Smart Casual vs. Business Casual: What to Know, What to Wear

Business casual is a form of attire we are pretty familiar with, but this new term “smart casual” may leave you a little confused. In reality, there are subtle differences between the business casual and smart casual styles, both often found in an office or professional setting, that make each their own unique style. Take a look at the details below on smart casual versus business casual to decide which you prefer or what is most appropriate for your professional settings.

So what is Smart Casual?

Smart casual is a balance between appropriate professionalism and leisurely attire; comfort is prioritized slightly higher with smart casual compared to business casual. For a smart casual dress code, you can relax a bit more than you normally would for an office look. This may also be a popular wardrobe choice for corporate events or conferences.

We ladies can get away with a lot more with smart casual than we normally could, whereas I would say this is not too different for men from business casual. The key is maintaining a clean and fresh look; your hair shouldn’t be made a mess and your shirt have stains. Smart casual is exactly that – you want to look smart, but casual about it. Example: Blazers over a relaxed tee, a cardigan with a lengthy skirt, or for men, a sport coat over their jeans and button down. Check out my recommendations below when it comes to getting dressed for smart casual!

What’s Business Casual?

Business casual is a more relaxed formal wear, but it is not quite sweatshirts and jeans either! Business casual is more polished than smart casual, and it probably has some more strict requirements in your office dress code. Some typical business casual styles include button-downs, collared blouses, dress slacks, and below-the-knee skirts.

Proper shoe wear includes closed-toe flats, high heels, or dress boots. You could be more creative with shoes when you’re working with a smart casual outfit versus the business casual, so sneakers and flip flops or wedged summer sandals would not be an appropriate option.

The Wardrobe Basics

Since smart casual and business casual styles are so similar, there are a few different staple items your closet should have. These can be styled various ways to accommodate your smart and business casual needs, and because of the design of these specific styles I’m featuring, they can also be used in so many other outfits, from casual and vacation to running errands and date nights.

Women’s Business and Smart Casual Staples

Everywhere Pants

These pants could work for both smart and business casual! They are the ideal pants for the office, weddings or parties, corporate events, or a casual Saturday off the clock. The no-roll waistband stabilizes the pants without adding bulk. They feature a tailored look that is very flattering on most bodies, and (my favorite) they are water- and wrinkle-resistant!

Unity Hi-Rise 7/8

A crisp matte pair of leggings with a multitude of solid color options are the perfect foundational piece to a smart casual look. The 7/8 length has a 24-inch inseam across all sizes and the most buttery soft and barely-there-feeling material you’ll find. These have an elegant, streamlined pocketless style that can be dressed up easily with a draping cardigan or a long untucked button-down blouse. Check out a few tips on how to style leggings appropriately for the workplace on the blog.

Wanderer T

This wrinkle-free and pet hair-resistant top is an upgraded version of the classic V neck t-shirt. The Wanderer is made of polyester (86%) and spandex (14%), so it is silky soft, sweat-wicking, and ventilating mesh is integrated into a stripe design for a unique and gorgeous look. This comes in a short or long sleeve length, and both are easy to layer for a simple office look, whether you pair it with the above Everywhere Pants or the Unity leggings with a blazer or cardigan!

Tribeca Skirt

Everyone loves a good sweater, but this adorable skirt brings all the warm fuzzy feels down for the ultimate smart or business casual outfit. Feel as comfy as you would in your favorite cozy sweater, and simply combine with a more casual top like the Wanderer T for smart casual or style it up for a more business-professional look with a matching sweater or a Parallel Tank and blazer.

Parallel Tank

The Parallel is a tank everyone needs in their closet; it is the most brilliant tank with optimal coverage, wide shoulder straps, and reinforced seams that are made to last! The black or white color are the 2 basic colors that can fit in any wardrobe, but consider adding a little more color with any of the various options in my boutique. I love to layer the lilac or brick red under a cardigan or blazer for the office, and the material is just ultra soft with the ribbed effect.

Men’s Staple Professional Items

Office Chinos

Feel at ease in your business casual wear with these posh-looking—but plush-feeling—dress Chinos. From the barely-visible hem to every chafe-free seam in between, these pants will be your new favorite for the office and more. Inseams vary from 30″ to 33″, some colors may have limited sizes left.

