There have been many unexpected elements in the year 2020, but could the many months spent working from home throughout the coronavirus pandemic finally make it acceptable for men to wear shorts in the office?
The COVID-19 lockdown has, after all, made wearing casual clothing acceptable already — and with summer upon us, now might be the time to implement a new, more comfortable wardrobe for good.
“A lot of offices across the board have become more casualised over time, and just like flexible working, COVID might speed up the casualisation of our workplace,” Australian HR Institute chief executive Sarah McCann-Bartlett said.
“Working from home means some employees may wish to dress more casually than they did in the past, depending on their daily tasks and overall profession.
For Jonathon*, a scientific researcher for the Federal Government, shorts are already part and parcel of his workday.
He hasn’t worn dress pants to the office for 15 years, and said he is “far more relaxed and happy at work wearing clothing that’s comfortable”.
“There is no stated dress code for my function — I’m out on the floor on a computer,” he explained.
But while Jonathon might be used to dressing for comfort, many are not.
Tom Simpson, fashion director at online retailer The Iconic, said that COVID-19 had definitely accelerated changes in what was and wasn’t considered appropriate workwear.
“Pre-COVID we wouldn’t be having this conversation, but there’s been a change in mindset,” he said.
“COVID has changed fashion technically for the better, it’s a lot more relaxed.
“Shorts in the office are completely acceptable in my eyes. If styled appropriately, they are a great workwear options.”
But how do you make shorts work, at work?
As is so often the case with Australian fashion, our market takes inspiration from the overseas fashion set — and shorts as workwear is evidence of that.
“As buyers we travel to London, Italy and Paris, and a lot of the brands we see are starting to show tailored shorts,” Mr Simpson said.
“When the short suit came out five years ago it was a bit taboo, but now everyone is showing and doing them.”
If you don’t feel you can pull off the short suit — ala Pharrell Williams — look to “everyday people in places like Florence” and invest in some tailored shorts.
“It all comes down to the cut and the length,” Mr Simpson said, adding that it was the fashion worn by people spotted at cafes and restaurants overseas that really inspired buyers.
“Try and think about the shape — the tailored elements, the detail and how it will work with your body.
Mr Simpson suggested looking for formal shorts that sat just above the knee, and to also avoid bright, garish patterns.
“Partner shorts with button up shirts, linen, smart loafers — something that complements the shorts but smartens it up,” he said.
“You can absolutely look professional in a pair of shorts. Let yourself be comfortable and own it.”
So … is there a catch?
There is. Or rather, there are a few caveats to be aware of before you invest in something that bares your knees.
Firstly, some workplaces have strict heath and safety guidelines that govern what you can or cannot wear.
“There are very specific regulatory and legislative requirements for some jobs — for example, if you’re doing food prep or if you work in a medical field, you may have dress requirements,” Ms McCann-Bartlett explained.
“That also applies to uniforms. The wearing of these is mandatory, if you didn’t follow it that would result in disciplinary action.”
You may also work in a job that requires you to be customer-facing, which could heighten the expectation of more formal, traditional office attire.
However, if there isn’t a specific regulatory or legislative requirement for what you wear in the office, your options are greater.
“Many organisations have a dress code. That could be smart casual, business dress, or even as broad as ‘dress appropriately’ or ‘professional dress’ [which are] usually a little more open to interpretation,” Ms McCann-Bartlett said.
“Some organisations might include some specifics, like no thongs or flip flops. Some may have more general policies, like neat and tidy, no visible tattoos.
Mr Simpson said that while there were “always going to be certain industries where a shirt and tie is the go-to,” there is a lot more flexibility in fashion now.
“We are in a very different world now; you can now push boundaries more, uniforms aren’t such a thing anymore,” he said.
Alternating between business shorts and formal pants is an option, too.
When Jonathon has “to give the impression of professionalism,” he will swap out his shorts for more formal pants, but he decides what to wear based on his tasks for the day.
“I will dress up if I’m meeting an international delegation, I’ll put a jacket and a long-sleeve collared shirt,” he said.
“I dress for the function I have to fulfil.”
If in doubt about short etiquette, ask
If you are unsure whether shorts are acceptable in your workplace, all you need to do is ask.
“The most important thing is to have discussions in workplaces around policies where you’re not clear,” Ms McCann-Bartlett said.
“Have a look at what the dress code is — in the code of conduct there should be a general statement about appropriate dress code.
“That may open a broader conversation in the office about accommodating different dress styles.”
As an employer, making workwear expectations clear from the outset is key.
“From an employer’s point of view, when you have workwear expectations, communicate them well,” Ms McCann-Bartlett added.
“It’s important employees know their expectations, and where an employer thinks an employee isn’t dressing appropriately, a discussion is had.
“If there is a violation, allow the discussion to be had so you don’t get to the point of disciplinary action and direction.”
And, if it looks like shorts are off the cards at your place of employment, dressing more informally doesn’t have to be.
“Some people say they’ve worked out they can be more relaxed at work, and are inclined to move from wearing a suit with a shirt and tie, to an open necked shirt in summer with a jacket — it may not go as far as shorts,” Ms McCann-Bartlett said.
“Employers will still want their employees to dress appropriately for the type of work they do and the situation they’re in, but they might be willing to mix it up a little bit more.”
*Name has been changed