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UPDATED: How to avoid common ‘smart casual workwear’ mishaps

With apologies to Bob Dylan, times are changing – especially with the relaxation of workplace dress codes. To be specific, the popular trend in most modern workplaces is ‘smart casual workwear.’

One Simon Jersey survey of 2,000 UK workers shows 36% of people describe their current workplace dress code as ‘smart casual.’ By comparison, a mere 5% say that their dress code is ‘very smart’, with a further 24% describing it as ‘smart’.

UPDATE: Scroll down to learn how these figures have grown since Covid-19.

Clearly, smart casual dress is the way forward for many organisations. However, there’s one clear problem with that fact: One out of every three people doesn’t know what ‘smart casual’ means!

Think that not knowing what 'smart casual workwear' means can't affect your career progression? 37% of managers have denied someone a promotion or pay raise due to their inappropriate clothing.

Dress code appreciation can impact your career progress

Currently, 34% of UK workers don’t understand what to wear in order to comply with a smart casual dress code. In fact, 7% of the respondents said they would wear a suit just to be on the safe side!

This is a bigger issue than you might think.

In short, employees risk embarrassing themselves if they make the wrong choices in work clothes. Moreover, respondents indicate that the way you dress can impact how your bosses perceive you. Which, in turn, could even have an impact on your wider career progression.

Oddly enough, two-thirds of those polled felt the way they dressed WOULD have a bearing on their promotion chances. Meanwhile, 64% say the effort you put into your appearance gives an accurate indication of how competent you are.

37% of managers admit that they have denied someone a promotion or pay raise because of how they dress.

Ultimately, it is important that you get things right. So in order to give you the best possible chance of making the best impression, make sure you follow our expert guide.

How do you define a ‘smart casual’ dress code?

Do you know what the smart casual dress code boils down to in your line of work?

As often happens in life, there’s no better way to find out than to turn to the expert herself.

Helen Harker, Design Manager at Simon Jersey, explained what the smart casual dress code is in a nutshell.

“In general, smart casual for work is anything that helps you create a professional look. (Combined) with a relaxed feel that allows you to stay comfortable and show your personal style.”

Helen Harker, Simon Jersey

Of course, everybody will have their own styles and tastes. But if you stick to these core principles, you’re off to a good start.

What are the biggest dress code mistakes that workers are making?

Helen explained some of the biggest errors that people commonly make when attempting to pull off the smart casual look.

Showing too much flesh

“Your clothes can be more casual but you should still keep to the usual workwear rules. Make sure skirts and shorts aren’t too short or tight and that tops aren’t too revealing.”

Helen Harker

Being scruffy

“Casual workwear doesn’t mean you can come in wearing an un-ironed shirt and dirty trainers. You should still aim to create a professional image by being presentable.”

Helen Harker

Heavily branded clothes

“Whether it’s your favourite football club, sports brand or Pokémon Go team, you should save big logos for the weekend. They’re too distracting for work.”

Helen Harker

Being a slave to fashion

“Heavily ripped jeans may still be on trend but they show too much flesh for work and don’t look professional. Only incorporate fashionable pieces that help you maintain your professional image.”

Helen Harker

Foolproof smart casual workwear tips

Perfecting the smart casual look can be tricky, but you’ll soon conquer it if you follow these handy tips.

Be prepared!

Helen says it’s essential to research and make sure you’re adequately prepared before you start a new job. That includes the uniform and workwear style itself.

“If you’re in doubt, just ask. If you’re starting a new job, check with your manager about what people tend to wear. Also, take cues from what they wear in the interview.

“You can also take a look at what everyone else is wearing. Because smart casual can mean different things for every firm. Whereas some companies just mean you can loosen your tie, others will think jeans and trainers are acceptable.”

Helen Harker

Be safe, not sorry!

Helen also suggested that if you’re still in doubt, lean towards ‘smart’ rather than ‘casual’.

“It’s always best to go safe and go smarter to make a good impression, rather than risk looking underdressed.”

Helen Harker

In short, start by going overboard. Then, if necessary, adjust your look later.

Strike the right balance

If you’re wearing a t-shirt, jeans and trainers, you’re probably going to look too casual. Think a little more strategically and mix and match your garments.

