Picture this: you’re invited to a relaxed, low-key wedding. You’re excited to celebrate the nuptials until you scan the invitation and see two terrifying words. Smart. Casual.
Smart casual seems like an easy dress code until you walk into your wardrobe and realise that actually, you have no idea what it means. Smart is like businesswear, right? Casual is like… what we’d wear to the beach. How do these two blend together?
Don’t even get us started on the divided opinions on whether denim counts in smart casual. Can you wear jeans? What kind of jeans? How many questions can we ask before we implode with stress?
We’re going to finally, once and for all, determine what smart casual is – and give you a few ideas on how to dress the part. We enlisted the help of Ellen Stone, creative lead and designer for Australian label, DISSH. As the brains behind some of the brand's best smart casual pieces, we figured she knows what's up with the dress code.
When in doubt, go with soft tailoring
Pant suits are everywhere right now, and if you’re in the market for a new outfit that will get you through a myriad of social events, investing in one will never lead to disappointment.
“For me smart casual is all about effortless, softly tailored silhouettes,” says Stone. “You’ll stay comfortable while also feeling chic and fashionable.”
Look for materials like Tencel, silk and linen for a more relaxed finish, as opposed to traditional stiff suiting materials.
Not so into the blazer-and-pants look? Wide-leg suit pants still pass the smart casual test when paired with a luxe tee (materials like cashmere or brushed cotton with a classic cut are best) or a silk shirt will also see you through any smart casual event. Alternatively, boxy vests are everywhere right now, and are a really great choice for summer events.
Hair and accessories are key
If you’re being thrifty, there is an easy way to elevate a casual outfit to make it smart casual-appropriate. It’s called the slick bun. “Adding small thoughtful details can make a huge impact. I find luxe gold jewels and a slick bun offer an instant lift,” says Stone.
Pick up some cheap hair gel, wet your hair so it’s damp and brush it back into a low pony. Make sure it’s smooth before twisting it into a tight, low bun. Got short or coily hair? Claw clips making their 00s return has been the best thing to happen for hair that hates buns. Twist up and clip – easy.
When picking jewellery for smart casual dress codes, stick to delicate styles if your outfit is leaning more towards the “smart” side of things (eg. a suit). If you’re wearing a more casual fit though, statement pieces can really give it a lift.
Footwear can make or break a smart casual fit
If you’ve opted for a dressier outfit, like a silk slip or a suit, wearing heels may cause your look to fall into the cocktail or formal categories. Instead, opt for sandals – they’re like the slightly fancier sister to sneakers, which can appear too casual for event dressing.
“Our current team go-to to elevate an outfit is chunky sandals. You’ll often find a few of the girls in the office wearing a pair for an effortlessly stylish finish,” says Stone. Look for a leather, strappy style that you wouldn’t wear to the beach, but would wear on the weekend.
Can denim be smart casual?
This is a tricky one! Denim and smart casual dress codes can be partners in crime, but it really depends on the event.
For weddings, it’s a flat-out no unless specified clearly on the invite. For example, even if your friends are getting married at the pub, if the dress code on the invite is still ‘smart casual’, it’s safer to assume that means no denim.
However, for the office or a party that’s being held somewhere low key, denim can work when done right. Avoid any form of distressed denim – that means no rips or rough edges. It’s also best to avoid denim that’s been aged or faded to look worn in. Instead, opt for clean washes and, ideally, dark denim – although we feel light denim can work when styled right.
The best way to incorporate denim is to keep everything else elevated – team with a silk shirt and blazer, or a camisole and suit vest. In winter, black or tonal turtleneck sweaters can work if you pair them with some fine gold jewellery and heels.
Basically, the rule is to team denim with very ‘smart’ pieces so the overall look feels more polished, because denim will always dress other items down. You can’t really overdress denim!
Can shorts be smart casual?
Yes! But there are rules.
Shorts should always be tailored, first and foremost. You want to be playing in the 80s/90s space of workwear shorts – styles that are boxy, oversized and land between the knees and the mid-thigh. No shorter or the look will just feel too casual, unfortunately.
Play it safe and pick shorts that can be bought with a matching blazer or vest – again, this taps into the classic 80s/90s silhouette – and just like with denim, keep everything else dressy to avoid the look feeling too casual.
For a wedding or event where ‘smart casual’ could lean a little more toward smart than casual, shorts are a maybe. If it’s a beach wedding, you’re probably safe. If it’s more indoors or in a formal space, opt for pants.
Why maxi dresses are your best friend
The easiest outfit to turn into a smart casual look without spending heaps of cash is a maxi dress. You may already have a few, and with the right chunky sandal and some accessories, you’ll easily fit into any smart casual dress code.
If you wear a more elevated material like silk, satin or crepe, team with more casual footwear and wear your hair loose or clipped back in curls or waves. If your dress is a more casual material like cotton or linen, opt for heels and an updo. See? So easy.