Business Casual vs. Smart Casual - What Are The Key Differences?

The codes of dress had been veering towards a more casual direction, even before the pandemic turned everything on its head. However, there are still a few subtle differences between smart casual and business casual attire, as we navigate a new, open-minded and explorative world of menswear. We asked menswear aficionado Rikesh Chauhan to talk through the blurring lines of business casual vs. smart casual outfits.

Is There A Clear Difference?

The gift, and subsequent curse, of the business casual and smart casual dress codes are that there hasn’t been a clear cut, set in stone definition for either of them. The benefit of this situation is that it is always open to interpretation, but the downfall is that you’re also still open to critique if you get it badly wrong.

The lines of business and casual started to blur around the late ‘80s, and had slowly continued down that route before a pandemic-shaped shot of adrenaline forced the implementation of ‘casual’ into the everyday. For some, it came as a long-overdue end to stuffiness, whilst for others it was confirmation of a more slovenly world.

In order for rules to be broken, they need to be understood, so whether you’re in one camp or the other, understanding the history of the styles and their evolution will help vindicate your approach and decisions to your personal attire.

Business Casual

So what’s business casual today? And more specifically, what is the difference between business casual versus business professional? Well, the latter is simple: what you’d traditionally see being worn by men and women in the city. A two- or three-piece suit, business shirt, tie, pocket square, Oxford shoes, briefcase. And if you’re in London, this is usually accessorised with a hat, overcoat draped over an arm and an umbrella.

Well-known examples that embodied this style include the likes of Gordon Gekko and Don Draper to the more recent Harvey Specter and Harry Hart. Film and television are where some of menswear’s biggest icons were born, but off screen, figures such as Anthony Eden and more recently Luca di Montezemolo also embodied this style. Barely a hair, let alone a tie was out of place, such was the precision, care and attention to detail.

Business professional attire was anything but casual. However, times change, and so do the clothes. One of the big sticking points, and first victims of the shift to casual wear was the shoe, followed fairly swiftly by the tie. Shoes were replaced trainers for journeys to and from the office; ties were put on just before meetings until, eventually, they weren’t put on at all. This did push a new category of business casual sneakers — often designed within classic proportions and colour-ways — into prominence, however, so it wasn’t all doom and gloom.

Brands began looking at ways to adapt and address areas that were missing the mark. The omission of the tie also enabled shirt-makers to be a little more experimental with their own offerings. While the business casual shirt often retained the traditional cotton poplin, the collars were adapted to look good without a tie. Examples of this include the No. 3 collar, semi-spread collars and collars that were relaxed by losing the stiffeners.

Business Casual Suit
Business Casual Corduroy Suit

The focal point for this new style was adaptability. As times have moved and dress codes continue to be relaxed, one would often find themselves loosening their ties, taking off their jackets and unbuttoning their collars once they were out of the office and at the pub or restaurant for post-work festivities. Sometimes, we’d even get changed in the office into a different outfit entirely before heading out. Either way, it wasn’t convenient.

By bringing down certain elements of your outfit, whilst retaining the sharpness, you were suddenly able to wear an outfit from the moment you stepped out of the house, got to work, followed up with post-work meetings to drinks and finally, your return home. A good example of this is swapping out your suit jacket for something slightly more casual, such as an overshirt or workwear jacket, as Mike Hughes showcases here.

Business Casual Jacket
Business Casual Jacket & Jumper

A significant perk of being in London is — and bear with me on this — the weather. The beauty of cold fronts is that it enables men to actually utilise their wardrobes. This is where quality winter knitwear can play a big part of a business casual ensemble. You can wear a half-zip merino wool jumper, for example, over an open collar shirt as Chris Modoo deftly showcases above. A lightweight cardigan is also a good option if you want to stick with the shirt-tie combination — simply wear the cardigan in between the jacket and shirt.

Otherwise, a beautiful polo neck jumper can be worn with a suit, replacing the shirt and tie entirely, and look perfect with business casual shoes. The crux of business casual is that you should look right at home in a boardroom, but also not out of place in a restaurant.

Smart Casual V Neck Jumper

The key considerations for business casual attire (and, in fact, any outfit you wish to put together in the morning) should include: what your day looks like; how much time you will spend travelling to your destinations; whether it is warm or cold outside and if it will be raining; the importance of your meetings — for example, if you’re pitching to a potential client or board of directors, you may want to stick to something more traditional; and the dress code for any post-work events. If I were visiting Mark’s Club for a cigar wearing trainers, I wouldn’t be able to see beyond the entrance. I do find when it comes to business casual, it’s important to make sure the ‘suit’ element remains intact as it acts as the foundation.

By this I mean, don’t mix and match your jackets and trousers as you’ll veer into smart casual territory — more on that later. By sticking with the suit and dressing it down, your company will still immediately associate you with the professional codes if you’re in a single-breasted jacket with matching pleated trousers. By opting for a white or cream shirt sans tie, knitwear in between the shirt and jacket or as a replacement for said shirt, and a muted pocket square, you’ve dressed down the look without actually compromising anything at all.

