‘Smart Casual’ Is Menswear’s Most Dominant Dress Code. Here’s How to Nail It.

Being a fashion writer and a style consultant, the biggest gripe I hear from men has always been some version of: Sure, I understand what to wear to work, but how about dressing elegantly outside it? What splits the difference between my custom suits and silk ties and my old khakis and a T-shirt? Except now it’s worse, because even the codes around dressing for the office have collapsed. The frustration at not being able to nail “smart casual” is palpable—and understandable: As the phrase itself suggests, it’s an in-between approach that requires dressing comfortably yet also stylishly (or is it the other way around?) and without looking like you’ve made much effort. No wonder guys throw up their hands and reach for what they already know.

But it doesn’t have to be so difficult. The good news is that, as with most things in menswear, it’s all happened before—there was an actual point in time during which smart casual as we now understand it first emerged. Just find images of well-dressed men from the 1930s, particularly the moneyed classes flocking to newly fashionable spots on the French Riviera, and you’ll see elegance personified without a suit in sight. The look, which I call casual chic, consists of relaxed, soft-collared shirts, beautifully cut trousers in flannel and linen, and slim, simple loafers or espadrilles. At the time, it was all part of a new category called sportswear, which was to say clothing adapted to an increased amount of leisure time and the myriad activities that came with it, from hiking to tennis. Many staples we know today, from the polo shirt to the plimsoll shoe, date their popularity to this period.

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The encouraging bit is that this mode of dressing is simple to replicate and increasingly easy to shop for. All it requires is a little understanding of what makes casualwear stand out—still relaxed, just sharper and more refined.

The first thing to consider is color palette, which here means understated. As with tailoring, smart leisurewear tends toward the clean and muted, with a preponderance of navy and gray in the winter, and warmer (but equally toned-down) hues in the summer. If pairing a soft shirt with tailored chinos and a crisp blouson, said shirt will likely be sharpest in white, navy, or gray—in that order—but even when adding color, the principle remains: Think beige, taupe, and olive over royal blue and acid yellow.

The same applies to pattern, which is to say subtle or none at all. The basic rule is that the bigger the check or more prominent the herringbone, the “sportier” the suit or the blazer, and this is also true of trousers or a linen shirt. When aiming for elegance, then, plain is preferable to madras. As for texture, a little goes a long way. A knit polo, constructed like a sweater—fully fashioned, in industry parlance—has a more sophisticated drape and finish than your average piqué-cotton version; in black, worn with gray linen trousers, you’re a world away from the old suit-and-tie but equally put together.

Next, and it should go without saying, the clothes must fit. In fact, I’d argue that fit is the most important attribute of beautiful menswear, period. On my site, Permanent Style, I regularly suggest tailored trousers as an ideal way to dress up in a dressed-down environment because simple, well-fitted pants add instant refinement. Whatever you’ve got going on up top, opt for something tailor-made below, in a cut that runs close to the seat (without being scandalous) and then sharply, smoothly down the leg, finishing neatly just above the shoe. You don’t have to go full bespoke (there are good alternatives out there), but get your pants tailored so they fit perfectly—and definitely don’t try to repurpose your old suit bottoms for the role.

As for quality, the casual-chic philosophy has much in common with other, rather more overused concepts such as quiet luxury and stealth wealth; in the absence of other signifiers, like hand-rolled lapels, the excellence of cut and fabric must announce itself. Which also means your casual wardrobe can and should incorporate some of the same materials you already know from working with your tailor: A rich cashmere, a supple leather, a fine Irish linen precisely draped—these are the hallmarks of casual chic as much as suited-and-booted sartorialism.

Finally, how you wear your clothes also matters. The aim is effortless ease. You should be able to get dressed in the morning confident that, barring any surprise weddings or funerals, you’re polished enough for whatever the day holds.

In my styling-consultancy work, I recently helped a client elevate his office attire. He didn’t need to wear a suit, but as the boss he wanted to appear elegant, sophisticated, and serious—precisely what we’ve been talking about here. At my suggestion, he swapped his old polo shirt and chinos for flannel trousers and a collared knit of Scottish cashmere in a flattering cut. His old, quite battered oxford shoes were exchanged for more laid-back (but nicely polished) loafers.

The reactions from his wife and colleagues were such that he’s now assembling a summer equivalent of knitted-wool polo shirts, linen trousers, and unlined suede loafers. Funnily enough, several members of his team have started dressing in a suspiciously similar manner, which my client rather enjoys. What he can’t get over was how simple it was: All he needed was a little understanding of fit and materials.

In many ways, it’s nothing more than the universal definition of elegance: Being graceful and stylish in appearance or manner; pleasingly simple and neat. Simple and neat worked in the ’30s, and it works just as well now.

Simon Crompton is the founder of permanentstyle.com and the author of a number of books on style and menswear. He lives in London.

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