By Rex Huppke
Chicago Tribune (MCT)
So deep is my dislike of these bifurcated leg prisons that I’d be fine ending this column right here. It would give me more time to stare menacingly at the dreaded jeans and khakis the working world demands I wear.
But I’m going to be mature about this. America’s most-beloved workplace advice columnist does not pout. He investigates. He seeks answers - in this case to the question that plagues many a comfort-starved man: Why, in most cases, is it unacceptable for men to wear shorts to work, even on the sweatiest dog days of summer?
First, let’s take a look at the origin of shorts, which were preceded by garments like the kilt and the toga. (Let the record show that I would also be in favor of wearing togas in the workplace.)
While knee breeches - trousers that came down to just below the knee - were worn by Europeans well into the 18th century, many believe shorts as we know them today started in the early 1800s when British naval officers in Bermuda cut off their uniform pants just above the knee to get relief from the tropical heat. Thus the name Bermuda shorts.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, shorts were worn almost exclusively by boys throughout Europe and North America. Transitioning to long pants was a sign that a boy was becoming a young man. Any man wearing shorts would appear immature.
It wasn’t until around the 1930s that men and women began wearing shorts for outdoor sports and activities, but at no time were shorts ever an acceptable business fashion for men. Even as women’s workplace fashion has allowed for cooler summer clothing - skirts without stockings, sleeveless blouses, summer dresses - men have been stuck with long pants. (Given the long-standing gender inequities in the workplace, I suppose this is a more than fair price to pay.)
I reached out to workplace fashion expert Mary Lou Andre, editor of DressingWell.com, and asked why shorts are never seen as an option.
“They’re just not the norm in our society in most industries - they’re a distraction,“ she said. “They are one of the lower-food-chain bottom options. With shorts or, for women, an inappropriate skirt, you’re emphasizing the bottom half (of your body). You don’t want to emphasize the bottom part of your body.“
In other words, you want people to look you in the eyes and not be distracted by a piece of outside-the-norm clothing.
“How you’re dressed really does set the stage,“ Andre said. “To ignore it is not smart.“
If there’s one thing I’ve never been accused of being, it’s smart. So I conducted an anthropological workplace study by wearing shorts to work.
The modern-day newsroom is not what you would call a high-fashion zone. I’d describe my standard form of dress as “hobo chic,“ so it’s not like people expect me to strut around in the latest cutting-edge couture.
On top of that, it was a day where the temperature was creeping up toward 100 degrees. So it would be perfectly reasonable to not wear pants, right?
Even though my newspaper doesn’t technically have a dress code that bars shorts, I felt awkward. People noticed I was wearing shorts, and not just because my finely sculpted calves are a wonder to behold. I appeared out of place.
I was cool and comfortable, as I had always dreamed of being at work, yet I felt goofy, almost as if I was walking around in my underwear.
Is this evidence of shortsism in the workplace?
Ellen Kossek, a professor at Purdue University’s Krannert School of Management who specializes in work-life issues, said it could be that my uber-casual attire caused some blurring of the boundaries between work and relaxation.
“People have physical cues that they use to feel like they’re at work,“ Kossek said. “Maybe for you, wearing shorts made you physically feel like you weren’t at work, like you weren’t in work mode. Going home and (putting) on a pair of jeans or a pair of shorts is a way of saying, ’I’m home, I’m relaxing.’ You can create role confusion when you don’t have those boundaries.“
I found that fascinating. By wearing shorts, I wasn’t violating any official rules and nobody seemed to care, though one person jokingly asked if I was going to a Pearl Jam concert. But it felt wrong, which is saying a lot coming from a staunchly pro-shorts person like myself.
Kossek said the more that technology allows people to work from home or from other more relaxed environments, the more workers will need to create boundaries that define when they’re working and when they’re not.
“We’ve gained that we can have shortened commutes and work has changed and it’s a little less formal,“ she said. “But what we’ve lost is maybe some separation that was good, a way for people to feel like they’re offline and relaxing.“
Getting back to the issue of comfort, I asked Andre, my newfound personal style consultant: What’s a hot-legged man seeking comfort supposed to do?
“In today’s marketplace, with the fabric available for guys, the lightweight wool pants are just fabulous,“ she said. “Or a cotton with a percentage of polyester can really add a lot of sophistication, and keep you cooler.“
I suppose guys could try wearing skorts, the skirt/shorts combo that women sometimes get away with at work. Then again, that might blur even more boundaries.
Looks like the male legs will be on lockdown, at least until knee breeches make a comeback. Which I hope is soon. Because I have to tell you, my calves look fantastic in knee breeches.
Rex Huppke writes for the Chicago Tribune. Send him questions by email at rhuppketribune.com or on Twitter RexWorksHere.