What is Smart Casual? Primer’s Complete Guide

What is Smart Casual? Primer’s Complete Guide
The single best fashion tip for dressing better: how to incorporate smart casual outfits and elements into your wardrobe so that you’re the best dressed guy – wherever you go.

There was a time when the bulk of a man’s style was dictated by what he wore to work. The next time you watch an episode of Mad Men, look at how the advertising executives wear suits that are just a little more casual than lawyers and accountants they deal with, but a bit less casual than what the copywriters and artists wear. You can tell what every man does for a living simply by their style.

Today, men’s fashion is about a lot more than the office. Men have freedom to build their own personal style. We now live in a world where it is possible to have a wardrobe that is equally appropriate for a day at the graphic design firm, a night of cocktails, or an evening at the theater.

If you’re free to create your own look, why not create a wardrobe that can work in almost any situation? This desire to create a sharp, versatile wardrobe has given rise to smart casual.

Where Does “Smart Casual” Come From?

The first known usage of the phrase “smart casual” was in 1924. The writer was describing a “sleeveless dress with three-quarter overblouses, in smock appearance completing it for streetwear.” The women’s look, somewhere between flapper chic and office modesty, was conceptually similar to what we consider smart casual today.

In the 1950s, you started to see the term used in menswear. At that time, the term was simply used to describe a suit that was more casual than what you would wear to the office. Even though the look was different, the concept was the same. A smart casual suit was something a man could wear in almost any situation and feel good.

men smart casual outfit style sweater chinos boots

Smart casual as we know it today first emerged in the 1980s. Shifting standards of formality and the rise of informal workplace attire blurred the line between work wear and street style. It was now possible to create a look that was entirely personal and extremely versatile.

The modern version of smart casual was born.

What is Smart Casual?

First, examples of what it’s not.

Before we can define smart casual, we need to talk about how the term emerged. Despite ever-changing men’s style standards, we can define three broad types of men’s style that have dominated the fashion conversation for decades. These categories grew out of the initial relaxing of the precise Victorian sensibilities about how men ought to dress and evolved through the twentieth century.

Dressed Up

This is the clothing you wear on special occasions or if you have a career that still requires a daily suit. When you are “dressed up,” you are matching your attire to specific standards, locations, and conventions. We all know how you dress for a job interview, a wedding, an anniversary, or a funeral. Each of these events comes with social expectations, and we have a shared style language around these important occasions.

Business Casual Style

Though some workplaces have moved to a more relaxed environment, many offices still have a business casual dress code. Business casual probably doesn’t mean a suit; touches of formality like blazers, khaki pants or suit pants, a button-down shirt or polo, and dress shoes are hallmarks of the classic business casual look.

Casual Style

gray t shirt black selvedge jeans brown iron ranger boots

Casual, of course, is your most relaxed look. It isn’t necessarily as simple as wearing whatever you want. If you receive an invitation that reads “casual attire,” you probably shouldn’t show up in gym clothes. For our purposes, “casual” means no pretense of formality.

smart casual fashion defined

Smart Casual: Defined

Smart casual is a pair of dark, slim jeans, a blazer, and desert boots. Smart casual is also chinos, a patterned shirt, and a bomber jacket.

Done right, a smart casual look can work in “casual,” “business casual,” and even some “dressed up” environments while still standing out from the crowd. At a casual bar night, you’ll look sharp. In a low-key business meeting, you’ll look bold. No matter where you go, you’ll have the confident look to impress.

These days, almost everything you do in life doesn’t have clearly defined style expectations. Treat this as an opportunity. You have a chance to plant a flag with your fashion intentions.

What does a smart casual outfit look like?

Some say smart casual is anything dressier than a sweatsuit, but less formal than a business suit. That doesn’t give us much to work with. You could also get hyper-specific, checking off a box to create your smart casual outfit: a blazer, dress shirt, neat jeans and brown loafers. Looking at it that way is far too confining.

It’s better not to look at smart casual as a set of rules or a list of particular items. Your intention is to look great in any environment. A smart casual outfit should feel versatile, sharp, and ready for anything.

Smart casual can even mean the right t-shirt (perhaps accompanied by a blazer) or even the right sneakers (probably solid colored and higher-end). A pressed t-shirt or a crisp pair of jeans can fit the bill just as well as a tailored blazer.

