Shorts as office-wear is no longer as unthinkable as it once was

For men, at home or not, some version of the dark suit has dominated for centuries.
For men, at home or not, some version of the dark suit has dominated for centuries.


  • What’s acceptable office attire? It comes down to social norms and belief systems about professionalism and how that intersects with gender, race, class and body type. With dressing becoming more casual, mainstream office fashion is also shifting.

As summer heats up, vitriolic debates in the US are peaking. I’m talking about the rift between men who wear shorts to office and those who consider these a workwear abomination. On the West Coast, especially in the tech sector, wearing shorts to work is perhaps unremarkable. But not in northeast US.

“It’s a bizarre taboo for me," says Derek Guy, a menswear writer. “It’s normal to wear shorts, and whether you can wear them to the office depends on the office." It may be a complete non-issue for, say, graphic designers. But banks and law firms are another matter. 

Yet, buttoned-up East Coasters are wondering if they can ditch the long trousers. They often point to global warming—last month was the hottest May on record. And women have long had the option of wearing floaty dresses to work. Why can’t men show a little leg, too?

But then, whether Bermuda or cargo or athletic, pleated or denim or chino, shorts aren’t just shorts, it would seem. Offices are rife with power dynamics and pecking orders, an ecosystem worthy of David Attenborough narration.

Also read: Why boxer shorts can be both casualwear and formalwear

Which forms of dress are acceptable “comes down to norms, and belief systems about professionalism and how that intersects with gender, race,and body type and with other structures of power," says Ben Barry, dean at the school of Fashion at Parsons, The New School. There’s class too. Shorts may be more closely associated with those doing low-paid physical labour.

Of course, the world of tech and startups invented its own rules. There, the power move is to dress like you don’t care. But that too sends a signal. “It wasn’t just that people were dressing down," says Guy, “It was a symbol that you only cared about meritocracy and that you did not care about the old ways… the only things that mattered were your skills and your ideas." Think of Mark Zuckerberg’s hoodies or Sam Bankman-Fried’s shorts-with-tube-socks combo.

Although it’s often said that women have more freedom of dress, Guy and Barry think that’s been overstated. Women’s skin tends to be sexualized in a way men’s isn’t; a woman showing “too much thigh" in an office is likely to be judged in moralistic terms. 

A woman might be able to get away with ‘formal shorts’ (something of an oxymoron) more readily than the average man, but a woman who eschews style to SBF-esque levels runs greater professional risk. And keep in mind that women didn’t have ‘office clothes’ until relatively recently, as women worked mostly at home.

Yet, for men, at home or not, some version of the dark suit has dominated for centuries. Barry points to 18th-century-born dandy Beau Brummell as the one who made it fashionable. And professional clothes seem more resistant to change than casual attire. Even if a London barrister prefers baggy sweatpants on weekends, she’ll still argue her cases in a white wig.

Also read: How to make your officewear fun and chic

But the meaning of clothes does evolve. A century or so ago, a three-piece suit was called a lounge suit and seen as far less formal—a kind of 19th-century athleisure. Think of those grainy photos of men mountaineering in wool trousers, complete with jacket and waistcoat. 

And if the Patagonia vest was once a symbol of an outdoorsy lifestyle, it’s now become something else entirely: a way for desk-bound men to signal their aspiration to spend time in nature, or just a way to display their membership in a particularly preppy tribe.

So, what about shorts? Showing skin used to be a no-no for men in offices. But as dress becomes more casual (a trend that’s accelerated with the adoption of remote work) and mainstream men’s fashion increasingly borrows from queer culture, says Barry, showing some leg is no longer seen as the same challenge to professionalism or masculinity. “I don’t think it’s a big deal to see a man’s knees," says Guy.

Many younger workers agree with them. Older workers may push back on new fashions not for any practical reason, but because they feel threatened. Changing office fashions are a very visible signal that a new generation is gaining ground.

Back in 1971, Harvard Business Review surveyed readers on how they’d respond to a “capable young manager in a financial services company" who suddenly sports “long sideburns" and “bell-bottom trousers." Half said this hippie attire warranted a managerial sit-down, and another third said if his clothes irritated people, he should “change his ways or begin hunting for another job." That leaves fewer than one in five who said his groovy threads were purely his own business.

Also read: What you wear to work matters

Today’s office may no longer be quite as conformist as it was, but the front-line of fashion is always advancing. Who would have guessed back in 1971, for example, that half a century later we’d be dealing with naked dressing? ©bloomberg

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