Can a T-Shirt be Smart Casual? If So, How?

Fashion changes in a flash. What was acceptable attire yesterday is out. Smart casual attire is in. What is smart casual? It's anything other than a suit and tie or a dress and heels. It's comfortable, it's what the stars wear, and it's conducive to creativity.

This is a close look at a man wearing a white shirt with his black pants.

When we think of T-shirts as being smart casual, we immediately envision Sonny Crockett. Don Johnson made men’s fashion back in the day. He could pair any colored T-shirt (I loved the orange one the best) with a white blazer, tuck his shades in the neckline, aim his gun, and delete the bad guys.

Jennifer Aniston, Brad Pitt, Pierce Brosnan, Trevor Noah, Jeff Dunham, Chris Pine, and Matt Damon are only a few of many celebrities whose pairing of a T with a blazer makes fashionistas take notice. They use jeans, dress pants, and dress shoes or sneaks to complete the look. Crockett wore loafers (with no socks.)

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What is Smart Casual?

This is a hand writing the words Dress Code with a red underline.

You might ask what “smart casual” is all about. Consider the dress code of the company for which you work. Business dress is required. One day, usually Friday, is set aside for “casual” dress. This generally means nice (not faded, ripped, or baggy) jeans, a crisp (not washed to death) shirt, and clean sneakers. No tie, no dress, no heels are allowed on a causal day.

Recent years have seen the release of movies and TV shows set in a business office (think Steve Carrell and Rainn Wilson.) Smart casual has come to be seen as nice slacks or jeans, plain T-shirts with no slogan or picture, and either nice dress shoes or sneakers. The pairing of a well-made, well-fitting T-shirt tucked into jeans or dress pants beneath a blazer has come to define “smart casual.”

The point of the whole look is that you’re representing something via a dress code. You wouldn’t tell people that you work for XYZ Corporation, and then be seen wearing ratty, sloppy clothes. You wouldn’t let the media picture you in those ratty clothes, if you were acting in a major motion picture or a new TV show. Smart casual is the new cool. 

Why A T-Shirt And Not A Collared Shirt?

A couple of men wearing shirts and denim pants.

With the worldwide Covid-19 strictures, business meetings are carried out over Zoom. Participants can wear a Polo shirt, casual collared shirt, or even a suit jacket over a shirt and tie. Since no one sees what bottoms participants are wearing, they can be in pajama bottoms, and no one would know or care.

The focus of today’s business world is still business, but what business people wear has been relaxed considerably. The smart casual style has taken over from restricting business attire. An oxford shirt, for example, can be worn beneath the odd jacket or even a tailored jacket and still answer the business casual dress code.

Everyone will agree that a T-shirt is the ultimate in casual wear. It can, however, fit the smart casual look in certain instances. Let’s say you were invited to a party or a wedding. The invitation said “casual attire.” This can mean anything from Dockers and dress shoes to khaki trousers and a jacket with a pocket square. Adding a crisp T-shirt to the look fits the bill.

Furthermore, certain venues no longer require special dress. Now that some churches, for instance, have relaxed their Covid-19 restrictions regarding mass gatherings, it’s permissible to wear a T-shirt with short pants in summer, khakis, jeans, or other casual dress. Pairing a T-shirt with a dress jacket or a denim jacket over dress pants has come to be seen as acceptable attire for church.

Here’s another scenario. You want to pop the question to the love of your life. You make reservations at a nearby four-star restaurant. The dress is “casual elegant.” You pull out your best pair of navy blue slacks, a quality, crisp new white T-shirt, your favorite navy blue blazer, tuck in a white pocket square, and your favorite casual shoes. You’re all set, but don’t forget the ring!

Where Did Smart Casual Begin?

A man wearing a black jacket over his white shirt and denim jeans.

Times change. When I was working in an office, a dress and heels were the acceptable business attire for a woman, while a suit and tie were the only thing men could wear to work. Then Google, Facebook, and other cyber-companies came along. They were young, hip, and dressed accordingly. No stuffy suits for them. No, they wore whatever the spirit moved them, and it didn’t stop their brains from over-achieving one iota.

Mindset has a lot to do with it. Back in the day, if you weren’t dressed in formal business attire, you were sent home with an admonition to mend your ways. Today, the clothing we don is considerably less important than what talent and creativity is between our ears. Do we give a hoot what the creator of the cell phone, the MP3, the home automation gig, or the Apple anything wears? Of course not; we’re too busy rockin’.

Some blame the Millennials for everything including wearing T-shirts to work. Millennials were the first generation to demand what they wanted and get it. Dining facilities inside grocery stores, wine instead of juice bars, delivery of every little thing imaginable, renting instead of buying homes, and taking Uber instead of owning a car can all be attributed to Millennials.

That they’ve invented incredible products and services is largely put aside; it’s the Millennials who are responsible for the smart casual wardrobe.

Where Is Smart Casual Today?

A woman wearing high-waist denim pants and red shirt.

When you’re sitting on giant bean bag chairs, or sitting at a table on the roof or in a nearby park, or sitting in a cubicle made to look like a racing car or the Starship Enterprise, you tend to think differently. Just ask anyone at Google. When you’re wearing a T-shirt, jeans, and sneakers, you’re more comfortable. Comfortable people create more.

Does your office allow you to sit on a comfortable sectional with your legs tucked up beneath you and a laptop on your knees? Can you have lunch at any one of 11 specialty cafes free of charge, or at least at a considerable discount? Can you wear your T-shirt with jeans, dress pants, or anything else that took your fancy that morning? So it is at Facebook.

The popular thinking is that comfortable people are free to think and create. They know they look good, so their minds are free to reach for the stars. Modern business has embraced this mindset. Its virtues can be seen in dozens of businesses, from Google and Facebook to Goldman Sachs, Target, and even Wall Street. Everyone from Fifth Avenue to Silicon Valley is celebrating the smart casual dress code.

