What is Smart Casual? Complete Guide with Lots of Outfit Examples

What is Smart Casual? Complete Guide with Lots of Outfit Examples
The goal of smart casual is to look refined AND casual based on where you're going, rather than adhering to specific clothing pieces as in business casual. I'll show you how to make smart casual outfits and be the best dressed guy, wherever you go.

This guide was rewritten in January 2024 | Andrew, Primer's editor and founder since 2008, has established himself as an authority in men's style, speaking at conferences and providing creative consulting for national clothing brands.

In the past, someone's personal style mainly depended on their work clothes. Think about previous decades when middle managers wore suits less formal than the company's lawyers but more formal than its copywriters. You could infer a person's professional status simply by their style uniform.

Today, fashion is about a lot more than the office. We have freedom to build our own personal style and live in a world where it's possible to have a wardrobe that is equally appropriate and modifiable for a day at a graphic design firm, a dinner at a nice restaurant, 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.

What is the Smart Casual Dress Code?

Smart casual sits between casual and dressy clothing, without the defined uniform business casual has:

A GIF image depicts a man transitioning through three different dress code levels: casual, smart casual, and dress. In the casual style, he wears a gray hoodie, white t-shirt, and blue jeans with running sneakers. In the smart casual style, he changes to a knit polo shirt, brown twill pants, black cardigan sweater, and black leather boots. For the dress style, he appears in dark gray chinos with a white dress shirt, black cardigan sweater, and brown dress shoes. Each transition is a single step to the next dress level indicating how swapping a single item in an outfit can influence the overall dress level appearance.

First and foremost it's important to understand that unlike the “professional,” or “business casual,” or “black tiedress codes, for example, that specifically dictate what clothing items should be worn, smart casual is more about an approach to what to wear: Creating an overall look that feels put-together, respectful, refined, yet casual and not over-dressed.

A graphic of a chart that reads "what is smart casual" with  a line going from casual through business casual to dressed up. An offshoot arrow to smart casual says "smart casual outfits are guided more by intention rather than social convention".

What does “smart” in “smart casual” mean?

“Smart” refers simply to appearing intentional. The look is the appropriate level of dress for where you're going and has an air of sophistication while still being overall a casual outfit. Synonyms for smart casual could be “dressy casual,” or “refined casual”. At a smart casual function, everyone could be dressed differently, but they would all feel like they are dressed equally appropriately.

Smart casual is a pair of well-fitting jeans, a blazer, and desert boots:

andrew snavely wearing a navy blazer over white oxford shirt, medium wash jeans, and suede chukka boots displaying a smart casual outfit
Am I going to a creative office, a baby shower, or a date? With a good smart casual outfit, it could be any of them. Blazer, No Tie: 5 Specific Tips for Hitting the Dressy Sweet Spot in a Casual Age

Smart casual could also be a topcoat, sweatshirt, dressier pants, and white sneakers:

a man wearing a smart casual outfit of a topcoat, gray sweatshirt, black pants, and white sneakers
Simple outfits in darker or neutral colors are an easy way to start creating casual outfits that feel “dressy”.

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 but professional. 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.

daniel baraka wearing a denim jacket, blue sweater, gray pants, and a scarf in a smart casual outfit
Even the enduring denim trucker jacket can be worn in a smart casual way. Mastering Spring Layering

Smart Casual Outfit Examples

Some could confuse smart casual as anything dressier than a hoodie, 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 your environment. A smart casual outfit should feel adaptable, sharp, and ready for anything.

A man in a smart casual outfit sporting a brown bomber jacket over a denim shirt, paired with white pants that provide a sharp contrast to his brown boots.

Smart casual can even mean the right t-shirt (perhaps accompanied by a sophisticated jacket) or even the right sneakers (probably solid colored and lower profile).

a man wearing a smart casual out of a blazer, a pocket t-shirt, and dress pants
Combining dressier and more casual elements like a blazer and crisp t-shirt is the cornerstone of the smart casual dress code

Smart casual is like art: you know it when you see it. Or rather, you know it when you feel it. You'll know you nailed it when you feel like you look good but not overdressed for wherever you're going.