Ventilation Collar Polo

This crisp polo with sharp edges and details is more comfortable than you would expect with its light, breathable fabric made from nylon and spandex. The material won’t cling to your dog hair either, so it will always look fresh and clean when you get dressed.

Traveler Pants

Every business casual or smart casual wardrobe for men needs this pair of high-quality matte slacks finished with low-profile pockets, belt loops, burnished hardware, and a tailored fit that skims and slims your shape. Inseams vary from 31″ to 34″, which can be rolled and cuffed at the bottom for some added style.

Meridian 1/4 Zip Sweater

This comfy sweater is the ideal option for the office, and you can take it right out to the golf course after hours too! Find 2 concealed pockets inside the lined knit fabric that cuts at a flattering position on the waist. A fabric panel sits behind the smooth-gliding zipper to keep the cold feel off your skin.

Business Attire Q&A

Can business casual be jeans?

It is arguable that smart casual outfits can feature jeans, but a business casual dress code is not usually one for jeans. Jeans have historically been a no-no in the business casual setting, perhaps only reserved for “Casual Friday” at best, so I would say avoid mixing jeans with business casual outfits. However, you could pull off jeans in a smart casual outfit when appropriate; you can easily consult your employee dress code, or observe how others are often dressing.

At the end of the day, it is most important to look clean and professional, especially if you are wearing denim jeans; don’t show up in those old torn jeans with the holes or funky patterns. I would go for a solid dark colored jean, but I don’t actually own any jeans myself anymore. Navy Everywhere Pants do the trick for me and are far more comfortable than any denim pant I’ve tried!

Is business casual and/or smart casual the same as business attire?

Settings that call for a more professional business attire may include similar features to your business casual wardrobe, but you will still want to dress a little more buttoned up than that. A formal business meeting, corporate interview, or some offices may require a more refined look that probably prohibits jeans, open-toe shoes, t-shirts, leggings, and hats.

For women, business attire should include a blazer, while for men it should include a tie and jacket of sorts. I find it easier in these situations to wear a dress and style it up with a blazer and heels, but women’s Everywhere Pants and Tribeca Skirt or the men’s Office Chinos will easily do the trick (plus be way more comfortable than what everyone else in the boardroom will be wearing).

What should I wear for a job interview?

Be prepared to impress by dressing for success; in my opinion, it is important to be comfortable in what you are wearing so you are your most confident self, but I would also aim for a business casual look over smart casual. I don’t think you could ever be overdressed for a job interview, unless perhaps you try wearing a tuxedo to a fitness-coaching job interview, or well, a tuxedo to any job interview for that matter.

Lean on a blazer or a button-down to style your outfit for a job interview, especially in the office/corporate setting; it would be better to feel overdressed than underdressed no matter what. Remember to take a look around during your interview to what other folks are wearing in the office. That will be a great indicator on how to dress for the next interview or your first day on the job!

What is better to wear for a professional headshot?

A professional headshot is essential because you never know when you will need one. Take the time to dress up and look your best when you are getting your headshots done, but you can definitely go for a more smart casual look with some jeans down below for something like this. A great headshot should actually focus on your face/upper body, so it shouldn’t matter what you wear down below if you’re pointing the camera in the right direction. Opt for solid colors over patterns and a simple background that isn’t distracting; any white or solid-painted wall would be ideal. Remember to smile and stand confident (you’ll have better posture in the photo when you stand instead of sit!).

You don’t need to get your headshots done professionally, by the way. I had done my hair and makeup one day to celebrate my grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary, so I took that opportunity to get my professional headshot in while I was already looking my best; I luckily was able to have the event photographer snap a few photos of me while we were setting up for the party, but our phones today have such great camera qualities that you could easily have someone at home or in the office take a few photos for you. Try to use natural sunlight from windows to brighten your face or otherwise try to take the photo from the direction the light is pointing so your face is well lit.

Do you have a question about business style? Feel free to submit them here, or take the style quiz for a customized outfit recommendation based on your preferences and body type.