Smart Casual: What it Means and How to Do It

Smart Casual Another question came through on my blog, from a reader asking about how to dress when an invitation says the dress code is “snappy casual”.  A great question, indeed and one that I wanted to thoroughly address today.

Call it smart casual, snappy casual or any other adjective, like sharp, dressy, and more, it all means the same.  In a nutshell <insert adjective> casual is just a polite way of saying, dressy attire for this event isn’t required, but please don’t wear what you would to  go grocery shopping or watch football games on the weekends.  As sad as it is to say, most people require this type of direction when attending these types of casual events.  I mean, for the love of God, people, are we not smart enough to know to put some effort towards what we wear to events like this?

Yet,  while many of us know better than to wear a pair of yoga pants or a t-shirt that says something like “I’m with Stupid” on the front of it, it still doesn’t make it easy to figure out how to pull this type of look together.  It makes sense, a stylish, casual look can be tricky for work and for weekends because, to give a casual outfit a little extra polish, it does require some styling, particularly through accessorizing.  This can be challenging even for the best of stylishly intended.

To help you, below are some common smart casual outfits and my tips on how to make them look stylish so that the next time you are invited to an event with some quirky <fill in the blank> casual event you can be well prepared.

How to pull together smart casual outfits

Outfit #1- Jeans and a top

Jeans and a top is a commonly accepted smart casual outfit to wear to an event.  Yet, there are are a few points to keep in mind when doing so.  First, not all jeans are created equally.  For events, choose jeans that are clean and crisp and in a dark wash.  Second, jeans and a top can either look casual or dressy casual depending on how it is styled.  When wearing jeans, or any other casual pieces that would fall into this same category, elevating them through dressy accessories will put the outfit into “smart casual” territory.  The reason is when you start with something like a pair of jeans and style them with items that would be considered dressy, a middle balance is created.  The dressy components elevate the jeans and the jeans bring down the dressier pieces.

This is exactly what is happening in this outfit.  First, the jeans are in a dark wash, a good start.  Second, I accessorized the eShakti wrap top with a dressier bag and jewelry.  What these two accessorizing pieces do is elevate the jeans and top to something a bit more polished.  Lastly, I used a pair of green booties from Anthropologie that pick up one of the colors in the necklace and handbag.

Outfit #2- A skirt and top

A skirt and top is another excellent, and common, choice for a smart casual look.  There is nothing wrong with borrowing pieces, or even entire outfits that you would wear to work, and an outfit like this is definitely something many women can wear to work and dress casual events.  Yet, the problem most women have with smart casual outfits is they think, “Okay, a skirt and top will work”, or, “a sweater and nice pants is what I will wear.”  Yes, certainly these things will do, as the base of a good smart casual outfit, but, if you want to stand out, you have to finish your looks.

In this outfit, I created a bit of an unexpected combination pairing a pink sleeveless top with this green printed pencil skirt from Boden.  Even though the print is a tonal green, you can still treat it like a solid.  And, green being a very versatile shade to work with, you can wear any solid top color with it.  Playing with color is another excellent way to turn your smart casual looks up a notch.  To finish the ensemble, I added a simple pair of strappy nude sandals, a light green Vince Camuto handbag and a pair of green earrings.

Outfit #3- A smart casual dress

Whenever I have somewhere to go where the dress code is smart casual I will usually wear a dress.  I know this is common for most women.  Dresses are just easy and a definite fail-safe.  They can be dressed up and down, and most women feel pulled together when wearing one.  Yet, again, you can do more with a dress than just zip it up the back and head out the door.  A lot of women have that one go-to dress in their closet that will suffice for events and, if the dress isn’t changed up a few ways, it can easily begin to feel a bit stale to wear.  I remember having this go-to dress one summer. Over the course of a few months I wore it to a rehearsal dinner, a casual wedding and to a few other events I had to attend.  I also had my own bridal shower at the end of August that summer.  I distinctly remember saying, while getting ready to go to what I thought was just brunch with my bridesmaids, “If I wear this dress one more time this summer I am going to burn it.”  Well, I now have bridal shower photos for the rest of my life of me wearing that tired old dress that I had worn the same way too many times.  Yes, it is smart to have a go-to dress on hand, but it is smarter to have a few ways to wear it so you don’t get bored.  This will also enable you to extend the lifespan of one dress and really get your money’s worth.

Here, for example, I took a printed dress from Reiss and added some unexpected elements to it.  While you can certainly let the print shine and keep the accessorizing components more understated, few would think to not only add one color to this outfit, but two.  However, a print like this, just like the skirt in the last outfit, can be treated like a solid and any color can be added.  In this look I particularly liked playing with a lime green and burgundy.  I finished this outfit with a pair of burgundy heels from Modcloth, a scarf from Nordstrom and earrings from Betsey Johnson.  The last thing I added was a good versatile wristlet from Nine West that can be used no matter what other colors you are pairing with this dress.

Outfit #4- A printed top and pants

There is nothing easier, nor more expected and boring, than wearing a nice printed top and a good pair of tailored pants to an event where the dress code is smart casual.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s a totally fine look, but, dressing this way can get start to feel really formulaic, like a bad uniform, especially if you don’t see the outfit through.

When you wear a look like this you have created a good base.  But in order to not just look like another lady in a top and pants there are some simple things you can do to stand out.  First, remember how I always say prints can be great road maps for color combining?  This top from J. Crew is a perfect example of this.  Take a print from your wardrobe, that you often wear with plain tailored pants, and look at the colors in it.  For example, this top is in a print of royal blue and shades of pink.  To finish this outfit I played on these colors and added a royal blue blazer from Modcloth, blue earrings, a pair of pink flats and a burgundy handbag from Banana Republic.  Instead of going for the black shoes, black handbag and no accessories, try something like this.

The next tip when wearing tailored pieces, like a nice pair of pants, a blouse or a blazer, for example, is to look at fit.  Fit is really important.  A woman in a printed top and basic pair of black pants may be a bit blah, but a woman in a poorly fitting top and pair of pants is tragic.

Outfit #5- A novelty sweater and pants

The last common smart casual look is to find a novelty sweater and to pair it with a pair of tailored pants.  It’s similar to the blouse and pants look above.  Again, it is a fail-safe uniform that can get the job done…and put people to sleep.  If your goal is to stand out a little more, you don’t have to ditch this outfit entirely.  After all, it is certainly acceptable.  But lets do a little bit more with hardly any extra effort.

In this look I took a mint sweater from French Connection, that has a little lace detail around the shoulders.  Instead of black, I styled it with a pair of navy Boden pants.  Navy and mint is a super lovely color combination.  Lastly, using my well known “Base, Accent, Pop” approach I simply added a third color consisting of tones of coral and peach, which now takes this look one step further without adding any complication to the outfit.  The look is finished with a pair of peach flats, a coral handbag and a necklace that picks up all three colors of the outfit.  Remember, a sweater and pants is a fine smart casual look, but when it is simply accessorized with that last punch it goes beyond just being fine.

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