinos, rope leather belt, loafers


Smart Casual looks from JCREW. All pieces currently available on

There are 5 key pieces to have in your wardrobe to allow for easy transition between the two attire categories.

  • A fitted blazer in navy or black: These colors tend to work with any ensemble. If you dare, add a bit of pinstripe or herringbone to your wardrobe.
  • A slim-fitting dress shirt: Dress shirts can easily be made to look casual with rolled up sleeves.
  • A pair of straight/boot leg denim jeans without any excessive detailing: Remember that you are in a professional setting, so excessive stitching on pockets, rivets all over the place, rips and baggy cut jeans are not cool.
  • A pair of well pressed, flat front chinos: Chinos are a great alternative to jeans. They can be easily dressed down or dressed up.
  • Leather lace ups:  A boot or a dress shoe works well in both professional and social gatherings.

Remember that you are your own brand. So what you wear to work and events outside of work tells your story to others. Understanding the subtle differences between smart and business casual could be the winning factor for getting a job or landing a hot date.  Words of advice: Know your work/social environment. Understand your personal style. Use good judgment.

Paulo Vallejo is a Vancouver-based STYLE ARTIST who is a true master of his craft. His knowledge of fashion is driven by his personal style and creativity. His work graces various print media in fashion and advertising. He’s also a freelance writer who pens on topics around personal style and the latest fashion trends across the globe. He also works privately with individuals to define their image, create their unique style, and shop for the right pieces to complement their existing wardrobe. He can be found on Follow him on Twitter @istyleu.