The Ultimate Guide to Smart Casual Style for Men: 2024 Edition


man wearing wide-fitting, pleated brown trousers with a black knit polo and black penny loafers

A lot of the time, guys looking for fashion advice or ways to scale their personal style find that some recommendations lean either too casual or too formal for everyday wear.

Boxy Carhart jackets and impeccably tailored suits are each great in their own right, but sometimes you just want to know how to dress “better” without feeling particularly dressed up or down.

Enter, “smart casual.” While technically quite a large umbrella term used to refer to all manner of aesthetics and styles, the fundamental guiding principle behind smart casual attire is the perfect balance between presentability and versatility. Outfits that you can wear almost anywhere, at almost any time.

Smart Casual “Twist”

The most basic casual uniform for most guys usually consists of jeans and a t-shirt. Maybe shorts if it’s especially hot out. While this baseline can be done better than you’d expect, it will rarely transcend its casual limits. Unless you add a twist – but more on that in a bit.

man wearing loose light-wash jeans and a plain white t-shirt

On the other end of the style spectrum, a dark navy or black worsted wool suit, worn with a white dress shirt, tie, and dress shoes is more or less the most formal most men will have to dress, unless you get invited to a lot of black or white tie events.

However, some mistakenly chalk up all suits as equal, that by virtue of being a suit alone, formality is at play. But in truth, tailoring can be worn casually as well. With a twist, once again.

This “twist” is understanding how to bridge casual pieces with more formal ones, either by utilizing the high-low dress theory or by simply refining the details of an existing casual ensemble.

There’s certainly more than one way to do smart casual, but the basic understanding of how clothing articles communicate with one another is what leads to successful outfits.

Sounds confusing? Don’t worry, by the end of this guide, you’ll have a sharp understanding of smart casual style philosophy, and you’ll undoubtedly come away with several outfit ideas you’ll want to recreate.

Wearing vs Styling

We weren’t kidding when we said a t-shirt and jeans can be elevated. The difference is in the details, or rather, “styling” an outfit instead of just “wearing” one.

Wearing a t-shirt and jeans means exactly just that. You’re wearing them. Not much thought went into them. You threw on the first pair of sneakers you could find and headed out the door.

But styling essentially means that you’ve considered everything from the ground-up. For starters, you’ll want to make sure that the t-shirt and jeans fit within certain parameters.

Go for a shirt that either has a tasteful crop, ending just around the waist. If it’s on the longer side, consider tucking it in. Many have an aversion to tucking in tees, and when done poorly, it can look quite silly. But trust us here. Trust the process.

man wearing high-waisted, straight-fit jeans with a white tee shirt tastefully tucked inman wearing high-waisted, straight-fit jeans with a white tee shirt tastefully tucked in

Pair your t-shirt with well-fitting jeans. This means they shouldn’t be strangling your legs. Go for a classic straight fit jean at the very least, but if you want to express a more distinctive silhouette, feel free to go looser.

Your jeans should also be at least mid-rise. High-rise jeans are even better. This might be a bit tricky at first, because a lot of jeans on the market today are low-rise. But once you find the right air, you’ll understand.

A higher rise visually elongates your legs and breaks up your proportions in a way that is flattering on most body types. Jeans that are too tight or too low will make your legs look spindly or shorter than they actually are.

man wearing unflattering low-rise jeans that are too tight on himman wearing unflattering low-rise jeans that are too tight on him

Once you have the right t-shirt and jeans combo, it’s time to style things up. You want to elevate this casual outfit. That means choosing the right finishing touches.

Consider loafers for your footwear, as they straddle the line between casual and formal perfectly. There’s hardly a more versatile shoe, and with a t-shirt and jeans, they still feel right at home.

For an ivy-inspired look, dare to wear them with white socks. If that’s too bold for you, go with something otherwise neutral. If loafers aren’t your speed, consider other options such as chelsea boots, western boots, lug-soled boat shoes, derbies, or something similar.

chelsea boots, loafers, and doc marten-like derbieschelsea boots, loafers, and doc marten-like derbies

You’ll want a belt to match, too. It’s important that the leather is the same tone as your shoes, or you risk throwing off the outfit’s harmony. If the weather permits it, the next best thing you can add to this casual ensemble to smarten it up is a cardigan sweater, or another flexible layer, like a chore jacket or something similar.

There are many fabrics, patterns, and overall fits to choose from here, so just go with something that speaks to you. Finish it off with some tasteful jewelry, like a slim watch, rings, or chain necklace. The result is still casual, but elevated enough to feel “smart.”

man wearing a red wool cardigan sweater over a white t-shirt that’s tucked into light wash straight-fit jeans, and wearing brown tassel loafers and matching brown beltman wearing a red wool cardigan sweater over a white t-shirt that’s tucked into light wash straight-fit jeans, and wearing brown tassel loafers and matching brown belt

Tailoring ? Stuffy

A common misconception held by many men newer to the fashion scene is that tailoring, whether in the form of blazers, sport coats, trousers, or even full suits, are always, without exception, formal pieces. This couldn’t be further than the truth.

