Here we are in a typical, sizzling, steamy July in Washington DC. And I don’t know about you, but I like to dress appropriately for very hot weather.
Not everyone agrees with my definition of appropriate.
There was a strict dress code at the first law firm where I worked. A large firm with long gray halls, gray-walled offices and lawyers who often wore gray suits to match. Not a fun place.
Per the dress code, open-toe shoes were banned. Truly, this was in writing – ladies (lawyers and staff) must not wear open-toe or peep-toe (although I’m not sure if the term “peep toe” had been invented in the 1980’s) shoes of any kind.
I suppose this prohibition was to prevent male lawyers from seeing a few female toes, lest they be distracted by toe nudity from the crucial business of billing a high number of hours to clients who paid a fortune for the brilliant advice we gave them.
On a particularly scorching summer day, the kind that our Nation’s Capital specializes in, several of us stood in a law firm hall discussing the weather. An older partner shared his view that when the outdoor temperature exceeded his body temperature, all dress code rules could be abandoned.
If it was over 98.6 degrees outside, he claimed we should be able to wear what we wanted to. Sounded reasonable to me.
I tested it out. I didn’t show my toes – but my knees.
One Saturday morning in July, law firm management decided to hold a rare all-lawyer, morning meeting at a downtown hotel. It was an extremely hot day, the apex of an extended heat wave. So I decided to wear white shorts.
Perfectly nice white shorts, well-ironed, to-the-knee, Bermuda-type shorts with a stylish shirt on top.
The managing partner of the firm stood at the lectern and greeted all of us – perhaps there were 160 lawyers in the audience. He made a few opening remarks about the soaring summer temperatures – then launched into a critical commentary about the only person in the room who was incorrectly dressed.
All eyes now on the 30-ish young woman, seated in row 11, noticeable not for my legal acumen, but for my rule-breaking white shorts. I had distinguished myself as the only person – male or female (perhaps 14 out of the 160) – in the entire firm who chose to wear shorts on blazingly hot day – oh, the sheer gall of it.
I tried to look downcast, demure and embarrassed. But inwardly I felt as if I was in the right, and that the other lawyers had shown their usual sheep-like adherence to all rules by wearing long-pants or long-ish skirts on one of the hottest days of the year.
At my second law firm sometime in the late 1990’s the dress code was tossed out in favor of “business casual”, an undefined term that men more readily latched onto than women. Men could wear a standard uniform of hideously-pleated-front khaki pants and polo shirts and call themselves “business casual.” We didn’t have a wardrobe counterpart.
I tried to adhere to the standards of “business casual” for women.
Yet on another scorching hot July day, a day when the outdoor temperature was above my body temperature, I again tempted fate and wore white shorts to work. This time on a weekday.
Now my second firm consisted of 22 or so lawyers and a similar number of staff. It was not a formal place. Our scattered-across-the-US. clients made infrequent in-person visits.
Still there were apparel rules of the unwritten kind. And even though I was a now a partner at the second law firm, I violated a rule by showing up in nice white Bermuda shorts.
The managing partner, a good friend, took me aside and quietly suggested that wearing shorts to the office, whatever the weather, was not one of my better ideas.
Looking back, now that I am now no longer down-town-office-bound on a daily basis, I wonder what led me to challenge the work dress rules.
I am more of a rule-bender, rather than a rule-breaker type. So it wasn’t defiance of authority that led to my choice. More likely I chose to wear shorts because it was the practical thing to do. I am known for being a very practical person. And on both of those July shorts-wearing days it was extremely hot.
Lower temperatures, more clothing. Higher temperatures, less clothing.
A guideline that still seems reasonable to me.
I doubt that anyone at either of the two law firms was stirred to dubious ethical action by the sight of my (then) knobby knees and (still) slender legs on those two days when I wore shorts. Yet that feeling of being scolded for a clothing choice still rankles.
As I write this, it is 98 degrees outside. We are again in the middle of a July heat wave. I am wearing shorts. Tomorrow I will wear shorts too. And likely the next day as well.
Not sure of the weather where you are – or of the workplace you might be in, but I say go for it. Nice white shorts are always flattering. If the powers-that-be call you out on your apparel, suggest that they avert their eyes. After all, they say that the legs are the last to go.