What Does Dressing “Smart” Mean?

Besides not looking “stupid.” The Fashion Mailbag is here to help by explaining smart’s various interpretations when it comes to dress code.

Have a question about getting dressed for Amy? Write her at amy.odell@buzzfeed.com.

Two times in the past week, I’ve been told I have to dress “smart” or “smart casual” for events. What the hell does that mean?

That you should wear calculus proofs on your chest, obviously. (Kidding!) If only the meaning of smart dressing were that concrete. But it’s also not the most obscure in the Dictionary of Obscure Dress Codes. Yet it’s confusing enough that you might feel as though they almost WANT you to show up dressed wrong. I think of “smart casual” as somewhere between business casual and casual casual. So, you can wear jeans, but consider pairing with heels or wedges. Don’t wear cutoffs or flip flops. Think: chambray shirt dresses; jeans with blazers; statement necklaces with a clean-looking tee! Do not think: cocktail dresses; jeans with Converse sneakers; or chain harnesses!

There is a time and place for armpit chains, but chances are if you’ve been asked to dress “smart,” your event isn’t one of them. (And frankly would you look at this and think “smart”?)

Since you don’t specify where you’re going, I have to assume it’s something wedding-related or reunion-y or something else in that category of things we feel obligated to attend. So! Let’s look at some examples of smart/smart casual dressing. Michelle Obama comes to mind.

PAUL BEATY / AP

Of course she would get off a plane looking this good. I’d say this is “smart,” if not necessarily casual.

JONATHAN ERNST / Reuters

Here she is in March at a Let’s Move event with David Beckham totally checking out her smart casual-ness. She’s covered yet stylish, and just the right amount of fancy. Now, moving onto that other person who lives a life of obligatory appearances…

Ian Gavan / Getty Images

It’s Kate Middleton! She’s a pretty “smart” dresser. Look how versatile this slightly awkward double-breasted blue dress is — perfect for just swanning about OR this obligatory pretend tree-planting photo op.

TOBY MELVILLE / Getty Images

Here she is again in another blue coat-dress hybrid for a “plaque unveiling.” There is a lesson to be learned here about “smart” dressing: it’s not always the most fun kind of dressing. In other words, it’s probably not neon jeans time. But if you’re going to a reunion party or something less stuffy than most weddings, and kind of don’t care too much about being conservative, you might take inspiration from the Cannes Film Festival photocalls, below.

Gareth Cattermole / Getty Images

I love this look on Kristen Stewart. If I were someone’s date to a reunion and therefore didn’t care so much about putting on airs I’d totally wear this outfit. I also love how despite wearing a pair of pants that say “LOOK AT HOW HARD I’M TRYING” she doesn’t look like she’s trying.

Pascal Le Segretain / Getty Images
Pascal Le Segretain / Getty Images

(Kirsten Dunst on the other hand, definitely looked like she was trying.)

Here’s another way to look at smart dressing: if you try something on and the word “dumb” goes with it, you need to change.

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