Can I Wear Shorts to the Office?

With global warming comes the revision of all sorts of dress codes. When it is very hot, the idea of wearing long pants becomes increasingly unappealing, for both men and women. Yet, the idea of shorts in the office can also seem … well, unseemly.

After all, the term itself is short for “short pants,” which were historically what children wore to delineate their immature status. This derives largely from royal tradition, in which boys are not supposed to wear actual pants until the age of 8, a rule that filtered down via many school uniforms to the rest of us.

In adulthood, shorts are largely associated with out-of-office time, be it sports, summer or just schlubbing around the house. When I hear “shorts,” I think of high school months spent in denim cutoffs, of D.I.Y. house-painting and garden planting in cargo styles, of hiking and running. I also think of Bermuda shorts, culottes and the preppy tradition. What I do not think of that much, I admit, is work.

There is a reason, when we are talking about people in charge, we say, “They wear the pants.” No one says, “They wear the shorts.”

Yet shorts are also increasingly a fashion item. This season they made appearances on the runways of Givenchy (distressed, cargo), Tom Ford (very short, shiny and athletic), Gucci (long, floral), Hermès (tailored, wide) and Isabel Marant (festival-y). To name a few.

The fact is, when it comes to women’s wear, there is no practical difference between long shorts and a shorter skirt (except that with shorts, you don’t have to worry about hemlines riding up). The difference lies in received conventions and the subconscious associations colleagues may have with shorts. Which means that the issue is really less can you wear shorts to work than how do you wear shorts to work.

The stylist Tina Chai said to stay away from denim, distressing and anything hovering above mid-thigh and to opt instead for what she calls “set dressing” (effectively a synonym for “suit”). Think about “pairing shorts with a men’s wear tropical wool blazer or a colorful tweed jacket,” she said.

Jackets unquestionably offset some of the associations about shorts for both women and men, though men also have to overcome prejudices about the male leg, which in its bare and hairy state is often considered inappropriate for the office. (It’s up there with the male foot and sandals.)

The designer Thom Browne, who happens to be the only designer who made Time’s just-released “100 Most Influential People of 2023” list, has worn tailored gray shorts on pretty much all occasions for more than a decade. He even wore them during the recent Adidas court case — which he won. So draw your own conclusions.

Peter Do, a designer who showed shorts for both men and women on his spring 2023 runway and who said he liked a button-up white shirt and denim shorts in summer, said: “They can definitely be worn in the workplace, but I would suggest a pair that are at least knee length, if not right above the knee. I would go with sharply tailored shorts, perhaps with front pleats, and straight or slightly A-line — nothing too wide.”

All of which is to say: Yes, you can wear shorts in the workplace but not without some consideration aforethought. You may ultimately be exposing more than just your knees.

Every week on Open Thread, Vanessa will answer a reader’s fashion-related question, which you can send to her anytime via email or Twitter. Questions are edited and condensed.