While a dark, worsted wool suit will almost always lean formal, there’s a whole world of casual tailoring out there that can help you build the perfect smart casual wardrobe.

It comes down to understanding the contextual history and aesthetics of various fabrics, patterns, and which pieces can be worn together.

We’ve written previously on what makes a suit casual, but the most basic principle is that tailored garments in casual fabrics such as tweed wool, cotton, linen or corduroy, will always be able to work, well, casually.

smart casual style - black guy wearing a brown houndstooth blazer over a turtleneck sweatersmart casual style - black guy wearing a brown houndstooth blazer over a turtleneck sweater

And this knowledge will prove invaluable when trying to level up casual outfits into smart casual ones.

Wearing jeans with an oxford cloth button down and cowboy boots? Take a page out of Ralph Lauren’s personal style book and throw on a gray tweed sport coat. It’s not a suit jacket. It’s a genuine sport coat. So, somehow, it just works.

[Use this image if possible or one inspired by it – man wearing blue jeans with denim western shirt and gray tweed sport coat.]

man wearing blue jeans with denim western shirt and gray tweed sport coatman wearing blue jeans with denim western shirt and gray tweed sport coat

Got an office outfit consisting of khakis, a knit sweater, and chunky dad sneakers? Go the extra mile and toss a corduroy jacket into the mix. The result might seem a bit too 90s dad-core at first, but you know what? Sometimes dads are cool.

This applies to pants too. Tailored trousers, especially ones with extra details like pleats, are a great way to elevate an otherwise casual outfit.

Wear them with a tee. Wear them with a knit polo shirt. They carry a permanent baseline of elegance, instantly smartening up almost any outfit.

man wearing classic, full-fitting brown trousers with double pleats, paired with an oxford shirt and fair isle knit sweater, along with brown derby shoesman wearing classic, full-fitting brown trousers with double pleats, paired with an oxford shirt and fair isle knit sweater, along with brown derby shoes

You can even go full suit and achieve a look that still reads as smart casual – so long as the suit is, once again, made from a casual fabric. Paired with anything from a denim shirt to a turtleneck sweater, chances are you’ll pull it off spectacularly.

The point is, tailoring is basically a cheat code. Used correctly, it can bring almost any outfit up a few notches.

A Bit of Texture, A Lot of Impact

A popular outfit that many men nowadays default to entails some mix of athleisure “stretch-infused” pants, dri-fit golf polos, and either white sneakers or sneaker-dress shoe hybrids. This is, for better or worse, the standard outfit for many men in the business casual world. But business casual can be done better.

One of the issues with the aforementioned outfit is that it’s simply too flat. It lacks texture and depth. In short – it’s a bit boring.

To rectify this, remember the following: if an outfit isn’t interesting through color, it should be interesting through shape. And if it isn’t interesting through shape, it should be interesting through texture. If you have a good handle on all of these, try all three.

Texture is arguably the most important aspect of this trifecta.

Want to do smart casual ensembles well? Seeking out garments with texture is a great shortcut. Swap out that synthetic golf polo for a knit one instead. Opt for textured knitwear instead of flat merino wool weaves. Corduroy pants are great for the fall and winter. Suede loafers can be a lot of fun, too.

man wearing corduroy pants - smart casual attireman wearing corduroy pants - smart casual attire

Get the idea? There’s a whole world of extra “oomph” factor waiting for you and your daily outfits if you successfully incorporate texture into your wardrobe. And it’s a sure way to do smart casual with prowess.

The Little Things

Lastly, it’s vital to touch on some of the oft-overlooked details that can transform an otherwise humdrum outfit into something special.

Let’s say you’ve got the gist already. Pleated corduroy trousers. An oxford cloth button down worn with a rich shetland knit sweater. Lush leather loafers. This outfit is interesting! It’s got depth, it’s textured, and most importantly, it’s smart. But it can still risk being a bit dull or amateur, if you don’t apply the right finishing touches.

A bad belt, for example, can throw everything off. In most smart casual looks, your top will often be tucked, making the belt visible. You don’t have to be a leather expert to spot a cheap fake leather belt from a mile away.

At the same time, logo-centric buckles may be from high quality designer brands, but they can be rather tacky. Try to go for full-grain leather, and make sure the metals of the belt buckle don’t clash with the other metals in your outfit. Consider your watch and other jewelry.

Speaking of watches, note that while smaller, flatter watches are highly en vogue and flatter most wrists, get something a bit larger if you have big hands. But don’t go too large, because mammoth-sized timepieces are in poor taste, too.

Finally – take care of your garments properly. A good wardrobe is only as good as it actually lasts you. To extend the lifetime of your clothing and keep them looking their best, follow the instructions on the care tag. Prioritize natural fabrics. And never, ever put cashmere in the dryer.

All in all, smart casual style is all about finding the balance between being boring and being overdressed.

It’s easier said than done, because it requires a trained eye and some trial and error. But when in doubt, you can always come back and refer to this guide as a jumping-off point.

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