The office clothing to wear that's comfortable but still professional during the sweatiest and yet most air-conditioned time of the year.
Work Fashion

Can you wear cargo shorts to work? The 5-point guide to summer clothing at the office

Oh, summer. While we love those long sunny days, it can become incredibly complicated to figure out how to dress comfortably but still professionally during the sweatiest and yet most air-conditioned time of the year. Temptations to succumb to total casual wear abound. 

“It’s important to remember that no matter how casual the workplace has gotten, there’s still a certain dress code unique to each company culture,” explains reacHIRE CEO and founder Addie Swartz. “For one company summer Fridays may mean summer dresses and sandals, and for another company it may mean collared shirts and chinos.”

The first thing to know: you cannot do this alone. “Rather than trying to show up with your own personal summer clothing style, ask other colleagues as to what’s most appropriate,” Swartz advises us.

It only gets more complicated from there.

Check the rules and regs

If you were given any type of company manual or guidebook, now would be a great time to give it a read.  Just because everyone at work is wearing flip flops, doesn’t mean that your boss is thrilled with it. Try to err on the side of caution when it comes to exposing skin at work. 

Dress for your own success

It’s okay to create your own personal dress code sometimes. Alice Labaton spends her days working in a predominantly male IT office, while her side hustle is creating customized makeup brushes.

As a female in a predominantly male company, I feel it’s necessary to project a professional vibe at all times. I proceed with caution, I never want to give the wrong impression via my clothing especially being a young, friendly, single girl in a company of all men, I tend to dress more modestly or throw a sweater over my outfit.”

Labaton is on to something. Despite the ideal view of an equal workspace, it’s frequently women who are looked at askance if they show some extra skin. If you work in a more liberated company, enjoy it — but if you don’t, know that gender will usually play a role in how you’re perceived, including dress and grooming. 

The grandma rule

In my work as a personal brand strategist, I’m frequently asked by my more cautious clients if it’s okay to embrace fashion trends in the workplace. In general, while it’s fine to be style conscious, you never want to look like a punchline, or extra on a reality TV show. If you’d be embarrassed or uncomfortable running into your grandmother while wearing something, it has no place in a professional setting.

As a general rule, go more modest. Bare legs and exposed arms and a low-cut neckline add up to a lot more skin than works for most professional environments. Use one of the rules of elegance that fashion mavens like to use: put the emphasis on only one area. If you’re wearing shorts to bare your legs, don’t also wear a tank-top style with them to work to expose your chest and arms. (Unless, that is, you work at a gym). If you’re wearing a sleeveless top, don’t add a miniskirt.

And when in doubt: carry a cardigan, light jacket or big, lightweight scarf. You’ll need them for the air conditioning anyway.

Don’t date yourself

While it’s entirely amusing to post old pictures on Throwback Thursday, it’s sometimes downright humiliating to be tagged by friends in photos you’d rather forget. While the idea of rompers for men have been covered in the news lately with a quarter million dollar Kickstarter campaign for something called a “Romphim,” wearing a man onesie is only appropriate on Halloween. No matter how trendy you think you are, you will never live down the embarrassing photos, and trust me, your co-workers will find infinite combinations of your name and romper.  

The short answer

 If you’re wondering if it’s okay to wear micro miniskirts or actual shorts to the workplace, (bad pun alert) the short answer is no. Shorts just don’t add to your overall professional image (unless you’re part of the cast of the Baywatch reboot), though in climates where the weather is warm year round, it’s not as much of an issue.  

Labaton emphatically says, “no, shorts are not office attire! I never want to wear anything that can be deemed as provocative to the office. If I would wear the outfit on a date or to a bar, then I would not consider it work appropriate,” which is generally a good rule of thumb.

If you don’t work in a traditional office environment, you can probably get away with shorts, but try to wear the hem as close to your knee as possible. Be wary of Frankenstein’s monster attempts to make shorts acceptable: wearing a light business jacket with Bermuda shorts just kind of highlights your hairy legs, something most people don’t want to look in the boardroom.

Again, more casual environments and work spaces will likely embrace shorts as long as they’re more modest; and never ever wear biking shorts to work unless you’re actually a bike messenger.  

Some summer dressing rules:

  • Keep a jacket, shawl or cardigan handy: It’s not only practical for when the air conditioning is set to deep freeze, but it also covers a skimpy looking top if you get called into a meeting.
  • Keep it professional when possible: Unless you’re the UPS guy, you probably should leave the shorts for weekends. Especially cargo shorts. It’s not up for debate. Leave them for running errands, if you must wear them at all. 
  • Don’t dress down just because you’re dressing lighter: For some reason, people sometimes think that wearing lighter clothing means putting on beach attire. It shouldn’t. It’s easy to find a professional wardrobe, try brighter colors, lighter fabrics and shoes with rope or canvas accents to convey the feeling of summertime without any serious skin exposure.
  • Check the calendar: If your boss is going to be out of town, you can probably ease up on things, but don’t throw on a beach cover up and pretend it’s appropriate for work.
  • Change it up as needed: Rules are meant to be broken, so try to find ways to express your personality without showing too much if possible.

Rachel Weingarten is a marketing & brand strategist and president of 729.marketing. She's a pop culture and trends analyst who frequently writes about business and style and the business of style. Rachel's a sometimes professor, teaching personal branding on the graduate and undergraduate levels. She leads corporate seminars on topics including evolving communication and spirituality in the workplace. Rachel is also the author of three award winning non-fiction books.