Smart casual is like art: you know it when you see it. Or rather, you know it when you feel it.

Examples of Smart Casual Outfits

Smart Casual: A Feeling

This room for creativity is what makes smart casual so great. Rather than defining smart casual by specific items, think of smart casual as a feeling.

What is that feeling?

When you’ve done smart casual right, you should feel like you can walk into any room and have people think, “Damn, he looks good.” With a few exceptions, like a trip to the courthouse or a wedding reception, smart casual will work in any situation.

The best advice we can give for perfecting a smart casual look is allowing space for experimentation. If you’re feeling too dressy, a lighter color jacket or simple switch to a more casual shoe might do that trick. If you look in the mirror and feel like the look is too casual, swap out your bomber for a blazer or your jeans for some slim wool trousers.

At the end of the day, smart casual is about empowering yourself with your best look.

How To Dress Smart Casual: The Getup

For more advice on how to build a smart casual look, check out Primer’s long-running outfit inspiration series, The Getup. We’ve been running the series for years, as we attempt to offer great looks for a variety of occasions and seasons. Whether you’re trying to dress for a smart casual office, prepare for a “spring weekend adventure,” or your just want to find your “smart summer casual” look, we’ve got you covered. With the Getup, we won’t just tell you about a look, we’ll tell you how to make that look your own.

man wearing light denim jacket, white t-shirt, blue chinos and white sneakers sitting on a stool

example of smart casual outfit with sweatshirt, striped tshirt, and chinos

minimalist smart casual example with crewneck sweater, gray pants, and sneakers

Men's outfit example with denim jacket, black t-shirt, green chinos, and chelsea boots

men's smart casual outfit example with topcoat, gray sweatshirt, black pants, and white sneakers

Smart Casual FAQ

Can you wear jeans in smart casual?

Yes, as long as they skew more smart than casual. This primarily means a slim or tapered silhouettes and typically means darker rinses (although lighter hues can work in warmer weather) without any rips, patches, elaborate logos/stitching, or frayed areas (deliberate or unintentional). The right jeans will pair well with a collared shirt and blazer, or even a fine-knit sweater.

What is the difference between casual and smart casual?

Casual is laid-back and comfortable. Casual can still be stylish and intentional, but it lacks any nod to or need for formality. This typically means more relaxed/unstructured silhouettes, like T-shirts, henleys, baseball tees, and slightly more relaxed-fit jeans. Maybe even jogger sweatpants if you’re really dressing down.

Smart casual can still be comfortable, but there’s an added layer of attention and *intention*. You’re thinking of smaller details and adding layers. Maybe you’re still in jeans, but you’ve chosen a fitted T-shirt made from a finer cotton without any graphics on it.  Or you’ve swapped out the tee for a short sleeve button-up shirt and slipped on some higher-end sneakers. Speaking of…

Can you wear sneakers for smart casual?

Yes! However, they have to be dressier–think classic or minimalist styles that you’ve kept looking fresh and new. If they’re worn-down or grimy, they’re just casual, not smart.

Is a polo shirt smart casual?

Generally speaking, a traditional pique polo is not smart casual. The collar gives it a whiff of business casual formality, but evaluate the way you would a T-shirt to determine if your favorite polo is “put-together” or “informal”. Pique polos are generally a little looser, with a robust weave and an uneven–or ‘tennis tail”–hem, stylistic nods to the shirt’s sporting roots.

If you want to incorporate a polo shirt into your smart casual wardrobe, choose a dressier, more refined style. Look for details like a more structured silhouette, finer materials (such as silk or linen), and a clean hem. And never, ever, for the love of tiny baby ducklings, pop the collar.

Get Smart

We’ve told you what smart casual is, we’ve given you advice on how to build your smart casual look, and we’ve showed you where you can find style inspiration. Now it’s time to figure out what smart casual looks like for you.

It’s time to to build that sharp look that can work no matter where life might take you.

Keep the guide going, share your favorite smart casual outfits in the comments!

Brenden Gallagher

Brenden Gallagher is a freelance writer covering style, politics, television, and film at various outlets including The Daily Dot, High Snobiety, Grailed, and Primer. Based in Los Angeles, he works in television drama as a writers' assistant.