In the ever-changing modern office, dress code is the one thing that has remained largely ambiguous. And while other office guidelines for decorum, employer/employee relations and punctuality are typically clearly laid out, the ever-elusive "office dress code" usually isn't.
So before you go buy a dozen t-shirts or a suit in the name of "smart casual," you might be curious - what does it actually look like for the office?
TheStreet asked experts what practically dressing "smart casual" is for men and women.
What Is Smart Casual?
Smart casual is a dress code that is typically comprised of well-fitting, neat and appropriate pieces that are slightly less formal than a business casual or business professional dress code. However, smart casual is much more elevated and put-together than dressing for off-hours and avoids items that are too casual or loose-fitting.
Getting its origins as far back as the 1920s, the term "smart casual" has evolved over the decades to its most common connotations today.
But, how do experts define "smart casual"?
According to Dave Arnold, President of Arnold Partners, LLC and executive recruiter for the tech industry, dressing "smart casual" is much more about elevating typically casual looks.
"Smart casual is employing finer-quality clothes that are still casual but well-fitted, in-style and of good fabrics. Smart casual does not imply flashy or flamboyant," Arnold told TheStreet. "Take a look in the mirror before you leave the house and smile. This should never be construed as arrogance or trying to out-dress your peers. It is a matter of looking sharp and in-style. As a recruiter I look for people who have self-confidence and self-awareness - how they dress and how they carry themselves is part of this."
In fact, Arnold claims that, as a recruiter, dressing smart casual as a default for interviews can be essential to getting the gig - and eventually getting promotions as well.
"For interviews it is tricky. You need to learn the culture of the company before your interview. If possible, go a day before and watch people come and go from the building to get a sense of the dress code, or find a contact on LinkedIn who works there and ask them," Arnold advises. "Dress one level above your interviewer. Have your spouse, roommate, best friend, personal shopper approve your outfit."
But apart from the recruiter perspective, stylists have their own definition of smart casual.
For Diane Lloyde Roth, who has dressed CEOs and celebrities alike as the owner of the luxury boutique L'Armoire in New Canaan, Conn., smart casual is much more about making sure you are focusing on how your clothes fit and if the individual pieces look put-together.
"This is not the time to use a cheap blouse or T-shirt that is wrinkled and does not fit correctly," Roth says. "You are supposed to look smart but casual, not like you just finished a workout or pulled your clothes out of the hamper! Smart casual is perfect for an outing with business associates, especially during the daytime when you will be out of the office or not in a formal environment."
The transitional nature of smart casual - from the office to an event or lunch meeting - seems to be a major aspect when picking out your daily ensemble, according to these experts. Will Noguchi, head stylist at Bombfell, claims as much. The men's stylist has worked with the likes of Ralph Lauren, (RL - Get Report) Covergirl, Harper's Bazaar Greece, Vogue Portugal, Vogue Arabia and more - and certainly knows a thing or two about styling customers for the office.
"The idea behind smart casual is to dress 'smart' by looking professional while also being approachable and ready for any occasion," Noguchi told TheStreet. "My smart casual mantra is 'elevated basics.' When shopping, look for well-fitting items in solid colors that are a step above your casual wear. Items with elevated trims, buttons, and finishing details help dress up your look and allow your basics to be more office appropriate."
The Importance of Dressing Well
But apart from looking nicer, multiple studies have shown that dressing more professionally (as with a smart casual dress standard) can actually lead to more CEO-like qualities.
A study done by Yale in 2014 used a sampling of 128 men between the ages of 18 and 32 to participate in mock negotiations. The sampling was split into three groups - one that dressed "poorly," another that dressed neutrally and one that dressed professionally. While the groups dressed poorly and neutrally amassed hypothetical profits of $680,000 and $1.58 million respectively, the participants who dressed professionally generated a hypothetical average profit of $2.1 million. And while the study certainly doesn't take every situation into account when dressing nicely for work, there are dozens of other studies that point to other benefits of dressing well - including promotions and raises.
A 2015 study by the Social Psychological and Personality Science journal concluded that people who dressed more professionally had better big-picture-making skills and exhibited higher levels of abstract thinking. The study was performed on 361 participants in five different sub-studies.
But apart from stronger big-picture thinking, dressing better may actually correspond to promotions in the workplace.
In fact, a recent survey by OfficeTeam concluded that 86% of professionals and 80% of managers claimed that clothing choices affected someone's chances of being promoted.
As a tech recruiter, Arnold claims as much.
