Updated: Nov 13
Dressing for work can be tricky enough, but when you add in a dress code that's a little more ambiguous, it can be tough to know what to wear.
In this post, we'll define the term 'smart casual' and share how female professionals and leaders can successfully dress for it.
So read on to learn everything you need to know about dressing smart casually in today's workplaces.
What is smart casual and what are the guidelines for dressing in this style?
Smart casual is a rather ambiguous dress code that can vary depending on the workplace, company and industry. If you're unsure about what is and isn't acceptable in your workplace, don't be afraid to ask your HR department for how they interpret the dress code. Or simply look around, particularly at senior leaders, to get a sense of what’s appropriate.
Smart casual is professional but a little relaxed - a polished take on more casual pieces of clothing as well as casual or fun items paired back with smarter pieces. Items are typically less structured and the formality downgraded from traditional corporate wear. For women, this means that items such as a classic two-piece suit or corporate dresses can be avoided.
To nail the smart casual look, choose items such as:
Tops: Neutral or colourful and/or print blouses and shirts, smart cardigans in dressy fabrics such as crepe knit, silk button up shirts or collared shirts. Well tailored blazers, worn as a separate rather than as a matching suit, are also a great way to smarten up a look.
Bottoms: tailored pants (choose from tapered, straight or wide leg styles), smart chino pants and dark wash denim, but be mindful jeans may or may not be suitable, depending on the company. Midi skirts and stylish pencil skirts (knee length or below) also work well.
Dresses: Smart midi dresses, wrap dresses, stylish pencil dresses and smart belted shirt dresses. Keep dresses knee length or below. Avoid very classic/formal pencil dresses.
Shoes: Both heels and flats are acceptable for a smart casual look. Choose from smart ballet or pointed flats, loafers or brogues. For heels, choose sling-backs, kitten heels, pumps, block heels, smart wedges and ankle boots.
Accessories: bolder jewellery adds your own personal touch but limit to one or two statement pieces. Or select a couple of more refined and simple accessories such as earrings, bracelets and necklaces. Silk scarves also add a smart, polished look to an outfit.
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How to put together a smart casual outfit
One of the most important aspects of this dress code is the need to exercise knowledge and good taste while injecting your own personal style into your outfit, so that you stand out from the crowd.
For female professionals, it's important to have a few key pieces that can be mixed and matched to create a variety of smart casual looks.
Start with the basics, which are also great investment pieces for your wardrobe: a tailored blazer, a well-fitting tailored pair of pants or stylish skirt and a smart blouse. If you'd like to learn more about exactly what items to invest in for your professional wardrobe, read my article here.
A blazer, for example, can be paired with trousers and a blouse for a polished smart casual look or worn with jeans and a tee for a casual Friday at the office.
Tailored pants can also be dressed up or down, depending on the occasion. For a more casual look, pair them with a smart cardigan and for a dressier look, choose a button-down shirt or blouse.
Examples of smart casual outfits for female professionals
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Avoid The Top 5 Smart Casual Dress Code Mistakes
1. Wearing very casual clothes. It's far better to be overdressed than underdressed. Avoid wearing casual, weekend wear to the office such as cargo or jogger pants, floaty or long summer dresses, hoodies/jumpers, mini-skirts and graphic or logo t-shirts
2. Dressing head to toe in traditional corporate wear. This can send the message that you don't understand the dress code or are out of touch with what's relevant today. It can also signal a lack of personal style. While some traditional items can be paired back with more casual items, avoid a very stuffy corporate look.
3. Paying little attention to your grooming. The key is to look professional so your entire outfit, including your shoes, should be in great condition. That means there are no visible stains, pulled or loose threads, scuff marks or broken heels. Your hair and makeup should also look polished and clothes are wrinkle free.
4. Wearing any of the following:
Leggings or anything that you would wear to a gym
Spaghetti strap/halter top/strapless tops
Low cut tops that visibly show cleavage
Anything that is even remotely see-through
Lycra or any tight-fitting fabrics
Thongs or flip flops
5. Wearing clothes that don't fit well. This really goes for any dress code, but when it comes to smart casual, it's particularly important to maintain a professional look versus a sloppy one.
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The benefits of dressing professionally, no matter what the dress code.
Many female professionals that I speak with tell me of the challenge
of finding clothing that is both stylish and appropriate for the workplace.
One way to approach this challenge is to focus on creating a unique personal style.
When you know how to define and dress who you are, through different colours, fabrics, and silhouettes, you can put together a professional wardrobe that expresses your personality and shows off your sense of style.
In addition to helping you feel more confident in the workplace, dressing professionally and having a strong sense of personal style can also help you to be seen as more capable, relevant and reliable.
Smart casual is probably the most difficult dress code to master, but with a little guidance, you can easily put together outfits that will make you look and feel your best. Avoid making the common mistakes and if you'd like to take your career wardrobe up a notch, book a call and let's explore what that would look like for you.
You can also check my Million Dollar Style program here. Learn my 6 step Style IQ Framework that makes style easy and success effortless.