By Jim Adams
Dress clothes aren’t dead. They never will be. I’m a classic guy who likes to wear a sport coat, shirt and tie every day. But even I admit that each morning, my dress pants frequently get bumped for cords, chinos or jeans, and my ties are more often paired with checked or patterned shirts instead of whites and other plains.
In part, it’s a dress-code response to the casual shift in our North American lifestyle. I also believe that men’s sportswear has reached an all-time high in sophistication allowing us to challenge the strict boundaries between what is dress and what is casual attire.
Context Is Everything
Business/casual and smart/casual are related terms, but their definitions are unclear. Today’s slash-casual combinations are elegant and appropriate for a wide variety of occasions once deemed suit-and-tie-only. But like all fashion, the slash-casual idea is evolving, and there are nuances in what to wear depending on context.
Your outfit should always be clean, pressed and coordinated, and depending on the setting, it may include some combination of: sportcoat; dress pants, chinos, linen pants or jeans; sport shirt, dress shirt, tie, sweater, polo or T-shirt (without logos or graphics); and a stylish leather- or flexible-soled shoe.
In slash casual, there is no place for leisure items like flip-flops, runners, tank tops and athletic or technical wear. There are also occasions where your slash-casual wardrobe—no matter how smart or how business-oriented it may seem—isn’t dressy enough. (Think job interview and think suit.)
What follows is a simple guide to understanding how to make a slash-casual look work for you. If you’ve still got questions, let’s talk it out at the store.
There’s nothing casual about business and the accepted team uniform is the suit. So no matter how relaxed the style of the moment, your smart-casual attire should minimally include a sport coat or blazer, dress pants or pressed khakis, dress shirt or dressy sport shirt, and a tie. If you’re employed at a corporate head office, work in the financial sector or are a manager representing a larger firm, you need to think about the people—clients and colleagues—you will be meeting. In this environment, jeans are never appropriate. Always remember that in a business setting, you’ll be more uncomfortable if you are under-dressed than if you are over-dressed.
What if you don’t work in a corporate head office? Then you’re like zillions of other professionals (in self-employment, sales, research, education, health care, government, NGOs and creative and design agencies, to name a few) whose work environment today has a fluid dress code. Regardless, you have clients to meet, meetings to attend and a professional reputation to maintain.
Two pieces of advice: Don’t set your standards too low just because you can, and don’t assume looking good means you have to be uncomfortable. You, too, can up your game easily by following the basic business-casual guidelines above.
If your casual office culture revolves around jeans, take denim, which for many guys is the new dress pant, to fresh heights by changing how you wear it. For starters, be sure your office jeans are a dark or dressy wash, nicely fitted, hemmed properly and without rips or tears. Replace the T-shirt and crew-neck sweater with a crisp sport shirt (with or without a tie). Ditch the runners and scuffed boots for a pair of tan leather oxfords or leather casual shoes and a matching belt. If you want to enhance your look, add a vest or sport coat. In fact, always keep a blazer or sport coat on the back of your office door for meetings. You’re still in jeans, but the finished image is so much more polished, and that presence is a service to you and your organization.
Once upon a time, a gentleman going out for an evening or on a date always wore a sport coat, dress pants, dress shirt and tie—standard dress code. If you don’t believe me, go rent a Cary Grant film. Sure it isn’t the 1950s, but the influence of contemporary European fashion—with its richly textured fabrics, forward designs and interesting details—has revived the idea of looking smart at night, and there are many different ways to do it.
If it’s your first date, show the best you’ve got to wear, even if you’re in casual pants or jeans. A sport coat is your armour. I’ve been out with friends for dinner and the only guy wearing a jacket. Trust me, people treat you differently. Everyone from cabbies to restaurant hosts and servers think you’re the boss and they pay closer attention to what you say and want. It’s also just a great idea to slightly dress things up for an evening out. Forget the tie if the night is relaxed, but always be sure your outfit is clean and pressed.
Weddings, parties and other special occasions present a challenge for guys who want to dress casually. You should take a cue from the style of your hosts and the setting in which the event will be held. A bridal party wearing only tuxedos and gowns for their ballroom wedding sets a particular tone, and in that case, you should be wearing a suit. An event held at a cottage, golf club or city hall will provide you with some clues as to what’s appropriate to wear. When in doubt, choose from the list of tried-and-true options—a casual-fabric suit; a sportcoat, dress shirt, casual pants and tie; or an open-necked sport shirt, dress pants and navy blazer—and you can’t go wrong. A T-shirt, on the other hand, even when paired with a sportcoat, is too relaxed. Remember, it’s an occasion so pull together an outfit that conveys respect for the event.
Tips for Smart Dressing
• The sportcoat is a must, but a suit can also be worn casually with a tie or with a shirt alone (open-neck or buttoned-up)
• When it comes to casual, your choice of fabric may say as much as the articles of clothing you choose. For some guys, a cotton or linen suit, even with a dress shirt and tie, is dressing down compared to their daily blue boardroom suit
• Shoes play a huge role in setting a smart standard. Leather oxfords, brogues or loafers worn with casual pants indicate you are trending upscale instead of down. Runners, sandals, sport boots and hikers scream leisure
• When in doubt, push your smart quotient up a notch knowing that you can always take off a jacket or tie and roll up your sleeves to relax your look
• On that note, always carry a tie. It’s a portable insurance policy that you can easily add or remove if you’ve misread the mood of the gathering