Time was, we could easily guess a man’s profession based on what he wore to work. If he wore a suit, he was a career professional. He had an “office” job, maybe as a manager, a banker, an accountant, a lawyer, etc. If he wore coveralls and a hard hat, he was in construction-related jobs. If he wore jeans and a polo shirt, he was probably in some type of service industry – probably in an office where he was not seen by the public, or something like a bartender, etc. And of course, uniforms told the full story – still do in fact.
This is obviously no longer the case, especially for career professionals. Just walk into a bank today. You won’t find men bankers in suits and ties. You won’t find them in faded jeans and wrinkled T-shirts either, of course. But you will find them dressed in what is now termed “smart casual.”
Is it a new term? No. We can even trace it back to the 1920s when a journalist suggested female attire that was somewhere in between the flapper style and the more traditional conservative dress. Women were encouraged to wear sleeveless dresses covered by a sweater that covered up those shoulders. This, quipped the author, would be a nice compromise, and he coined it “smart casual.” So, today we have smart casuals for both sexes, but let’s talk about men here.
Levels of Smart Casual
Yes, there are actually levels. The operative word here is “smart.” Take some time to do a little research on what casual means in different environments, and your dress will be appropriate for any of them.
The Career Professional Casual
Unless it’s “Honor Your Favorite Team Day ” at the bank, you would not expect the guy sitting in the Vice-President’s office to be sporting a baseball cap, sports jersey, jeans, and tennies. Go to a bank and have a gander at any man sitting in an enclosed office. He will probably be in chinos and a colored polo or buttoned shirt. His shoes will be casual, probably something like Dock Siders, and he will have socks on. If he’s in jeans, they will be a dark color and belted. Now, if the bank examiners are coming, he’ll probably have a sport coat to throw on when they arrive.
This is the most common career professional casual gear. You’ll see it on the streets and in office buildings all over the country. The general idea is that you may dress casually but you must be “neat and tidy” about it.
Smart Casual at an “Event”
This may take some thought because there are all sorts of events. If, for example, you receive an invitation that states “casual attire,” the word “attire” should give you a clue. It is a formal term. You’re not going to a barbecue here. You’re going to a social event that is a bit on the “upper crust” side – perhaps a wedding or a business networking event. You may want to take the example of the bank vice president, but the sport coat is not optional – it’s a requirement.
If the “event” itself is something more casual (the term will be casual “dress”), then you can probably lose the sport coat, but a colored shirt is probably the right option. However, there is a smart casual option here that you could consider. It would be a sport coat over a high-quality, wrinkle-free T-shirt, along with your chino pants or dark jeans, and casual footwear.
Speaking of T-shirts: In this case, purchase your t-shirts from a moderately to high-priced retailer. They should be a top-quality cotton that is soft but sturdy. And colors are fine. Graphics are also fine, so long as they are not “characters.” Choose geometric patterns.
Smart Casual for Colder Weather
Again, the operative word is looking sharp, no matter what the weather. During cold months, bomber jackets can fit the bill, so long as they are not old, cracked, and grungy looking, as can classic sweaters covered by a casual sport coat. Dark jeans, chinos, or casual dress pants are in order.
This is the type of weather that calls for boots, but not steel-toed work boots. Buy a high-quality lace up boot and make sure you have treated them with a water-resistant coating – nothing is worse than great boots stained by water. If they get scuffed, be sure to use a good shoe polish that will give them a nice clean look.
Smart Casual Footwear
The operative words in this category are never old, dirty, or scruffy looking. Tennis shoes are fine so long as they are a solid color – high tops or low. Multi-or neon-colored are best worn by kids to school or on the basketball court. Loafers and boat shoes are great, as are desert boots. In these instances, you should dress for the weather too, of course – canvas tennies won’t do well in the rain and snow.
There’s a frequent TV commercial of a blind date. A great-looking girl arrives first, and is seated at a table in a casual place. Her hair is perfect, and she has on a great-looking top. The guy arrives and quickly sits. “You look amazing!” he says. She looks at his cheap T-shirt with a completely loose and wrinkled neckline and says, “And you look amazingly… casual!” This is an ad for a laundry product, but the point is made.
You will want to dress to impress, of course, and unless you are going to a formal event, choose your smart casual dress based on the date destination and the weather. But always, always, make it tidy.
If you have been invited to a formal event, talk to your date in advance about dress. Take their suggestions and dress accordingly. These could require anything from a suit and tie to a collared shirt and sport coat, to sport coat-covered Tee, and belted chinos or jeans. If you’re really not sure, a collared shirt and sport coat are your best bet. You can always lose the sport coat but you can’t magically produce one you don’t have. And have a tie in your pocket just in case.
For other types of dates, casual dress means whatever the activity demands. Just look well-groomed at least at the start of the date. If you engage in physical activity, of course you will not look neat and crisp afterward. But it’s the first impression that counts.
An additional word to the wise here. Many men, yourself included, may use online dating apps. It’s a highly popular way to meet women and get to know them before you have an in-person date. When you register on these sites, you will need to post pictures of yourself. Have several on your phone ready, and when you are prompted to “download now,” enter them into your profile. Smart casual in this case means that you want to look neat and groomed, even if some of those shots are you in action.
The Synonym for Smart Casual
Two words can sum all of this up – clean and neat. Yes, life is much more casual than it used to be, at work and at play. But there is never an excuse to look unkempt or sloppy. Wherever you go, leave an impression that you care about your appearance. It keeps employers, acquaintances, and dates happy.