Words by Alex Freeling
Despite being a continual source of confusion, the idea of smart casual has stuck around because it’s a good one. Neither strictly business or beachwear, the best in-between wardrobe is versatile, elegant, and easy to mix and match. It can take you from informal meetings to drinks and dinner, from a morning stroll to an evening flight. In short, it gives you all the joys of dressing well without finicky details or high-maintenance garments.
The trouble is that smart casual is easily misunderstood from either direction. If you try to approach it by adding a few formal items to a casual wardrobe, it’s difficult to avoid a jarring mismatch. Examples include the much-maligned combination of a suit jacket, open-necked shirt and jeans: not impossible to pull off, but nine times out of ten it will look like you spilled pasta on your trousers and didn’t have time to get them cleaned.
Approached from the other angle—taking the business uniform and making it casual—leads to the opposite problem, exemplified by “fun” socks and ties. This isn’t casual so much as awkwardly jokey, like a salesman on a first date. Or else, like formal shirts and chunky cufflinks clattering on the table at brunch, it says: I’d rather be at the office.
The trick is to start from the middle and work outwards, rather than trying to combine opposites. Choose high-quality variations on common items. There are no ironclad rules, but generally avoid the ultrafine wools of business suiting and the slippery synthetics of sportswear. Focus on the texture, shape and lustre of things. The best examples are suede chukkas, brushed wool trousers for winter and gauzy linen for summer, densely textured knitwear, unwashed denim, corduroy trousers and overshirts, Oxford cloth button-downs, crunchy silk knit ties, and all sorts of loafers. While not refined enough for the most formal of occasions, these things fit perfectly with soft Italian tailoring in washed cotton and dense wool flannel, as well as suede and leather bombers, safari jackets, and classic rainwear. The most useful colours remain navy, grey, olive, and white, but they are instantly elevated by dashes of gold, light blue, burgundy or pink.
If you want to make more of a statement, these sharp yet unfussy essentials are also the ideal canvas for more unusual items, selected according to your personal taste. It’s a question of trying things on and seeing what makes you grin. Possibilities include baseball caps, silk scarves, knitted polos, densely textured cardigans, old waxed jackets, and crisp leather or suede sneakers.
At its best, the smart causal wardrobe gives the same attention to fit and craft as good tailoring but allows for a bit more room for movement, literally and metaphorically. It’s comfortable without being shapeless, sharp without being fussy. Smart casual is where the full range of textiles in menswear can really shine, bringing extra interest in texture and even tactility. Most simply, smart casual done well expresses all the right things. It’s easy without being careless. It projects enjoyment, confidence and warmth.