"Dressing well everyday once you have your new job is also important. Well dressed people are generally more confident and perceived to be well organized," Arnold added. "Dressing smart casual will lead to faster promotions and a stronger reputation in the workplace. It just needs to be done with a dollop of class and not be over the top."
So, how do you actually dress smart casual?
How to Dress Smart Casual
Much like the style itself, dressing smart casual seems to have shifting parameters depending on the particular office. Still, TheStreet got some helpful tips from experts for a variety of work environments and personal styles.
Consistent throughout their tips, stylists and recruiters generally concluded that dressing "smart casual" is more about pieces that are elevated from what you might typically wear. For example, several stylists suggested taking basics like tailored dresses or pants and paring them with nice but more casual pieces.
Smart Casual for Women
Women generally have more of a range when dressing for work. And with so many more options than their male counterparts, it can be that much more confusing when determining what "smart casual" actually looks like (especially when office guidelines are ambiguous).
Stephanie Naznitsky, executive director for OfficeTeam, claims that you might not even have to change your wardrobe too much if you already have business-appropriate staples.
"You may be able to mix and match elements from formal and casual dress codes and add certain accessories to show your personality. For example, a tailored cotton casual dress with a formal blazer could be considered smart casual," Naznitsky wrote in a note.
But for women, what kinds of things are good for smart casual?
Elements of Smart Casual
For the most part, a rotation of dresses, blazers, cardigans, tailored pants, heels and khakis are generally appropriate. But the main thing experts stressed was not to try to be too flashy or trendy, and to instead focus on accessorizing or using unique design elements to dress up a regular, well-fitted outfit.
"Smart casual is more about the ability to mix pieces in a polished way than about the actual pieces themselves. For example, a blazer works for both smart casual and business casual," Maria Turkel, a stylist and former TV wardrobe supervisor told TheStreet. "Wearing a blazer in a smart casual way is more about the ability to create outfits using color, pattern and texture."
When she isn't helping dress clients at Fortune 500 companies or start-up CEOs, Turkel, as a wardrobe supervisor for the classic TV show "Friends," helped dress the likes of Jennifer Aniston and David Schwimmer - and claims the experience helped her get an idea of what "smart casual" was.
"The characters on 'Friends' always dressed smart casual by the simple fact that every single piece of each outfit was thought out and worked on by a team of people - the costume designer, wardrobe supervisors, producers and actors all weighed in. Color, pattern, texture and proportion were all major factors in creating each outfit for each character in each set. Think of Ross' suits - rarely did he wear a basic white or blue shirt and navy suit. The overall outfit was defined by tone and pattern," Turkel said.
Focusing on color, pattern and proportion are a big part of a smart casual outfit.
Instead of wearing a basic T-shirt, try one that is more refined, with better quality fabric. Turkel also recommends not wearing anything too low-cut (including pants), and to stick to well-fitting classics like pencil skirts or tailored pants. In terms of jeans, Turkel advises to only wear them if you are sure others in the office will be doing the same.
For a nice, put-together smart casual outfit, Turkel recommends spicing up your ensemble with a printed blouse with additional style elements like a tie around the neck or piping down the front - and perhaps pair it with a nice wool sweater in a solid color.
Roth seems in agreement, although she claims that if your office is a bit more casual, items like jeans, nice T-shirts or jackets may be appropriate.
"Employers want to see someone that knows the difference between dressing for work, home or a nightclub," she says. "They want someone who takes pride in her appearance, because that will translate into her work. Smart casual shows that you have a brain and that even while you are dressing casual, you are putting thought, and pride, into your appearance."
Smart Casual for Men
With the general blurriness between business casual and smart casual, especially for men, what options are there?
If you're stumped, Arnold recommends enlisting expert aid.
"Get some help. High-end department stores have personal shoppers to help get you started," Arnold suggests. "There are several misconceptions - one, you need not spend a fortune to look good. Two, you need not look like a magazine model to look good. Three, If the people around you dress really casually you may actually stand out too much. Dress one level above the mean."
So, what constitutes "one level above the mean" for men?
Elements of Smart Casual
Most stylists pointed to fit being the most important element of dressing smart casual for men. Ensuring all pants, shirts, cardigans and blazers are tailored or well-fitted can make a huge difference.
Still, there is definitely more to a "smart causal" wardrobe than just making sure everything fits your body.
