Of all the dress codes out there smart-casual is the vaguest and the most variable, and, in this sense, it can be quite difficult to get right. Basically, it requires you to don something that bridges the gap between relaxed, comfortable ‘every-wear,’ and clothes that are a little dressier and more formal. However, invariably, putting together an appropriate ensemble turns out to be more complex than this: there are always other factors to consider – venue, time of day, season, occasion …. To help you to navigate this minefield and dress appropriately, I’ve put together this list of 7 tips for a smart-casual outfit.
1. Understand the Term
It is useful to understand that the term ‘smart-casual’ denotes quite a strict system of rules: in other words, it doesn’t mean throw on anything your feel might be appropriate. The look should be well put together and polished, but not quite dressy enough to be formal. In order to strike this balance successfully, it’s a good idea to follow a few basic guidelines: no midriff shirts, for example, and, by the same token, no tiaras.
2. Consider the Occasion
As I’ve pointed out, smart-casual is not a fixed concept. It incorporates gradations of formal and informal, and these are often linked to the occasion to which the event is dedicated. If, for example, you are attending a smallish dinner party with friends, and the dress code is smart casual, you’ll probably be able to get away with a formal denim, heels and a shirt and tailored blazer. If you are headed to wedding reception, however, you would be well-advised to ditch the denim and replace it with something a little dressier.
3. Pick the Right Dress
A dress is a great way to go for a smart-casual event, but it is important that you pick the right one. Sundresses are a real no-no – they’re way to informal – and cocktail frocks and evening gowns are also, obviously, out as well. Your smart casual dress should walk the line between these two extremes: often, an effective way to manage this is to pick something simple, classic and well-made in a versatile fabric (like linen) and then style it up to the right level with appropriate shoes and accessories.
The best way to pick out the correct shoes for a smart casual do is to remember what is not acceptable. Basically, you want to avoid very informal footwear: this means nothing that belongs on the sports field or that was designed to help you to walk up a mountain. In addition, you want to stay away from tatty thonged sandals and, indeed, anything scuffed or broken. Your choice should be in good condition and should complement your outfit: heeled pumps and sandals, ballet flats and dressy gladiators are all good options.
As we’ve established, you can wear jeans to a smart-casual event, but they should be appropriately stylish and in good shape. You don’t want to put yourself in your oldest, shabbiest denims: instead, go for a darker colour and pair these with some fab heels to ensure your look isn’t too casual. Alternatively, you might opt for a tailored linen trouser – wide legs are red hot this season – or a stylish cropped pair of cigarette pants. Basically, you want to avoid things like sweats and scruffy cut-offs, but otherwise, you’ve got a lot of room to play around.
6. The T Shirt Issue
Technically, you are supposed to avoid t shirts and spaghetti strapped tank tops when dressing for a smart-casual event. These items fall too far on the ‘casual’ side of the fence, and will, experts suggest, lower the tone of your outfit. However, there is some room for manoeuvre here: while an oversized men’s t-shirt and leggings is clearly not a dressy enough outfit, a chic embellished tee paired with beautifully cut denims, heels and a cute tailored blazer makes for a great smart-casual look.
Smart casual is all about looking well put together and accessories play a major role in hitting the right note. Don’t weight yourself down in jewellery, but do choose pieces carefully so they co-ordinate and complement your outfit.
You can totally dress casual and smart looking with a pair of jeans. The trick is choosing the right pair of jeans. Fashion experts suggest straight cut jeans in dark colors. A great dark wash jean is perfect, but black or charcoal are also ideal. Pair your jeans with a smart, casual blouse and you're set for just about any occasion.
If you're more a skirt girl than a dress girl, you can still rock a smart, casual look. Avoid tight pencil style skirts, which are more suited for a day at the office. Instead, choose something that is a bit loose and flowy. You want to be sure your skirt hits just at or slightly below your knees so that you don't run the risk of going too short. Combined with a nice blouse and a great pair of flats, you have an outfit meant for a causal day out.
10. Grab a Jacket
If the weather is cool or might get that way, make sure you have a cool jacket to complete your look. Experts recommend a cute leather or denim jacket because they can complement many outfits, so you don't have to fill your closet with jackets that only go with one outfit. Choose a jacket that is slightly fitted and not too long or short.
Scarves are trending pretty big right now, so you can throw one on with loads of outfits and still look smart and casual. Choose a scarf that isn't hanging to your knees, but is long enough to wrap. Infinity scarves are especially great looking. Look for a scarf that coordinates with your outfit in pattern and color to prevent the risk of looking gaudy and mismatched.
Clearly, you aren't going to leave the house without your bag. You'll need a place to keep your wallet, cell phone and other essentials. The bag you choose can make of break your outfit so make your choice carefully. A small clutch style bag is generally a great pick. You want to stay away from huge tote bags and backpacks, which can make you look too casual and maybe a bit slouchy too.
If you're going for a smart, casual look, it's not the time to try that fancy new updo you found on Pinterest. A casual hair style is going to enhance your outfit even more and won't take as much time to get done. Great choices include a ponytail, side braid or a half-up, half-down look. On the other hand, you don't want something too casual like a messy topknot that you'd wear to the gym.
Dressing smart-casual is not quite as straight forward as it initially might appear. Success means striking the perfect balance between dressy and relaxed, and that can be difficult to manage, especially since there is not one fixed set of rules determining the dress code for all occasions. Hopefully, this list of 7 tips for a smart-casual outfit will help to get you on the right track with your wardrobe: do you have any expert suggestions of your own to add to it?
This article written in collaboration with editor, Eliza Martinez
Top Photo Credit: _megan_