Take for instance this Ryan Reynolds-inspired style: The combination of subdued colors and the mixture of dressier elements (tucked-in button up shirt, chinos) with more casual items (bomber jacket, low profile brown high top sneakers) feels like you got ready on purpose, but not like you're dressed up.

a man wearing a smart casual outfit featuring blue bomber jacket, black button up shirt, chinos, and tan high top sneakers
How Any Guy Can Style High Tops and How They Alter an Outfit + 5 Looks

Using a similar color scheme but swapping the bomber for a blazer, and the high tops for suede dress shoes creates a more professionally focused, but still smart casual, aesthetic:

a man wearing a smart casual business outfit of a blazer, checkered pattern button up shirt, chino pants, and lace up dress shoes
What to Wear to a Smart Casual Office

Tricks for Making Smart Casual Outfits

Swap the jacket and shoes of a dressier outfit with more casual or rugged options:

a business casual outfit with a blazer, dress shirt, dress pants, and dress shoes with an image of andrew snavely wearing a black leather jacket and boots over a dress shirt and dress pants for a balanced smart casual look connected by an arrow indicating a before and after
Taking a more dressed up base like this dress shirt and pants and swapping the blazer and cap-toe shoes for a leather jacket and Chelsea boots makes the more casual pieces feel more refined.

Swap the shirt and shoes when wearing a suit or blazer for more casual options:

Andrew Snavely wearing a blue suit with shirt and tie on the left with an arrow pointing to him wearing the sam suit but with a black sweater and olive boots
Alternatively, swapping a dress shirt and tie for a fine knit sweater, and dress shoes for suede chukka boots, brings down the overall formality of the suit into a more smart casual appearance.

Let the pants be the dressier focal point:

man wearing henley and dress pants with white sneakers with an overlay of the same outfit but with dark jeans with an arrow pointing to the dress pants
A minimalist look that fits the smart casual bill with the tucked, fitted henley, chinos with tab closure, and crisp white sneakers. Dressing Up the Henley

Choose dressier versions of casual items and more casual versions of dressier items:

2 columns of men's clothing items, left side casual, right side dressier, with an arrow for each pointing in a specific direction to make an outfit more smart casual. suede boots are preferred over dress shoes. low profile dressy sneakers are preferred over casual chunky sneakers. dress chinos are preferred over dress pants. a gray trucker jacket is preferred over a technical jacket. a knit long sleeve polo is preferred over a striped golf polo.
When just getting started with making a smart casual outfit, it's far easier to combine dressier versions of casual items with more casual dressy items like swapping dress shoes for suede boots and a golf shirt for a knit polo.

In fact, those items make a GREAT smart casual outfit by focusing on a limited or subdued color palette:

A collage of men's fashion items, with individual clothing pieces displayed alongside an illustrated mannequin. In the top left, there's a charcoal black denim jacket. To the right, a layered look featuring the same jacket over a brown sweater and a shirt, paired with a drawn-on gray jeans and brown boots on the mannequin. Top right, a standalone brown half-zip sweater. Bottom left, a pair of light gray chinos. Bottom right, the brown suede boots that match those worn by the mannequin. The background is white with a palette of brown shades at the top.
This outfit strikes a balance between elegance and comfort. The colors are well-coordinated using a style hierarchy of dark to light, with earthy tones that complement each other, not too formal yet not too casual.

Wearing or not wearing accessories to augment formality

Update! As readers Jeff and Gary point out in the comments below, many of the outfits in this guide don't feature belts. Like forgoing a tie to create a more casual appearance, the same can be done with the strategic choice of accessories. I created mockups of these outfits with belts and recorded a screencast where I walk through my thoughts:

Smart Casual VS Other Dress Codes

Since the smart casual dress isn't defined by specific clothing items, sometimes it can be hard to fully grasp the idea. One method that can help is to visualize a smart casual outfit alongside other dress codes:

Casual Style Dress Code VS Smart Casual

Casual, of course, is your most relaxed look. It isn’t necessarily as simple as waring 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.

a photo example of a men's casual outfit featuring a shearling denim jacket, gray sweatshirt, gray jeans and sneakers.
A nice outfit but squarely in the “casual” end of the spectrum because all of the items are casual. 1 Sweatshirt, 1 Pair of Jeans, 5 Very Different Styles
a man wearing a smart casual outfit of a jacked layered over a sweater and slim fit pants and loafers
Simply swapping for a more dressed up jacket, and subbing loafers for sneakers makes the same sweatshirt and pants feel more dressed up while still remaining casual.