"After fit, I suggest diversifying your layering options. Wearing more than a shirt and pants instantly elevates your style and gives you a more polished aesthetic," Noguchi said. "My three must haves for a smart casual lifestyle would be a sharp white button down shirt, tapered navy chinos, and a casual layering piece like a knit blazer or a fitted cardigan."
Additionally, Alex Sumner, creative director for Acustom Apparel - a styling service for men - recommends following a simple acronym: "K.I.S.S. - Keep It Simple Stupid. Clothes should frame us and reflect that we are intelligent, adept and savvy," Sumner said.
Dressing up more casual pieces like loafers or sneakers by opting for luxury brands or keeping a well-fitted, neutral blazer on hand do the trick for smart casual in or out of the office.
"What I would always suggest doing is erring on the side of being over-dressed rather than underdressed," Sumner suggests. "Having a wonderfully fitted and classic navy and grey suit allows you the flexibility to wear each of those for a business meeting and thus you can transition easily in a bit more dressed down way with perhaps the blazer and dress slacks or khakis."
For both men and women, "smart casual" is much more about elevating basic pieces and ensuring you are matching (or better still, one-upping) your colleagues' level of dress.
"Regardless of how trends might change, having well fitted, classic designed garments with simple colors and patterns will always reflect smarts," Sumner says.
Smart Casual Faux Pas
Still, there are definitely a few things you should avoid when shopping for smart casual pieces.
Some of the major fashion faux pas that experts have spotted in dressing smart casual tend to revolve around being too casual or oscillating to the opposite side of the spectrum and going too flashy.
"Never come across as flashy or showy, and stick with colors that match and don't overdo patterns," Sumner says. "Do not fall prey to fashion trends or the whimsical dictates of magazines espousing you seek to be a hip dresser. What worked for my father at Yale in 1945 is still apt for our 16-year-old son at St. Mark's boarding school in Massachusetts," Sumner says. "Classic style that is simple and clean always wins the day!"
Wearing things that are too busy or with complex prints is a common faux pas, according to Noguchi, along with baggy or poorly-fitted clothing for men.
The objective for smart casual remains fairly simple: "You want to look clean, neat and pulled together. You want your outfit to appear thought-out, not thrown together," Roth says.
Along the same lines, those like Turkel claim that even wearing fabrics that are too casual (like T-shirt material or cotton) can come off as too casual, as can low-cut shirts for women or skin showing around the waist.
A tip to avoid being too trendy or flashy? Keep your outfit focused.
"One way to almost always hit the mark: have a focal point to each outfit," Turkel recommends. "Want to wear a bold patterned jacket or sweater? Then keep the rest of the pieces more sedate."
Where and When to Wear Smart Casual
Well, obviously the office. But there are other occasions where a smart casual ensemble is appropriate and can help you plan for going from work to outside events.
When dressing for an interview, most experts suggested putting your best foot forward when dressing up.
"The art of dressing for an interview can be a tough egg to crack, but sticking to the 'smart casual' aesthetic is a great jumping-off point," Noguchi said. "Keeping with elevated basics allows for the interviewer to focus on what you're saying and not what you're wearing."
But apart from the boardroom or your interviewer's office, smart casual is meant to transition.
"Evening networking and business cocktail parties are ideal for smart casual, unless the event invitation specifies a more conservative or black tie dress code," Turkel says. "Daytime luncheons and conferences are also ideal for smart casual. If you own your own business and see clients throughout the day, smart casual makes sense: polished enough for meetings, but casual enough for running errands in between or heading straight to school pick-ups and events."
Are Offices Becoming Smart Casual?
It certainly seems so.
For Arnold, the tech space especially has become a more casual atmosphere.
"It has devolved to jeans and T-shirts in many tech companies," Arnold explained. "You can still dress smart. Well-crafted jeans, well-tailored T-shirts and in-style shoes all put together can make a subtle but noticeable difference. In my view it has become more casual, sort to the Mark Zuckerberg effect."
"As office environments diversify so do the dress codes," Noguchi said. "Aside from maybe banking, most workplaces are allowing their employees to 'dress appropriately.' Not only does this allow employees to be more comfortable, it also lets them express themselves through their clothing."
Offices everywhere are increasingly becoming more open-ended when it comes to dress code (hence the confusion over appropriate attire in the first place). But an easy way to ensure you are always dressed properly for your job is simply to ask.
Asking your boss or fellow employees what your office deems as "smart casual" (or business casual for that matter) can be a really simple way to get it right the first time and help yourself avoid any awkward run-ins with HR or colleagues over dress code issues.