The History Of The Smart Casual Look

A man wearing a dark blue blazer over his white shirt.

When you think that fashion doesn’t change much in 100 years, the 20th century was worth a serious double take. For instance, in the 19th century, the length of the pants’ legs was one of the few things that changed in men’s fashion. The stock around their shirt collars changed somewhat as well. In the 20th century, collars and cuffs became integrated into men’s shirts. For women, it went from hoop skirts to bustles.

The 20th century saw dresses go from the ground to ankle length, and then clean up to micro-minis, a new definition of low cut tops, the bikini, and no top hat or stock (gasp!) for men. It’s not surprising that casual dress began in California before it swept the country in the 1980s. It began as no tie or jacket for the men and pants and a nice blouse for the women.

Today, it’s anything goes. From Zuckerberg’s hoodie and T-shirt to Apple’s jean shorts-clad staff, smart casual means whatever the individual wants it to mean. The old “going to work” routine has been blown out of the water. Remote workers, work at home professionals, and even remote college studies have replaced “going to” these places.

Who cares what you wear? You’re in the privacy of your own home; what’s going on in your head is what’s important here, not what you wear.

The environment plays a huge part in the smart casual revolution. The casual aura of California gave rise to casual dress in its workplaces. Those who spent ten to fourteen hours a day behind a computer felt stifled in a suit and tie or a dress and heels. It severely curtailed creativity. Hence, business casual in the 90s and 00s. This gave way to smart casual soon thereafter.

Add to this the fact that women in the workplace have no idea how much of their bodies to reveal with their clothing. Too much skin, and the men in the office can’t think. Women in offices tend to wear a little less in order to attract the attention of their supervisors. If the supervisors catch a little glimpse of skin, then women’s questions will be answered or help given.

Yet that’s a dangerous precedent in an office, or anywhere, for that matter. The T-shirt and pants are an equalizer, so to speak. So, the smart casual look gives wearers the security to be themselves, the comfort to work long hours, and to free their minds for creativity.


What Does A Smart Casual Outfit Look Like?

Watch any Jeff Dunham video. He usually wears a T-shirt beneath a blazer atop dress pants or jeans. You don’t generally notice what he’s wearing, because you’re howling with laughter. Notice Matt Damon interviews. Most often, he’s clad in a collared shirt or a T-shirt. Every now and then, you’ll catch him wearing a jacket over one of them.

If you catch a Trevor Noah performance, you’ll notice the hoodie most of all. Occasionally, though, he’ll wear a T-shirt with a black bomber jacket. And that’s if you can notice because you’ll be laughing hysterically at his Indian routine. That’s what a smart casual outfit looks like.

Where Would You Wear Smart Casual Clothing?

I wouldn’t wear it to a job interview, but any other place is fair game. Churches, parties, business meetings, fine dining, weddings, concerts, and any other place for which you’d dress nicely is good for wearing smart casual dress.

What Items Are Suitable For Smart Casual?

An Oxford shirt, a button-down collared shirt, a Polo Shirt, a banded shirt with no collar, and a T-shirt are all suitable smart casual shirts. Dress pants, jeans, Dockers, and khakis can be worn beneath them. Bomber jackets, leather jackets, blazers, and casual jackets with or without a pocket square can be worn with these. Finish it all off with Hush Puppies, deck shoes, loafers, or sneakers for a complete smart casual look.

What’s The Difference Between Casual And Smart Casual?

If you wear jeans and a T-shirt or a nice shirt and pants, that’s casual. Anything other than a suit and tie or a dress and heels is casual. Dress it up with a jacket, and that’s smart casual.

What Are Good Colors For Smart Casual?

Don Johnson, in the part of Sonny Crockett, wore everything from orange to lilac to light blue, pink, mint green, and black and yellow beneath his white blazer. For Dunham, it’s a black T. My guess is to go with what feels right for your personality and the environment in which you’ll be wearing smart casual clothing.

What Is Smart Casual Dress Code?

Smart casual dress code is anything that’s not a suit and tie or a dress and heels. It can be jeans and a T, it can be Dockers and a Polo shirt, it can be dress pants and an Oxford shirt, or it can be any combination of these. Add a jacket or not, and you have a smart casual dress code.

Should You Dress Up Or Down?

That depends upon the occasion or venue of your visit. It also depends on the time of year. For example, you wouldn’t wear a blazer or a heavy shirt or pants in summer. Thus, if it’s an office, dress down. If it’s a job interview, dress up. For other occasions and venues, dress accordingly. For instance, if it’s a get-together at church, dress down. If it’s a baptism, dress up.

Can A Bomber Jacket Pass For Smart Casual?

You know it’s fashionable if The Rock, Ryan Gosling, and Bradley Cooper wear it. If you notice that they’re also wearing a T beneath their bomber jackets, then it has to be okay. Some wear them with jeans, some with casual pants. Kate Upton wears hers with black jeans and a T. The answer to that question is absolutely!

Can You Wear Sneakers With Smart Casual?

If you couldn’t, we’d all just go home. Mind you, you have to wear squeaky clean sneakers with no ragged ties, no scuffs on heel or toe, and they have to be completely tied with no tongue flapping. It would be nice if the sneakers complemented the outfit, but contrast is good, too, as long as it isn’t too flashy.


Luxe Digital: Smart Casual Style Guide For Men: How To Instantly Upgrade Your Look

Business Insider: What Smart Casual Dress Code Means

Lawrence Hunt Fashion: When Best to Wear Dress Shirts, Formal Shirts, Sport Shirts, or Polos

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NPR: Not Just Fridays: More Companies Embrace Casual Dress Codes

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