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I'm about to start a new job and when I asked about the dress code, I was told it was 'smart-casual'. I've been to smart-casual weddings, where everyone wore blazers and ties, and smart-casual parties, where people were in jeans and jumpers. So what does 'smart-casual' actually mean?
The issue with 'smart-casual' as a dress code isn't its vagueness, but the fact that it's used by everyone to mean anything. Unpack those two words and it's actually quite precise – the smart versions of your casual clothes. In other words, not a suit, but also not a tracksuit. It's dark jeans, but not if they're full of holes. It's brogues or Derbys rather than high-shine Oxfords, or a pair of minimalist white trainers, instead of anything with logos and neon panels.
The real trick to smart-casual isn't getting the right individual pieces, though. Your entire outfit needs to balance smart and casual elements, without too much contrast. For example, jeans and a blazer is good, but you'll probably want to lose the tie and consider a button-down or granddad-collar shirt, rather than anything too stiff.
Context, though, is the most important thing. Guys struggle with smart-casual because they think it means one look. It's better to think of it as an attitude. You can take a smart-casual approach to a wedding outfit, which means a more casual spin on a formal occasion (blazer and chinos rather than a suit; knitted tie rather than something silk; brogues over shiny Oxfords). Equally, a smart-casual barbecue is about stepping things up slightly (deck shoes instead of trainers; cuffed but smart jeans; a tee with a cardigan, rather than a hoodie).
A new job is a tricky one, because you often don't have that context. But if in doubt, dress upwards – it's easy to take a blazer off if you realise everyone else is in sweatshirts, but you can never make a very casual look feel smart. Chinos, an unstructured blazer and a polo shirt is a failsafe combo that's neither scruffy nor stuffy, and also works broken up, especially if you stow a knitted jumper in your bag. As for footwear, start the week in brogues and check what everyone else is wearing. You can always switch to trainers for your second day.
Words: Tom Banham
Illustration: Paul Layzell