Between Extremes: The New Rules Of Men’s Smart-Casual Style

It’s no wonder smart casual often causes confusion. The term itself is something of an oxymoron. ‘Smart’ and ‘casual’ are, after all, complete polar opposites. Like hot and cold, happy and sad. So why should people be expected to know how to dress when the two words are pushed together?

We’ve been operating in the men’s style arena for over a decade, and we’ve seen some truly bizarre interpretations of smart casual in that time. That’s why we feel it’s our duty to demystify this ubiquitous yet notoriously tricky dress code and clarify the ever-evolving list of dos and don’ts.

Below, we’ve curated a list of tips for embracing smart casual in its most contemporary form. Think of them as the new rules of smart casual, sartorial mantras to live by whenever the setting calls for something between the two extremes. So grab your loafers, pick out your best unstructured blazer, and let’s tackle this head-on.

It’s Not A Strict Formula

Thom Sweeney

Stop taking the term smart casual so literally. This is a mistake we see time and time again, and it almost always follows the same formula: a person hears ‘smart casual’, interprets this as half smart, half casual and throws on a blazer and a pair of jeans.

You shouldn’t think of it in clear-cut half-measures. Instead, it’s more about mixing the two and striking a balance across the whole outfit. Avoid going to extremes like a padded blazer or a pair of light-wash jeans. Keep smarter pieces relaxed and more relaxed pieces smart.

It’s not as confusing as it sounds. Swap the Jeremy Clarkson getup for an unstructured sports jacket and a pair of wool drawstring pants, and you’ll see what we mean.

Switch Out The Shirt

One quick and easy way to up your smart-casual game is to swap the dress shirt for something more stylish.

Don’t get us wrong – shirts are fantastic, but opting for something like a knitted polo, a fine-gauge sweater, or even just a button-up with a grandad collar can really bring your look up to date.

Keep It Simple

Take off the necktie, lose the belt and the pocket square. The key to nailing the modern smart-casual look is to keep details, extras and embellishments to a minimum. You’ll find it’s much easier to look sharp when there’s less going on within an outfit.

Stuck for inspiration? It could be something as simple as a pair of navy chinos, a pale blue Oxford shirt and an oatmeal sweater with some desert boots. Clean, fuss-free and immune to trends.

Use Footwear To Balance Formality

Don’t underestimate the power of a pair of shoes to alter the mood of an outfit completely. If you need an example, imagine a crisp navy suit with polished black Derbies, and then the same outfit with suede sneakers. It’s night and day.

Now, we’re not suggesting you attempt to replicate these looks – that was merely an extreme example – but it gives you an idea of how footwear can make an outfit feel more or less formal.

Dress down a smart outfit with loafers or luxe sneakers, or up the formality of a more casual outfit by opting for a sleek Chelsea boot or Derby shoe.

Sneakers? Tread Carefully


Although we’ve just advocated them, sneakers should be approached with caution when dabbling in the smart-casual dress code. Can they be worn? Yes, but they can’t just be any old beaters. You need to ensure they’re sufficiently smart and won’t clash with whatever else you’re wearing.

Whatever you do, don’t fall into the trap of buying those dress-shoe-sneaker-hybrid things. They may seem like the perfect smart-casual footwear to the untrained eye, but they’re the absolute antithesis of style. You’d be much better off going for a high-quality, minimalist sneaker made using premium materials instead.

Keep Denim Dark

Jeans aren’t a no-go as long as you stick to certain rules. For one, you should steer clear of anything mid-wash or lighter, as this would be straying too far into casual territory. Instead, keep your denim dark.

A deep, rich indigo or black wash is best, and make sure the fit is straight or slim, never baggy.

Nail Your Contrast Ratio


Considering contrast can transform your outfits from good to god-like. For smart casual, we suggest opting for around 75% dark and 25% light tones.

You could achieve this by teaming a dark jacket and dark pants with a light shirt, a dark jacket and top with light pants, or some other configuration.

If your ratio is on point, you won’t stray too far wrong.

Tees Are Permitted, But…

Don’t go for graphics. If it’s got a print, pattern or logo plastered across the front of it, it’s off-limits for smart-casual attire. Instead, stick to plain, well-fitted T-shirts made with high-quality fabrics. You don’t want anything too loose or slouchy.

We understand the perfect tee can be an elusive beast, so why not check out a few of our favourite tried-and-tested brands? As far as we’re concerned, there’s no need to look beyond Sunspel, ASKET, Uniqlo and CDLP. The former two for something lightweight and fitted, and the latter two for something a little weightier.

Don’t Forget The Timepiece

Your choice of watch has the power to make or break an outfit. Sure, the Apple Watch or Garmin Forerunner might be practical but watches like these will drag an otherwise sharp outfit down to their level. Fine if you’re rocking a T-shirt and shorts at the weekend, but if you’re attempting smart casual, you’ll want something a little less sporty.

What you need is something handsome but not too dressy – a tool watch like a classic diver or field watch is a great option. Go for a bracelet if you want to dress it up or a NATO strap to dress it down.

Paddy Maddison

Paddy Maddison is Ape's Style Editor. His work has been published in Esquire, Men’s Health, ShortList, The Independent and more. An outerwear and sneaker fanatic, his finger is firmly on the pulse for the latest trends, while always maintaining an interest in classic style.