Casual chic, black-tie optional, resort dressy, dress to impress – sometimes it seems like there are more dress code types than there are letters in the alphabet. If only they had been covered in high school, along with the different types of cells and parts of speech. Alas, women are on their own to figure it out. Luckily, the pieces that are suitable for a smart casual outfit are probably already in your closet.
What Does Smart Casual Mean?
Smart casual is a dress code typically associated with professional work environments. Aiming for a smart casual ensemble is appropriate for certain offices, meetings and interviews. It's basically the step between business casual (think khakis and button-downs) and business dress (suits).
Like most dress codes, "smart casual" is a phrase that's used differently in different places. In one office, smart casual may basically just mean no denim. In another office, suits could be considered smart casual. When starting out in a workplace where smart casual is the standard, it's useful to ask a boss or HR staffer for specific guidance.
Creating a Smart Casual Outfit
Generally, smart casual outfits are made up of khakis, dress pants or skirts as bottoms, and blouses, cardigans, sweaters and blazers as tops. A dress, either on its own or topped with a jacket or sweater, might also fall into the smart casual category. The outfit doesn't have to be stuffy, though. Wear black-and-white striped pants with a bright-colored blouse, or don a flared dress with an allover pattern.
Still unclear? Think about what you would wear to holiday religious services, to dinner at an upscale steakhouse or to any gathering where a cocktail dress would be overkill but jeans would be too casual. When in doubt, wear black pants or a knee-length skirt topped with a silky blouse and a cardigan or blazer.
Polishing a Smart Casual Ensemble
An outfit that qualifies as business casual can easily be upgraded into smart casual territory. One of the key features of smart casual attire is that it's neat and "done." If the weather allows, wearing a blazer is a perfect way to elevate an outfit from business casual to smart casual.
Wear heels if possible, or stick to streamlined booties or even neat ballet flats. Shoes should be free of scuffs. Complete a smart casual outfit with understated jewelry, a neat hairstyle (no elastic-banded ponytails) and just enough makeup to look like an alert, polished version of yourself.
Clothing That Isn't Smart Casual
If you'd wear it to the beach, it's not smart casual. Avoid light-wash denim or jeans with holes or any trendy features. Skirts should hit at the knee or no more than a few inches higher. Flip-flops, gym clothes, sneakers, hooded tops and clothing with cutouts are all inappropriate for smart casual settings. Sleeveless tops may or may not be appropriate, depending on the climate and setting.
Tops that intentionally display cleavage are off-limits too, at least for daytime or professional events. The rules are a little more relaxed for weddings and other social events with a smart casual dress code.
Kathryn Walsh has been writing about health, wellness and beauty for nearly 10 years. Her work has appeared on sites including USAToday.com, Mamapedia and Livestrong.com.