Smart Casual: Or, Dressing Like a Grown-Up For Beginners

I have a terrifically round face. Round like a dinner plate. So round, in fact, that in high school, my friends composed a poem about it:

Roses are red,
And grow in the ground.
We love how your face
Is amusingly round.

So yeah. Really round. I’m convinced that it makes little kids like me more, because kids like all round things, right? Like balloons, dinner plates, and my face?

Unfortunately, it also means that I tend to look like a little kid myself unless I make a conscious effort to look like a grown-up. It’s hard enough being a woman in STEM, so who would want to look like a little kid working in a STEM discipline?

Throughout college, my daily uniform was a graphic t-shirt, jeans, and some sort of casual shoes. Rainbow brand flip-flops on days when I didn’t have lab, and sneakers on days that I did. I’d toss on a hoodie if it got cold (which was rare enough in southern California), and tie back my hair if I remembered. Which meant that I went through college looking like this:


And while that look worked for me in college, it didn’t work quite so well when I graduated and started working. Even though my company didn’t really have a dress code, it’s hard to get people (supervisors, coworkers, managers) to take you’re wearing graphic t-shirts with pithy oranges spouting off slogans about scurvy.

What did that mean? Well, it meant that I had to start dressing a little more … grown-up. Not more formally, exactly, because very few people you to wear a suit to work everyday when you work in a STEM field or especially in a lab. Actually, they’ll probably react rather negatively. My friend once told me that people only wear suits in engineering when their job functions are actually useless but they want to make themselves feel and look more important. 😉

But on the other hand, even though some of my friends and coworkers are still able to get away with graphic t-shirts and casual shoes, my adorable child-like face meant that I have to step it up a just little.

Enter the “smart casual” wardrobe.

It used to be that business dress only had two levels – business casual (think: blouses, polos, khakis) and business formal (think: full suit). These days though, some of us are given a bit more leeway in how we dress. For a smart casual wardrobe, you can still get away with jeans and even, sometimes, t-shirts. You just need to make sure that you look “smart” and pulled-together. Usually, that means ensuring that your basics fit right, and are just a smidge dressier than they might have been in college.

This is what I end up wearing most days when I go to work.


Not too strenuous a change, right? And still perfectly comfortable. But somehow, I look less like a middle-schooler.

These items make up the foundation of my smart casual wardrobe. I’m listing various but comparable items at different price points. Roughly, $ is less than $50, $$ is $50-100, $$$ is above $100.

  • Dark jeans, in either a straight-cut or slim-cut. Darker jeans read as more formal than light ones. And for the love of everything, no holes, please. (JC Penney $ | Old Navy $ | J Crew Factory $$ | J Crew $$$)
  • Black or charcoal dress pants. I’m fond of ponte pants; it’s like wearing sweats. Nice sweats. (Lands’ End $ | J Crew Factory $$)
  • Plain t-shirts. I like a plain v-neck, but anything that’s relatively free of cheeky graphics but can have some other detailing at the collar or along the front is fine. (JC Penney $ | Lands’ End $$ | J Crew $$$)
  • Casual button-up shirts. I’m fond of blue. Really, really fond of blue. (JC Penney $ | Old Navy $ | J Crew Factory $$ | J Crew $$$)
  • Closed-in, flat shoes. Notice how I said closed-in and not just close-toed? Close-toed is the bare minimum for most labs, but I like to think that there’ll be something on top of my feet as well if I accidentally bathe them in acid. Expect a post on that sometime in the future. (Lands’ End $ | Johnnie Boden $$ | Boden $$$)
  • A watch. Not completely necessary, but it sends a subtle signal that you’re responsible and reliable. I’m a watch person, so your mileage may vary. (Timex $ | Seiko 5 $$)
  • A nice leather bag. I’m also a leather person. Few things I like more than the feel of nice leather. I’m fond right now of a vintage Coach I got off Ebay (usually available under $50), but all that’s necessary is a non-backpack to hold your stuff, really. Should hold a tablet at minimum, a laptop if necessary. (Vintage Coach on Ebay $ | J Crew Factory $$Boden $$$)

Rule of thumb for me is to never have both a casual top and casual bottoms. So, if I’m going with a plain t-shirt for the day, I’ll wear nicer pants. And if I’m wearing a button-up, I’ll just wear jeans.

Keep in mind, this is just my personal style being expressed in this blog. I lean towards a rather preppy, almost menswear aesthetic. This style works for me in my discipline, and it may work for you as well – but if your environment is more or less formal, or your style is more or less preppy, have at it. I’m trying to just give the basics, for me, and guidelines for others who need guidelines.

For more on smart casual, check out this link on Primer Magazine. It’s male-specific, but the guidelines are pretty unisex and there aren’t a lot of defined guidelines for women.

For STEM-discipline appropriate outfits from other women in these fields, check out these style bloggers: Franish; stethoscopes, style, & grace; AlterationsNeeded; 9to5chic.

For more on how to look more like a grown-up and less like a kid, check out this post from ExtraPetite. Also check out her guide on vintage Coach.

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