Business Casual Dress Code VS Smart Casual

a man wearing fashion business casual outfit with green v-neck sweater, dress shirt, grey dress pants, and chukka boots with an overcoat draped over his arm
A traditional business casual outfit
a man wearing a smart casual green field jacket with white button down shirt, grey linen pants, and brown sneakers
Smart casual: Here the white button down shirt and linen dress pants would usually be a more “dressed up” style, but by pairing them with the brown leather sneakers and lightweight olive field jacket a smart casual balance is achieved.

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.

Dressed Up, Professional, Semi-formal Dress Code VS Smart Casual

a man wearing a smart casual outfit of a suit set and striped shirt and sunglasses
Dressing down a navy linen suit with a striped t-shirt is the perfect smart casual wedding outfit.

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.

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 button-up shirt and slipped on some higher-end sneakers.

Smart Casual Style: 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, “Dang, he looks good.” With a few exceptions, like a trip to the courthouse or a wedding reception, smart casual can work in most modern situations.

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.

a man wearing a winter smart casual outfit of a topcoat over a sweater and a scarf, with pants and boots
Two Winter Outfits That Will Get You Through 90% of the Rest of the Season

FAQ: Other Smart Casual Questions

Is a polo shirt smart casual?

Generally speaking, a traditional pique polo is not smart casual. The collar and texture 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.

man wearing grey smart casual knit polo
Why the Knit Polo Will Change the Way You Dress + 11 Picks

If you want to incorporate a polo shirt into your smart casual wardrobe, choose a dressier, more refined style like the knit polo. Look for details like a more structured silhouette, finer materials (such as silk or linen), and a clean hem:

What should you wear to a smart casual wedding?

Smart casual weddings are the perfect time to inject a little bit of fun into an otherwise more traditional event. That means dressier sneakers or loafers, dressing down a suit with a t-shirt or short sleeve button up, or if it's in the summer, embracing the more colorful (and heat appropriate) Garden Casual.

Where Does the “Smart Casual” Dress Code 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.

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.

a man wearing a smart casual outfit of a sweater, blazer, jeans, and suede boots
Nailing it with neutrals: A sport coat worn with grey denim jeans and suede boots: What to Wear When You're Not Sure How Dressed Up to Be

Get More Smart Casual Inspiration from our Getup Series

Finally, 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 14 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 yor 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.

→ See our smart casual outfits in The Getup series

man wearing a camo jacket with white t-shirt, dress pants, and velvet slippers
This outfit is a masterclass in juxtaposing extreme casual and dressy elements together in a way that looks great. Style contributor Daniel Baraka pairs a vintage camo jacket with dress pants and bold velvet slippers and makes it work. The well-fitting simple white t-shirt and gray pants act as the perfect neutral base to build on.
a man wearing a scarf untied, over the neck and resting on each side of his jacket
There's no question this outfit is put-together but it is a chameleon in terms of formality: Daniel could be going to a work event or a winter coffee date. The ambiguity of the formality is the key benefit of smart casual. The Only 4 Ways to Tie a Scarf You'll Ever Need
a side by side smart casual outfit example of a man wearing a moto style jacket with denim jeans and boots, with a crew neck shirt in one image and a button up oxford shirt in the other image
A clean, minimalist leather jacket is a long-term piece that can span casual and smart casual attire.
Primer #6 outfit example of a man wearing a smart casual outfit of a denim jacket, shirt, pants, and boots
Here, the casual light wash denim jacket and black pocket t-shirt are dressed up by the slim, no-break chino pants and brown dress Chelsea boots.

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!

Andrew Snavely

Andrew founded Primer in 2008 and brings 15+ years of men's style expertise. Known for his practical, relatable approach to style and self-development, he has been a recognized speaker at conferences and has styled work for top brands. Off-duty, he loves photography & editing, and enjoys road trips with his dog, Leela. Raised in rural Pennsylvania, educated in DC, and living in LA for nearly 20 years, Andrew's diverse experiences shape the relatable and real-world advice that has helped millions through Primer. On Instagram: @andrewsnavely and @primermagazine.