The phrase “smart-casual” may sound like an oxymoron but it’s not as convoluted as you think. To be honest, most dress codes are a bit ambiguous. (Whoever came up with “resort elegant casual” clearly has too much time on their hands.) Thankfully, we’ve laid out everything you need to know about smart-casual attire—so there’s no need for panic.
What is a smart-casual dress code?
As we’ve mentioned, smart-casual is an obscure-sounding dress code. Even so, that doesn’t mean you should freak out whenever you see the words “smart-casual dress code for women” on an invitation. Put simply, smart-casual attire is stylish yet relaxed— which means you should look borderline elegant, but feel comfortable.
Smart-Casual vs Business Casual
Smart-casual isn’t exactly the same as business casual, even though the two sound similar. Sure, there are tons of outfits that could fall underneath both categories, but there are definitely differences between smart-casual dressing and business casual. For example, business casual dress is usually a bit stiff—it’s conservative (think: blazers and suit pants) whereas smart-casual attire incorporates a bit of fashion.
When should I dress in smart-casual attire?
If you’re worried about your outfit, relax and check out the invitation. Are you headed to a wedding, press event, or work function? Let the occasion and location guide you. If you’re going to a dinner thing, you could easily mix one of your faithful go-to’s (i.e. black pants) with something that’s a bit more fashion-forward (like a stylish top).
The Official Three-Step Guide to a Smart-Casual Dress Code
Step One: Build Your Outfit
A smart-casual outfit isn’t as challenging to put together as you’d think. First, figure out what bottoms you’re going to wear. (Remember, you want to create a balance of fashion and professionalism.) A nice pair of slacks, a comfy (but not homely) skirt, or even a pair of dark wash jeans will work. Think of the bottom half of your outfit as your starting point—it kind of sets the tone for the look.
Here are a few things to keep in mind as you plan:
- Bottoms don’t have to be bland. You can definitely add a pop of color in there (think: dark greens and variations of navy blue).
- Skirts should definitely be knee-length. Mini skirts are cute, but there’s a time and a place for everything. If you decide to wear a skirt to your smart-casual event, opt for something that falls to the top of your knees.
- Don’t overdo it. If your bottoms do include color, that’s fine. Just ensure that your top isn’t too flamboyant.
Once you’ve found an acceptable skirt or pair of pants, you should figure out what kind of top you’d like to wear—if your bottoms are dressier, your top should be casual. If your bottoms are casual, however, you might want to dress up the top a bit with a button-up, collared top, or dressy blouse.
Not into the whole slacks-and-blouse kind of thing? Opt for a dress. Dresses are your safest option when it comes to smart-casual dressing. Just be careful when choosing a print or fabric and the length of the dress—you don’t want to be rockin’ a zebra-print mini dress to your father’s retirement party, right?
If your dress is too professional, you can always downplay it by pairing it with casual accessories like a scarf or simple piece of jewelry. Or if you feel your look is too plain Jane, you could always amp it up with a stylish (yet, conservative) heel or earrings. When in doubt, just remember when it comes to smart-casual dressing, it’s better to come off as more dressy than casual.
Step Two: Pay Attention to Your Accessories
The hard part is pretty much over once you’ve figured out what you’re wearing clothing-wise. (I mean accessorizing is fun, right?) You can think of accessories as your outfit’s finishing touch—accessories transform your outfit into an ensemble. Statement necklaces, for example, are a great go-to if you’re trying to liven up an otherwise plain outfit. This is true for earrings, too.
Jewelry isn’t the only way to zhuzh up an outfit. Don’t be afraid to add a pop of color with a belt. Belts are an easy way to give your outfit a bit of texture without going overboard. Thin belts, for example, can make just about any dress look chic, whereas wide belts work with longer skirts.
Pro tip: Don’t forget about your shoes. After all, footwear has the power to make or break an outfit. Heels or closed-toe pumps, for example, make for a clean, put-together look. Flats are a great option, too—especially if you’re going for a more casual look. That’s not to say flats can’t be interesting or your main fashion statement, as long as your look remains balanced. On another note, avoid wearing sandals at all costs: Sandals are too casual for a smart-casual affair.
Before you run out the door, grab a purse or a scarf. But be careful, if you choose something that’s too colorful or flashy, it’ll throw off the entire smart-casual vibe you’re going for. Your handbag should be conservative but stylish. If it’s smaller, you can play with the flashiness of it, but if your bag is a bit bigger, you should stick to sleek and simple.
Step Three: Just Be Yourself
Smart-casual dressing doesn’t mean throwing your own sense of style out the window. (What’s the point of dressing up and going to a function if you can’t be yourself?) Consider sneaking in bits of your favorite color or throwing on a sweater to soften your look—you’d be surprised what a colorful cardigan can do to an otherwise muted-toned outfit.
You could also literally tailor your outfit to your figure. Sure, in most business settings pantsuits are the thing to wear. But there’s no harm in rockin’ a slimmer silhouette. (It’s a modest way to feel sexy and powerful.)
Still feeling nervous? Here are a few examples of occasion-specific, smart-casual attire.
Smart-Casual Dinner Attire
Smart-Casual Wedding Attire
Smart-Casual Office Wear
Smart-Casual Day Events