What is the smart casual dress code for men and women? A guide to proper dress from an etiquette expert

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With the holiday season on the horizon, you might find yourself stuck trying to decipher the dress code on the invitation.

Whether it’s an elegant black tie dress code or a casual Christmas party, figuring out what to wear to a formal event is never easy, especially if hosts have asked guests to s dress “elegantly and casually” for the occasion.

Mastering a smart-casual look is a tricky balancing act, especially since there are often varying levels of formality within the code itself.

To help you master the art of smart casual dressing, we spoke with an etiquette expert, podcaster, and author of The bluffer’s guide to etiquette William Hansson.

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He explained: “The guiding advice is to always play it safe and wear something more conservative when in doubt.”

He also advised looking to Meghan Markle, Prince Harry, Kate Middleton and Prince William for inspiration, as young royals are often on the go at official events.

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From whether you can wear denim to expecting a smart-casual dress code, here’s everything you need to know — with some sartorial inspirations along the way.

What is a smart casual dress code?

As you can probably guess from the title, a smart casual dress code draws the line between formal wear and casual everyday wear.

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Hanson explained that you’re more likely to meet him if you’re going to a dinner or a drink, or rubbing shoulders with VIPs at Wimbledon.

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A smart casual dress code may also appear at business and social events, such as a networking night, where the dress code will most likely be listed as “business casual”.

Are the jeans smart and casual?

According to Debretts, jeans can be smart and casual, but only if the event or place you’re going to is more casual. (Jeans wouldn’t be welcome at a smart-casual wedding, for example.)

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However, the denim in question should be immaculate – so avoid ripped knees.

If you choose to wear denim, fitted pieces in a darker wash are recommended.

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A pair of heels will also go a long way, taking your outfit into more smart-than-casual territory.

If you can help it, it’s best to save your jeans for another day.

What is smart casual for women?

Women have a harder time than men when trying to figure out how to dress smart and casual, especially since high heels and a fancy dress can tip you into black tie territory.

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“For women, that usually means something built around a more casual jacket, although many young women choose to wear just a dress and no jacket,” Hanson told us.

“A skirt or slacks may be worn, although for very traditional evenings with this dress code ladies should be advised that slacks are not considered proper.”

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“Shoes can be open-toed for outdoor events and heels should not exceed three inches,” he also advises.

“Jewellery should be modest and not showy. Ideally, denim of any variety is not worn – especially ripped jeans. Leggings, mini-skirts and tight dresses are also not appropriate.”

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What is smart casual for men?

When it comes to dressing for a smart-casual event, a blazer or jacket, pants and smart shoes are a must.

Hanson explains, “Again, like the women, this is built around a jacket – like a blazer or a sports coat.”

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He explains: “Smart pants, like chinos or slacks, [should be worn] on the lower half.

“Don’t wear tight, ripped, skinny jeans and shorts,” he adds.

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The coaches, unfortunately, will also have to stay at home. “Shoes can be Oxfords, oxfords, Derbys, desert boots or loafers depending on the time of year and the terrain below,” says Hanson.

Although you can wear a tie, you risk being a little overdressed. “Ties are no longer generally seen with casual chic, although they can be worn. If a man is in doubt as to whether or not a tie should be worn, phone the host and ask, or show up wearing one, then remove it if no other male guests are wearing one one,” he says.

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When in doubt, go smart: “It’s always better to dress a little more formally than too casual,” he adds.

What is smart casual for a wedding?

If you stick to the rules above, you should be good to go – with one small stipulation for women. William explained: “Women should avoid wearing white or black. Although some say it doesn’t matter anymore, many still think these rules still apply, so just avoid them.

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“There are plenty of prettier colors to wear, anyway,” adds Hanson, “that hardly limits the choice.”

What is smart casual for work?

Sometimes you may be asked to attend a business event with a dress code. William says it “should be more smart and laid back rather than laid back and smart”.

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(Getty Images)

“Remember that you will always see clients and your ability will be judged on your looks first, whether you like it or not.”

For more etiquette discussions, William Hanson leads a podcast titled Help I sexted my boss with radio presenter Jordan North where they help solve some of your biggest problems, what if you accidentally press reply while sending a dodgy email to navigate the office Christmas party.

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