Smart Casual Polo Neck

So what’s the difference between this and smart casual? You’d be forgiven for assuming that the lines can be blurred here, because they often are. As I mentioned previously, with the rules being so grey (one could even claim that there aren’t any to begin with) it’s understandable to occasionally feel that a business casual outfit could also be classed as smart casual.

Two great examples of when the lines can indeed blur can be seen below, sported by Luke Allan (left) and Erik Mannby. Mannby’s in particular I really enjoy because it introduces the element of summer. The inclusion of hats and sunglasses, plus clothing in fabrics that are designed to take on heat, innately bring down the professional nature of a look because of where it’s most often associated. However, should you see Mannby dressed like this in a meeting with someone wearing a power suit, you would still believe he was going par for par, outfit wise.

Business Smart Chambray Shirt
Business Smart Hat

If business casual is 60% business and 40% casual, consider smart casual to be 40% smart and 60% casual. That is to say, you’re prioritising an outfit you would wear to your local haunts or in the city on a weekend, but it’s elevated to make more of an impression to those around you. Dressing well is a form of good manners and shows respect to the company you’re in, after all.

The beauty of smart casual is that it opens up a world of possibilities in terms of style influence, cloths and textures, combinations, colours and accessories. In fact, one could argue that accessories are more important in smart casual looks than in business casual ones. Where you would opt for a statement watch and occasionally a pocket square for business casual, smart casual accessories offer a plethora of options including anything from pocket squares-turned-neckerchiefs and scarves to tote bags, hats and caps. Chris Modoo demonstrates this with aplomb in his look — a field jacket paired with beautifully elegant knitwear, replete with a silk neckerchief, dress watch, sunglasses and signet ring. Perfection.

Smart Casual Neckerchief

Hats and caps tend to add more flair to an ensemble, and push it further towards a certain style: a fedora harkens back to the early ‘70s, whereas a cap can scream Ivy style and/or preppy depending on how you accessorise it. In this look of mine below, I’ve paired a corduroy baseball cap with a silk repp tie and Oxford cotton button down shirt. The latter is the epitome of the smart casual shirt. It was introduced by American makers Brooks Brothers in the late 1800s and was a fixture for sportswear right up until the 1960s.

With the resurgence of casual wear, the button down grew in popularity once again and it could now be considered as the poster boy for the smart casual movement. The beauty of the shirt is in its simplicity of detail: you’ll usually find it in blue, white or a blue and white stripe, often with mitred cuffs and a square body shape. The bigger the collar roll, the better, too. The Brooks Brothers shirts of the 1980s and ‘90s were sublime.

An Oxford cotton button down works well as part of a suit — at home with or without a tie — and just as well with denim selvedge jeans and a utility jacket. It’s exactly this type of variety and has enabled its long life span and long may that remain the case.

Smart Casual Cap

Sticking with shirts, a popular option — particularly since the beginning of the pandemic back in 2019 — is the sahariana. As with most menswear garments, the sahariana originates from the military. Whilst back then during World War II it was made of significantly tougher material that still helped with the baking sun, and used for utilitarian purposes, the range and variety of saharianas today leaves one spoilt for choice. The shirt can often act similarly to a safari or field jacket, due to its slightly longer length (which is designed to be worn untucked) and self-fabric belted waist.

As the fabrics used to make these saharianas are quality wools, cottons, linens and silks, they can be dressed up effortlessly when worn over a business casual or dress shirt with an unbuttoned collar, smart trousers and loafers. The more traditional safari jacket can work equally well as a replacement for a suit jacket as discussed, but can also veer towards the smart casual direction depending on the fabric: a silk and linen blend will always give it more of a relaxed nature compared to a cotton drill, for example.

One interesting and relatively new type of clothing which has certainly divided menswear aficionados are drawstring trousers. These trousers usually follow the same silhouette and lines as fuller leg pleated trousers, with 2” turn up cuffs, and a high rise, but instead of the traditional side adjusters, straps or belt loops, the waist is an elastic drawstring right the way around.

It was properly introduced into the UK during the height of the first Covid-related lockdown, as people were adjusting from suits to loungewear. Those like me, who had previously only owned a single pair of joggers for example, needed something smart enough to still feel human, but also comfortable enough when worn at home for the whole day. Such was the success of these trousers, they now seem to be here to stay – and are a prime choice for both business casual and smart casual wardrobes.

Smart Casual Drawstring Trousers 

However, the ultimate smart casual combination for me is tailoring with denim jeans. Whilst the master Ralph Lauren may have been perhaps a little too audacious with his high-low pairing of a black tie dinner jacket with denim jeans, there’s something brilliant about a beautiful sport jacket paired with indigo selvedge.

My personal preference is heavyweight Japanese denim in a striking blue indigo, matched with a brown or caramel houndstooth sport jacket. You can wear these two with anything: a button down and loafers; shirt, tie and Oxfords; crew neck jumper and sneakers; or a tee-shirt and slip ons. You’ll look good. And if you don’t want to take my word for it, take a look at these two further examples by Jesse Burzminski.