You can easily wear a t-shirt and jeans, too. But only if they are worn with a smart blazer and a nice pair of shoes. Conversely, you can also get away with trendy canvas shoes if you pair them with a buttoned shirt.

In essence, balance is the key.

Think about colours and coordination

The colour of your clothes can have a big impact on how the overall look comes together. While you should never be afraid to experiment with pops of bright colour, you shouldn’t overdo it.

Try to form a neutral base and then use accessories to add a bit of personality to your outfit.

What staple ‘smart casual’ items should you have in your wardrobe?

Helen believes that to truly master the smart casual look, you should have these six essential items in your wardrobe.

1) Smart jeans/trendy trousers

“These are almost universally accepted and can go anywhere.”

 2) The perfect white shirt

“Dress in jeans or skirts: then, complement the look however you like. You’ll get a smart yet laid-back look.”

3) Patterned shirts/blouses

“Look smart while showing your sense of style.”

4) Well-fitting t-shirts

“In a variety of colours. Can be dressed up with a smart jacket if needed.”

5) Laid-back jacket

“A jersey jacket will go with anything and is extremely comfortable to wear.”

What does the future hold for smart casual workwear?

The question, thus, bears asking: Are we going to become even more casual in the workplace?

The data from our survey highlights how much things are changing. For instance, 55% of respondents say people are now dressing less smartly for work than they did 10 years ago. Only 9% of respondents feel that employees now dress more formally than a decade ago.

There’s clearly been a big shift in our attitudes towards workwear, but it’s not necessarily a universal change. In fact, Helen believes that some industries have changed more than others.

“Uniforms have become more casual over the past few years, particularly in the hospitality industry. That’s due in part to the rise of casual dining and of customers’ changing expectations. They expect the people serving them to be relatable and dress in a similar way to them. Jeans are almost universally acceptable now, particularly black and dark denim, as are casual shirts and trainers.”

Helen Harker
Smart casual workwear might depend on the expectations of the industry you work in.

“However, one thing that remains the same is presentation. Whatever uniform you choose, it should always be clean and crease-free to maintain a professional look. In turn, this will reassure customers that they’ll get quality service.”

Helen Harker

Because it stands to reason, at the end of the day. If you’ve been invited to play a round at a posh golf club, pitch and putt attire won’t cut it. That said, a pandemic has changed what we tend to think is really important. As a result, smart casual seems more sensible as a dress code.

Especially when juggling a hybrid world that is asking industries to lighten the burden of overly smart attire. Yet as often happens, one size doesn’t fit all verticals.

“This depends on the industry, though. And there’s definitely still a place for a suit and tie. Particularly in front-of-house roles and for senior staff – it’s just not what is expected in every business.”

Helen Harker


How can employers introduce a smart casual dress code that fits in with their branding?

You might be thinking that the growing popularity of smart casual workwear will eventually signal the end of the workplace uniform.

This is definitely not the case, though.

In fact, relaxation of the dress code doesn’t necessarily mean that a workforce will no longer be “on brand.”

“There’s a couple of different ways this can be achieved. Firstly, you can coordinate your team with colour. Choose one of your brand colours and have all staff wearing something in that colour. For instance, take service teams. Be it the same top or apron, you can ensure they all look like members of the same team.

“Also, you can choose a uniform that creates the right image for your company and then brand it with embroidery.”

Helen Harker


UPDATE: Several more recent trends in smart casual workwear

Since we first published this research, smart casual workwear as a company dress code standard remains on the rise. The Independent reveals that “half of the workers now follow a casual or smart casual dress code at work.”

That might be selling it short, actually. In fact, Society of Human Resources Management research says the figure is over 60%.

What is complicating the matter even further is a post-pandemic acceptance of work-from-home lifestyles. Ruth Cornish emphasizes you need to meet the expectations of the people you work with. Especially in the increasingly common hybrid working environment. Said one respondent: “Basically, dress for your day.”

The pandemic generated increased conflict between working from home and coming into the office. Therefore, pay close attention to what your industry and employer want to do.

Indeed, some sectors only allow for so much hybrid opportunity vs the workplace. Others, of course, can afford to be more flexible. So above all, be sure to read the tea leaves.

What is your smart casual workwear style?

Whether you prefer a patterned shirt or a plain t-shirt, you can find it all on our site.

Don’t forget to share your style with us on our Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

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