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.

Heroes of Smart Casual

Thankfully, you don’t have to do this alone. There are number of notable men who have already perfected smart casual in their own way. Their looks can help inspire you on your quest to put your personal twist on smart casual.

Ryan Reynolds

Ryan Reynolds Smart Casual

The Deadpool star always looks sharp. He does a nice job of incorporating more casual pieces like bomber jackets, henleys, and sneakers into an elevated look.

Ryan Gosling

Gosling gets a lot of attention for his daring red carpet looks, but he has also perfected his smart casual look with button-down shirts with short sleeves or rolled sleeves.

Donald Glover

Glover likes a daring look. He favors bold patterns, 70s style shirts with big lapels, and contrasting pants. He’s on the edgier end of smart casual and offers a lot of inspiration for those who want to go bold.

Jeff Goldblum

Even though he is an older man, Goldblum has an element of whimsy and daring in his smart casual look that younger men could learn something from. He really puts himself out there in a way that you wouldn’t expect.

Rami Malek

Malek makes interesting fashion choices, incorporating floral patterns or striped t-shirts into his smart casual looks. He is a master of maintaining a nice, clean look with unique pieces.

Idris Elba

Elba likes to combine more formal elements like ties, blazers, and vests with more casual items like light wash jeans and sneakers.

idris elba smart casual

idris elba style

David Beckham

david beckham smart casual

If you’re looking for a more conservative style with lots of black, brown, and navy, yet you want to have a fashion-forward look, Beckham has one of the best styles while shying away from too many risky or bold fashion moves.

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.

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 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.

  • Zac Silk

    For smart casual I usually stick to oxford shirts, knit ties and depending on the season loafers or brogues. That normally gives me a good grounding. Then off of that, I’ll add in an overcoat or a blazer with a merino sweater.

    I can see how smart casual for themost pet is still a minefield. But with a little experimentation with colour and pattern, can make your look a lot more interesting.

    • http://www.primermagazine.com/ Andrew

      Absolutely, couldn’t agree more. I think you nail smart casual. 🙂

  • MP

    What’s the charcoal sweater Andrew’s wearing in the 2nd pic from the top? Looks like a great Fall piece

  • Honest

    Smart casual doesn’t look very smart to me. More like dorky as hell.

  • TheMB

    I don’t get it. The examples from the “heroes” section are in my humble opinion just casual outfits. Most are very well put together indeed, but same goes for the examples from the “casual” section. Can’t really see this as a whole new category.

    • http://www.primermagazine.com/ Andrew

      That’s likely because you have a solid sense of style, so your definition of ‘casual’ is more put-together than others. Think about an average guy and what he would put on if you said to wear something casual – It’s not what’s in this article.

  • Ross

    Andrew and Brenden,

    I have a very minimalist and basic wardrobe. Multiples of the same pieces in mostly solid neutral or subtle colors, (I’m a little OCD). One thing that I struggle with however is the perfect shade of dark denim. I am still a big dark blue guy (Can’t quite transition into black just yet) but I purchase several pairs of a Dark blue (almost black wash) and always seem to fall out of love with them (Recently I’m trying to decide if I can lean on the Rigid Envy wash from Levi’s or the Revolution Rinse from Fidelity Denim. Is there anything from JBrand, DSTLD, or Mott and Bow you think would be a better fit for what I’m looking for?) I usually like consistent dark washes that don’t take on a bright obnoxious blue tone or fade quickly so Raw or selvedge jeans seem to be out as an option. I guess I’m just wondering if I’m the only one that deals with this problem or if you might have a suggestion or two on some jeans that are still ‘dark blue’ but will keep a subtle almost black undertone throughout the day? Also could you weigh in on if Rigid Envy by Levi’s is a good fit for what I am hoping to find? Please help settle my crazy might and get me off of the dark denim roller coaster.

    Thanks!

  • Robishea

    Fun fact: 3 of the 7 smart casual style “heroes” in this article are styled by the same person–Ilaria Urbinati (Ryan Reynolds, Donald, and Rami), so their appearance together here makes sense. Ilaria (a woman, coincidentally) also styles Bradley Cooper, Dwayne Johnson, and many others. She would be the first person to say that each of her clients has their own sense of style, she just helps them to realize and expand their vision, but “smart casual” definitely seems to be something she and they are able to do very well. If you are interested to learn more, Jeremy Kirkland has a great interview with her on his Blamo! podcast (highly recommended).