Smart-casual: two diametrically opposed terms, yoked together by a hyphen to mean… something located somewhere in the vast, nebulous gulf between the two poles.

An unholy matrimony of antonyms, smart-casual is ill-defined and even less well understood by most men. It’s an enigma of a dress code that seemingly requires Alan Turing levels of cryptanalysing to crack. On the surface, it sounds so easy, so relaxed, so… casual. Yet there’s the lingering, vaguely troubling presence of that word ‘smart’. It’s enough to make you beg for a black tie invitation: at least with that you know where you stand.

FashionBeans is here to cut this Gordian knot once and for all (if indeed smart-casual even requires a tie). But rather than attempt to pin it down precisely, smart-casual is best understood as a spectrum. That’s to say different elements of your outfit can sit at various points along the scale, but no one piece should veer too far in either direction. Smart-casual is a fine line, a balancing act – or a tightrope.

To help you tread the line, we’ve honed in on four key smart-casual mainstays. By understanding the guiding principles that make them at once smart and also somehow casual – and precisely to what degree – you can break the code, and not the rules.

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The Blazer

A separate tailored jacket is more casual than a full suit. But it’s still tailoring, and therefore smart. With us so far? Putting the ‘smart’ in smart-casual, a good blazer will cover a multitude of informal outfit sins. But what makes a good blazer? Well, there’s no hard-and-fast rule.

It’s partly about softness – of construction. A more natural, less padded shoulder will sit better with chinos (see below) or jeans. Hence why most suit jackets, especially the traditional British cut ones, don’t look right worn separately. The Italians are past masters of this kind of soft tailoring, from Boglioli to Aspesi. The less structured it is, the more casual it appears.

Another key factor is texture. For smart-casualwear, you want a fabric that’s a bit… nubby, and on the matte side. Again, suit jackets tend to be made of shiny, smooth worsted wool, which is way too formal. You could even consider knitted blazers, which are practically cardigans – and as casual as this piece gets.

Finally, there’s length to think about: a smart-casual blazer will come up slightly shorter than a standard suit jacket (we’re talking just an inch or two, mind). Colour is also important to consider: lighter shades skew casual, as do patterns (with the notable exception of pinstripe). Ditto details like patch pockets – which look like they’ve been sewn onto the outside of the jacket – and contrast buttons. Unless they’re gold.