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What Is Smart Casual?

Our smart casual style of choice is an Oliver Chlares sweater and jeans. 
February 5, 2021
By Oliver Charles

Declining Dress code

For decades, what you should wear for work has progressively become more casual, personal, and variable.

While trendy work clothes used to define people narrowly by their profession or wealth, today’s workspaces encourage wearing almost anything that makes people feel expressive and unique beyond their work persona.

There’s a clear caveat to this dress code flexibility. We recently wrote about the puzzling nature of ever-shifting dress standards and called out an unpopular opinion that “casual dress codes suck!”.

It’s not that we have a big vendetta against dressing casually. Instead, we’re pointing out that while dress codes have become less strict, expectations for how we should dress have been slower to change.

Because of the disproportionate rates of change between dress expectations and dress codes, we find ourselves in a frustrating process of balancing authenticity and fitting in.

You’ve probably heard the saying, “dress for the job you want, not the job you have”... much as we don't love the idea that we should conform to an ideal of what a "professional" looks like, there is truth in both the fact that clothes impact how we feel and how we’re perceived. Who doesn’t feel good looking “damn good”?

Before starting Oliver Charles, we worked in office environments in the Bay Area and saw how relevant it was for us to balance considering both: If we were dressed in a way where we’re taken seriously, and if we’re dressed in a way where we felt authentic.

We realized that while it felt authentic to wear loose-fitting flannels coming out of college, it was less than ideal to earn the title “Flannel Guy” at work.

Searching for ways to dress comfortably, feel confident, and protect our authenticity at work, we started to wear simple, timeless clothes that blurred the line between being professional and being human.

These outfits, which we learned fell under the style called, “Smart Casual” consisted of staples like Levi's blue jeans and, in time, our Crew Neck Sweater...

…essentially work from home wardrobe essentials, and as WFH surged, these simple smart casual styles have become even more relevant.

With this in mind, we chose to write a post on the style and display why our lightweight sweater is a foundation piece for a smart casual wardrobe.

In this post, you’ll read about what smart casual is, how to build your smart casual styles, and why elevating casual clothes is the key to smart casual. 

What's Smart Casual? A Brief Overview:

Back in the day, the 1950s or so, people used to wear clothes to work that would define who they were, where they came from, and which socio-economic class connotations were deemed appropriate for them. Conspicuous consumers were empowered by Veblen buying, where they’d wield their economic power to acquire lux goods meaningful to how they were publicly perceived.

You’ve probably heard of "blue and white-collar" jobs, and maybe you’ve also seen Mad Men, Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, or any TV show set in the mid 20th century where characters wore suits and dresses that matched/boasted their wealth and power.

Luckily, at least for most of us who looked at the last two sentences and were immediately triggered by how silly that all sounds, dress standards in and around the workplace have gradually learned towards more casual work clothes.

The decline of formality eventually culminated in people shedding their social status and adopting a much more practical crossover between workwear and street style, which is called, “Smart Casual” and sometimes referred to as, “Smart Business Attire”.

The easiest way to think about the smart casual dress code is by considering clothes that fall slightly below formal wear like a business suit and slightly above super casual loungewear like a sweatsuit… essentially “suits” make up the two ends of the spectrum and smart casual ping-pongs between the two.

Smart casual is a modern workwear style made up of clothes that you’d wear every day without a pretense of formality. It’s the ultimate, unique mix and match style that’s based on elevating wardrobe basics, like jeans, running shoes, and t-shirts then matching them with business-appropriate staples like sweaters, a blazer, or a button-down.

A good reference is to think about what presenters at conferences wear when they jump on stage. To gain credibility, many elevate their casual garb by wearing modern slim fit crew neck sweaters, sports coats or blazers, slim or straight dark jeans, and/or leather shoes.

How To Dress Smart Casual? 

Smart casual can be worn by finding the more casual clothes in your wardrobe and elevating them to be performance work clothes. How can you elevate your casual clothes?
  • Elevate The Materials: higher quality materials, such as merino and yak wool (khullu) - the world’s best wool and a cashmere alternative, drape more elegantly than cotton and synthetics.

    Also because they are naturally antimicrobial materials, odor resistant wool clothing can be the foundation piece that you wear all the time with many different styles.
  • Consider Versatility & Matchability: Alone a t-shirt may seem too casual, but pull over a crew neck sweater and/or toss on a sports coat, and you’ll have refined casual wear to smart casual. 
  • Notice Quality: If you’re wearing something a bunch, it should be high quality. Trust us classic, timeless, quality, work clothes go a long way.
The toughest part about smart casual dressing is hitting an equilibrium between too casual and too formal.

Our advice has always been to wear what you love. As long as your clothes help you feel confident, creative, and comfortable, you really can't go wrong whether you’re commuting to an office, working from home, or doing something in between.

However, if you want some more practical advice, we recommend playing with dark and light colors, accessories, and layers to achieve the look you’re searching for.

For instance, light-wash jeans are historically more casual than dark-wash jeans, and a form-fitting crew neck sweater like ours is typically more formal than a baggy sweater with a deep cut collar. 

Enjoyed this post? Read a continuation answering the 7 most common questions regarding smart casual.
If you believe that every good wardrobe starts with owning less and owning better, consider buying yourself an OLIVER CHARLES sweater.
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