How to Style Smart Casual Office Wear

Language is not a transparent carrier of meaning and nowhere is this wisdom more in evidence in than in the phrase ‘Smart Casual’.  Clearly its territory lies somewhere between the strict formality of a business suit, as worn by a lawyer or such, and the casual clothing which you would wear on your day off in order to feel comfortable. Post Silicon Valley, the phrase also carries with it a weight of modish connotations about geniuses not needing to wear a suit to impress.  The main problem with the phrase is that ‘smart casual’ means different things in different places.  ‘Smart casual office wear’ compounds the problem, because all offices have their secret unspoken codes and conventions evolved over time and personnel changes.  So, how do we make sense of the instruction to wear ‘smart casual office wear’?  The Oxford English Dictionary is a useful place to start: ‘neat, conventional yet relatively informal in style.’  Let’s pick that apart a little.

How to Style Smart Casual Office Wear

‘Smartness is more a matter of the appearance of your clothes rather than their style.’  Sir Hardy Amies ABC of Men’s Fashion.
Clean, new, ironed casual clothing will look far smarter than a grubby crumpled suit. ‘Casual’ does not mean sloppy, it does not mean whatever comes to hand in the morning.  ‘Smart casual’ clothing needs more care and consideration in its selection than formal clothing does because it allows for a greater range of variables.

Do not mistake ‘smart casual’ for an invitation to express your inner bohemian.  Your intention should not be to make everyone in the office gasp at your audacity, or admire your rebel taste.  A plain T-shirt in a dark colour is both casual and conventional, whilst a T-shirt emblazoned with a logo for one of your enthusiasms is inappropriate for work.

‘Look at me, I’m not wearing a tie, I’m informal.’  Lack of a tie remains the key signifier of informality but if you simply wear your business suit without a tie it just looks like you’ve got really hot or you’re going to hand in your resignation.  An informal look is a co-ordinated look in which textures, colours and styles work together to create a carefully calculated appearance of the casual.

What to wear and what not
Let’s start top down. Firstly, let’s pay attention to your facial accessories, you’ve got a great casual ensemble, but all the others notice are the dangly earrings or nerdy glasses. If you need glasses it’s worth splashing out on a stylish pair like those by Coach, Michael Kors or Valentino. The darker the colour the more formal the appearance, so don’t wear that brilliant yellow shirt which depicts fishes of the sea.  T-shirts, collarless shirts, button down collars and polo shits are all acceptable as are well-fitted sweaters.  Formal tends to be smooth, shiny and sleek, so textured, slightly bulkier items work well as a signifier of the casual.  Blazers are of course a staple of the casual wardrobe; they smarten up a T shirt and their pockets are extremely handy for putting things in.  Jeans are ok but they need to be dark and well fitted. If in doubt with trousers, opt for chinos. Light shoes are less formal than dark shoes, and you should probably wear trainers at your peril.

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Tags:style, business suit, casual clothing, office wear

About the Author

Silvia Kabaivanova

As the founder of Be Global Fashion Network and several other fashion websites, Silvia has been working for more than 20 years covering fashion industry trends and news. With a passion for the fashion business, she focuses on sustainable fashion and innovations, custom fashion and print on demand services. Silvia is a Chairman of Bulgarian Fashion Association. You can reach her at

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