The Curse of Smart Casual


A few weeks ago, a reader posed what turned out to be a somewhat complicated question; “what do I wear,” he asked, “to a wedding where the dress code is “smart casual”?

In most cases, a wedding is one of those events that are fairly easy to dress for. In the summer, a well tailored poplin or linen suit should fit the bill. Depending on regional preferences, perhaps seersucker or, as was the case for my wedding, white ducks and a blue blazer. For formal events, a morning suit or white dinner jacket is best for daytime and of course a dark colored dinner jacket is always correct for an evening wedding. (Try midnight blue instead of black for some real style)

Personally, I have a rule when inviting others to an event of mine; either I tell my guests in detail what they should wear or I don’t tell them at all. Why, for an occasion as important as a wedding, would the host offer such an ambiguous sartorial instruction as “smart casual” – especially when doing so throws a wrench into an understood social convention? Why do otherwise reasonable people do such frustrating things?

My own theory is that we all want to be creative and different at important moments in our lives. We want to stand out from the pack and be recalled as creative. That’s all well and good, but it only works when everyone is included in the plan.

Several years ago some friend of ours decided to throw a surprise wedding – they wanted to be unconventional, so instead of wedding invitations they sent out invitations to an open house. They had just moved to a lovely mountainside location, so it made sense to those receiving the invitation. The problem was that we live on the other side of the country and flying out for an afternoon open house would have been expensive and difficult, so we declined. This couple was so intent on keeping the true event a surprise that they never let us know what we were really missing – not even a hint. It took a while to get over that one.

My point is that unless everyone is on the same page, you are putting an undue burden on your guests to figure out what’s going on. Had we known the truth, we would have been on the next plane. To a lesser extent, cryptic phrases like “smart casual,” “summer festive” or worse, “beachy fun” leave the wedding guest in a bind. To one person, smart casual may mean tailored chinos and polo shirt while to another it might be an elegant suit with no tie but a nice pocket square. And what the heck is beachy fun – should I wear swim trunks?

In this case my reader knew the groom’s personality and that his likely attire would be a suit and tie. The groom’s only additional direction was that he and his fiancé wanted people to be “comfortable.” Though intended to be helpful, this additional nugget of information only served to make things more confusing.

My approach to this unfortunately vague scenario is to go classically simple. A nice sport coat, open collared shirt, pressed trousers and polished shoes will get you through almost any situation. Blue blazers in particular earn their keep and, because of their inherent versatility, can handle dressy and casual scenarios with aplomb.

All in all, when faced with situations such as these it’s best to sit back and take a deep breath. If you are not able to or comfortable with asking your hosts for some specific direction, take the middle route. Try not to over dress, but for goodness sake do not under dress.


Chris Hogan, an association executive based in Washington, D.C., blogs at A lifelong interest in style and clothing led to sales and management positions at several Ralph Lauren stores and an active wardrobe consulting practice


  1. I enjoy your emails on Mens Fashion. My wardrobe is disgusting, but hopefully it will improve thanks to these articles.