Studio dilemma #1: What is smart casual for women?

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what is smart casual for women

Now and again I will hear two words that chill me to the bone … ‘Smart Casual‘.

It’s one of those phrases that I just can’t get my head around, it’s a contradiction of fashion. However, an increasing part of my job is to attend more meetings, meet new clients and to socialise at events so ultimately it’s one of those things that I simply can’t avoid. So, with a little help from some contemporaries, join me on my journey to the ambiguous castle of ‘Smart Casual‘.

*Sorry fellas, this time it’s ladies only, but we’re doing a male-orientated version in the future.

The reason it stumps me the most (and equally in some respects most of my male colleagues at Burning Red) is that my usual style usually consists of leggings/jeans and a t-shirt, so I’m kind of missing the usual business-style-factor. I know certain trends and I think I know ‘what not to wear’, but it’s never something that comes naturally to me, I just like to be comfy especially when the dress code within our studio is pretty relaxed and face-to-face client contact has been relatively limited.

So, what is my current definition of Smart Casual?

Aha, well … with a limited wardrobe, I came up with my current selection of what i consider ‘smart casual’ (below). With some of our clients at Burning Red, this outfit is absolutely fine, however it is clear in some circumstances, I need my first impression to have a more professional edge.


Ok, so here’s the million dollar question: How does someone, like myself, dress smart-casual, without dressing TOO smart or TOO casual?

I set out to ask some ladies in the know, so may i introduce: Sara Robinson (Managing Director at Cake Communications), Emma Tickner (Web Designer), Cheri Beer (Graphic Designer)  and the PR Manager from Not Just A Label. I asked them how they like to dress for the occasion and what tips they could give for other ‘smart casual’ sufferers like myself …


Sara Robinson

Managing Director, Cake Communications

What’s your Smart Casual?

It’s really simple for me, as I live in dresses and very rarely wear trousers. For me, smart casual is a dress I feel great in with a swingy black jacket or fitted cardigan, tights and heels or boots – weather dependent. I’m a big fan of cute prints and polka dots, but do tend to fall into the trap of wearing dark colours too much. My smart casual isn’t really very different to my day to day office wear. I just find dresses incredibly safe and, more importantly, easy to wear. As a working mum, I don’t have the time to think out complete outfits with accessories. I have far too many dresses and sometimes the biggest challenge is picking which one to suit the occasion! I love above-the-knee colour block  dresses with heels, and a good wrap dress is always a failsafe option.

What bag would you use?

My staple bag is a black leather Coach tote bag, as it goes with everything and is really stylish without being flashy. I’m a big fan of Mulberry but tend to go for brighter colours and smaller designs that don’t always work for office wear (although during the summer I have been known to rock my pink Roxeanne!). I carry a separate laptop case by Knomo, which makes beautifully designed leather goods for Apple products. It’s a tote bag big enough to fit my Macbook Air, iPad, files and various cables and looks really smart. My handbag is far too full of junk for me to contemplate trying to get my IT in there as well!

What shoes would you wear?

I don’t think you can beat heels or a smart pair of boots. I have a pair of tan LK Bennett riding boots I wear a lot, and a plain black pair that I wear to death. But for that all-important meeting or pitch, I have to go for my black patent LK Bennett heels – they just make me feel like I mean business I suppose! I always carry them in my car, just in case…

Where do you shop?

For a one stop shop, I’m a big fan of John Lewis – the personal shopping team there are great when you’re pushed for time and have a definite idea of what you need. Labels I love include  Hobbs, French Connection, Warehouse, Oasis and LK Bennett. But a lot of my favourite dresses have been New Look sale specials – and they tend to be the ones I get the most compliments on! I love their boutique labels like Apricot. I’m also a big fan of Closet at Dorothy Perkins for the 50s esque tailoring and detailing.

Do you have a style icon?

Most of my icons are people I’ve worked with over the years, not really celebrities. I worked at a London agency where my boss, an older mum, never looked anything less than perfectly coiffed and groomed. I can only aspire to emulate her – and never do!

Sara’s Outfit Selection

Below is an image of me in my favourite smart casual event frock –a red number I got in the Oasis sale that I wear to death – boots to dress down, killer heels to dress up! That’s my Coach bag in the pic too.


Emma Tickner

Emma Tickner

Web Designer / @emtickner

What’s your smart casual?

To be honest I find the ‘Smart Casual’ thing pretty hard. It’s just so vague. I think what’s Smart Casual to someone who wears suits everyday to work can be very different to someone who wears jeans and trainers everyday.

I have a kind of uniform I always go back to for meetings. I tend to pick simpler clothes, usually in quite neutral colours, as I think these are easier to dress up. I would wear dark jeans so they look slightly more trouser-like, a simple top and a smart(ish) jacket or cardigan. I think any jacket that has a tailored shape makes a casual outfit look smarter no matter what the fabric or colour.

What bag would you use?

I’m a fan of the satchel type bags so I’d probably take a large one of those that I could fit my laptop into. Two bags would be too much trouble and just something else to worry about.

What shoes would you wear?

I’m a flats girl. I love high heels but not for any situation where I might actually have to walk further than to the bar. I really like androgynous shoes, so I’d go for something like Chelsea ankle boots, riding boots or brogues.