The first look below is a striking denim with a brown houndstooth jacket, dark brown woven leather belt, soft pink striped button down shirt and a knitted silk tie. Wear this with brown loafers or white sneakers and you’ve mastered smart casual. Add a baseball cap to the look and you’ve stepped into Ivy League territory, should you be so inclined.

Houndstooth Jacket with Jeans

The second look is significantly dressed down, but the addition of the jacket retains the smart element. The jeans this time are combined with a soft knitted polo, with contrasting colours that work well. I’ve personally found that check patterns on jackets lend themselves better to smart casual, whilst pinstripes favour more traditionally business looks.

Blazer & Polo Shirt with Jeans

Weather, as referenced earlier, is an interesting topic when it comes to dress codes. Smart casual men’s outfits are often best expressed without a shirt, or should one feature, it would normally be layered with knitwear and subsequently dressed down.

One of my favourite looks of last year was James’s combination of a stunning corduroy jacket, muted heavy knit roll neck jumper and shirt with the collar turned up. It’s not the easiest of looks to pull off, but when it’s done right like this, it’s hard not to command the room.

The inclusion of knitwear can bring any look together and take it to the next level, particularly in winter when colour contrasts and pairings are under utilised. Blues in various hues tend to work well with soft yellows, beige and earthy tones, and if you have subtle textures combining and intertwining, you’ve more than done your part for the smart casual community. London in the winter could always use more colour. Naysayers be damned.

Smart Casual Turtle Neck
Smart Casual Jumper & Cashmere Scarf

I have found that recently, wedding invites are becoming more open and relaxed in regards to attire, and particularly with destination weddings during the summer. Smart casual attire for party season, and wedding season, is where you can really have some fun.

Instead of a classic navy or grey suit, opt for an unstructured tobacco or forest green Irish linen single-breasted jacket and gurkha trousers. Pair it with a beautiful cream open (or camp) collar shirt and sunglasses, and you’ll be one of the best dressed people there whilst retaining a certain nonchalance. What could be more desirable? Sprezzatura, meaning studied carelessness, is a word that caught the collective menswear zeitgeist in 2019, and is best used to describe the ability to make a traditionally smart outfit look altogether more relaxed, less considered, almost more blasé. It’s the art of looking great, without looking fussy.

An unkempt tie with an unusual knot, or with the small blade longer than the main one. An unstructured, unlined jacket that’s been thrown around a lot. Think the night before and the morning after all rolled into one.

A great example of this is Samir Khan, who wore this tobacco number in Florence a few years’ back. From the first look, you know he’s immaculately put together. Then looking closer at the little details: the back blade is longer than the front blade, the hat is at a kilter, the pocket square has just been nonchalantly stuffed into the pocket, the socks are non-existent. He’s found the perfect balance of smart casual: he could be at Pitti Uomo for a trade show, a meeting, or at a friend’s wedding. In fact, he could have done them all and we’d have been none the wiser.

Smart Casual Panama Hat

The same goes for Benjamin Phillips. The combination of a seersucker fabric suit paired with the soft-collar shirt, and unkempt tie with trainers is beautiful. Note how he ensures the fine harmony between casual and smart remains intact with the pristine fold of the pocket square, worn in a similar way one would associate with a dinner jacket. The devil is in the detail, as they say.

Smart Casual White Corduroy

From occasions of celebration to moments of career importance, interviews are situations in which putting your best foot forward is a prerequisite. You want to make a good impression, and what better way to do so than with the outfit you are wearing? Traditionally, business suits would be the first and only option; any implementation of casualness was considered a no-no.

However, times have changed and particularly if you are interviewing at a startup or tech business, wearing a power suit will ultimately leave you sticking out like a sore thumb. Business casual interview attire may work, but it depends primarily on the location and company you’re speaking to. That doesn’t mean one should negate tailoring, but rather adapt.

This is a moment where breaking up your jacket and trousers would work a treat. Sticking to complementary colours, you have the opportunity to play around with checks and patterns for your clothing. A windowpane check or a houndstooth jacket would work incredibly well with a solid colour trouser, classic shirt and striped tie.

Smart Casual Mixing Jacket & Trousers
Business Casual Dark Trousers

These two ensembles deftly put together by Dapper Classic above showcase exactly what I mean. He’s dressed in a way that would certainly leave a good impression, whether he’s in an interview, having drinks with friends, dining out in a restaurant or just exploring the city.

Conclusion

Smart casual, when done right, and when you’ve experimented with combinations in your wardrobe enough, can almost be a one-size-fits-all. Whatever the occasion, wherever you are, you’ll always fit right in, whilst standing out in the best way. And should you need to be a little more prim and proper, a subtle change such as shoes for sneakers, the addition of a tie and an unlined jacket to a lined blazer, will shift you into business casual to take on the modern working world as we know it.

The codes of dress have been veering towards a more casual direction, and have been for some time. As we navigate this new, explorative world of menswear, be sure to take it on with an open mind, and a little lighthearted playfulness. After all, time really does fly when you’re having fun.