If your heart sinks whenever you see the words ‘smart/casual’ on an invite, you’re not alone. This confusing phrase has been causing consternation in business and social circles for decades. What exactly does it mean? Is a suit too formal, and are jeans out of bounds? Luckily though, help is at hand. This brief guide should give you some ideas for what to wear next time you’re called upon to follow the dreaded smart/casual dress code.

Start with your shoes

A good place to start is with your shoes. Formal dress shoes will be considered over the top, so you can write these options off. Instead, think about going for Gibson shoes. Also known as Derby shoes, these classic footwear designs feature open lacing and walk the line between dressy and casual. You can choose from a range of colours, but it’s best to stick to black or brown for these occasions.

Brogues are another good choice. With their decorative perforations, they have a more playful look than formal footwear. If you go for these shoes, bear in mind that brown is best for the smart/casual look. Loafers are a good option too. These slip-on shoes are comfy to wear and black or brown designs both meet the criteria for this dress code.

Work your way up

Working your way up, there are a range of outfit choices on offer. If you want to aim more to the smart side of smart/casual, go for chinos or flannel trousers, a shirt with a collar and a jacket or blazer. Don’t wear a tie though. This would tip you over the brink into smart attire. If it’s winter, opt for an overcoat rather than an anorak or parka.

For a slightly less formal look, chinos can still work well, as can cords. You can also get away with smart, dark jeans. Team these up with a polo shirt or lightweight sweater. When it comes to choosing a coat, opt for a blazer or tweed sports jacket.

If in doubt, ask

If you’re not sure whether you should aim towards the smart or the casual side of smart/casual, don’t be afraid to ask. If you know other people who are going to the event, find out what they plan to wear and, if you don’t know anyone, simply ask the organisers of the event. Rest assured you won’t be the only one wondering what to wear and it’s always better to do a little investigating than it is to turn up and feel out of place and uncomfortable in your ensemble.