Where do you shop?

I usually get my jeans from TopShop, simple tops from places like H&M because they’re so cheap, and shoes from Office or Dune.

Do you have a style icon? If so, who?

I wouldn’t say I had a style icon as I’m not really that fashion conscious. I do love the photographs on The Sartorialist and think lots of them sum up Smart Casual pretty well. I love the mix of people and styles he photographs.

Emma’s outfit selection


Smart casual Examples

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Cheri Beer

Cheri Beer

Graphic Designer

What’s your smart casual?

My version of smart causal is bold, colourful, casually tailored and a bit preppy. For example, one of my outfits would be a strong graphic print top, with a pair of smart coloured skinny jeans, a casually tailored jacket and cute pumps. Alternatively, I would wear a tea dress, cardigan, belt, coloured tights and leather boots.

As a graphic designer I would say I need to look creative but professional. I try not to appear as a ‘suit’- I don’t handle accounts so black and high heels is a no no for me. I like to wear strong colours, paired with bold graphic prints and neutral items as not to be too overwhelming. I think the cut is important, everything should be neat and clean so you appear professional, and not a student!

What bag would you use?

I think a bright satchel looks good with any outfit. If you need a bag for notes or a laptop I would use an over-sized bag, like a shopper bag from Fossil.

What shoes would you wear?

I would either wear pumps, low heels or boots. I love high heels but I wouldn’t wear them in work, it’s not worth the pain!

Where do you shop?

I get the basics, like jeans, jackets and shoes from places like M&S, GAP, Zara and Next. I just look for wardrobe staples, things that you can match easily and won’t go out of fashion too quickly. I then add more ‘trend’ pieces, such as tops, dresses and accessories from stores like Warehouse, Top Shop and DP.

Do you have a style icon? If so, who?

I quite like Holly Willoughby and Rachel Khoo for their 1950’s look. They’re curvy girls and dress very feminine. I also like Joy Cho (from Oh Joy! blog) as she loves colour and patterns.

Cheri’s outfit selection

Smart Casual Examples

With this being a fashion issue, I decided it was probably a good idea to ask the experts. So I contacted the awesome team at NJAL (NOT JUST A LABEL) and they were kind enough to answer my questions too.


NJAL Team Member


What’s your smart casual?

The general style at our office is casual and informal. But still quite individualistic. For a meeting I would wear a pair of high waist wide leg pants with a printed silk chiffon top or a lace dress with a fitted blazer and a graphic scarf. If am out for a casual gathering I might wear tailored shorts with a white shirt and layer it with a jumper or jacket and wear brogues.

What bag would you use?


It would be a structured bag with a hard base preferably in a neutral colour for a meeting. It should be smart yet functional and give me enough space to carry papers and stuff for the meeting. It’s always better to carry a separate bag for the laptop. You don’t want to ruin your bag by stuffing in the laptop.

What shoes would you wear?

Heels or a pair of smart brogues but good shoes. That should always be a constant.

Where do you shop?

I usually shop in The Village Bicycle Shop in Notting Hill on Ledbury Road. They have a mix of vintage and contemporary pieces. There is also Hostem on Redchurch Street in London’s East End and Merchant Archive on Kensington Park Road. For Jewellery I would go to Mawi on Calvert Avenue. Their lovely standalone store in Shoreditch fits the neighbourhood of up and coming designers and small boutiques perfectly.

Do you have a style icon?

We gather inspirations from many things and many people, from travel, from other cultures so I don’t think I can pinpoint at a single individual.




My new definition of Smart Casual

So after getting the amazing advice from the ladies above, I hit the shops on Saturday to get myself a new smart casual outfit. Yep, that is actually me at the top left!



A massive thanks to Sara Robinson, Emma Tickner, Cheri Beer and Not Just A Label for taking the time to help me with this post and add extra insight into the murky world of Smart Casual … the insight has been invaluable and who would have thought I would have ever bought Brogues by choice!

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  1. Sizzling Suzai

    this is so cool thnx 4 featuring all the above thoughts as they r helping so much! haha yup i have an event on tomorrow needs for a smart casual theme hahah so i was going ting-tong over it!! LOL =D

  2. lokee

    I have read all in this post.. It have seemed very useful. You have giving me many suggestion of smart casual theme. I have read all steps very carefully. Whenever I go to an event I will surely re-write these suggestion and will follow these… I Am sure that this post will help me to look more charming.It is really a great work… thanks for this.

  3. Liz

    I hate ‘smart casual’, and I have realized it has a different meaning in the states and UK. I wish invites would define what they mean by ‘smart casual’. For me, a pair of black leggings and a smart top is good… and also dresses. now-a-days, for dresses, as long as it isn’t ‘sparkly’ , and sexy, any kind of dress goes. Maybe a maxi? I am having the same issue 🙁 and this article helped me heaps 🙂 I google what celebs were for events, that are ‘smart casual’, and that helps me get an idea, but it all depends on the event.

    • Gareth Aled

      Glad we’re on the same page, Liz! Smart casual is not worth the pain! Your formula sounds good though, celebrity inspirations are always such a handy tool 🙂 Thanks for commenting, we’re super pleased we helped 🙂

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