The long and short of it

Gwyneth Paltrow in Stella McCartney shorts and jacket

Gwnyeth Paltrow shocked the red-carpet police in Beverly Hills recently: on tour to promote her book, It’s All Good, she showed up at a signing in a long white Stella McCartney jacket – and black shorts. “Are there no rules?” queried the LA Times.

Paltrow is not alone in embracing the shorts trend, however; other early adopters include Kristen Stewart and Blake Lively. So perhaps a more relevant question, especially for women in the real world who are wondering how it may, or may not, apply to their own professional lives, is: when it comes to shorts and the workplace, what are the rules?

“It depends what profession you’re in,” says Jacqui Stafford, author of a book of style tips for women and a New York-based personal stylist whose clients include doctors and Wall Street executives. “If you’re in media, public relations, advertising, some tech industries – then you can get away with wearing a certain style of short. If you’re in a more corporate field, I say don’t do it.”

Indeed, Kathleen T Wilson, a vice-president and wealth management adviser at Merrill Lynch, is horrified by the idea. “Shorts would not be appropriate, even the dressiest of shorts, I’m afraid,” she says. “We’re talking about serious things. A lot of clients visit our office for meetings, so we tend to err on the conservative side.”

But let us suspend judgment for a moment, and consider today’s new reality. After all, as Suzanne Pendlebury, senior contemporary womenswear buyer at Matches, says, “If you’ve got the matching jacket, you can make the shorts work.” In other words: it’s all about what’s on top.

Consider, for example, Rag & Bone’s ocean-blue shorts in two fabrications – a cotton blend (£325), and leather (£795) – paired with a matching crepe blazer (£445); Stella McCartney’s shorts (£385) and matching classic menswear blazer in a mustardy flowered print (£981); Theory’s neutral shorts in both lightweight wool (£180) and viscose twill (£155) with co-ordinating blazers; and Chloé’s breezy lapel-less jacket in nubby beige silk (£1,275) with neat wide-leg shorts (£599).

Or consider that, increasingly, women are creating shorts “suits” by pairing separates from different brands, often building on pieces already in their wardrobe. Margaret Zakarian, who oversees several restaurants and food-related projects as president of Domaine Enterprises, recently bought a powder-blue Stella McCartney blazer (£734) to wear with a pair of flat front shorts she has from Theory. “My rule of thumb is that if the shorts are shorter, I always have a more covered-up upper half: a blouse, a blazer,” she says. “You want to look appropriate – not like you’re going to the beach.”

“We like the idea of a non-traditional pairing,” agrees designer Tory Burch, whose current collection includes several styles of crisp shorts that would work well with, say, a classic navy blue blazer, along with a beige and white patchwork print jacket (£690) and corresponding shorts (£285). “Matching printed shorts and a jacket is unexpected, and a great way to look chic in the summer.” Apparently other women agree: sales of shorts at Matches, from unquestionably casual options by J Brand and Isabel Marant Etoile to smarter pieces by Erdem and Carven, have nearly doubled over the past year.

Rag & Bone, far left, and Tory Burch

“In retail, the operative words right now are versatility as well as value,” says Tomoko Ogura, fashion director at Barneys New York. “For the past few seasons we’ve seen a focus on separates: shorts in the springtime are a natural progression.” Indeed, shorts (even tailored shorts) have the advantage of bridging the gap between work and casual wear via a change of shoes and a T-shirt instead of a more polished top.

This is the outfit of choice for Céline Kaplan, 44, who handles American publicity for brands like Ladurée and Eres. Kaplan owns three pairs of rigid, tailored Marni shorts that she wears to work with heels and a silky button-down top. “It’s a really great alternative to skirts in the summer,” she says. “They look like formal pants that just happen to be above the knee. The length is a key issue, and the fabric is stiff, so they look very proper.” In addition to meetings, Kaplan has even worn shorts to dressy evening parties, with glitter-coated Miu Miu heels.

Still, not everyone is convinced. “It just looks too casual,” says Alison Brod, who runs an eponymous publicity firm in New York City. “It’s not the image we’re projecting.” Her staff of 70 women is only allowed to wear shorts to work on days without client meetings, which, she admits, are rare, even in the summertime.

Perhaps the truth is that for women, shorts in the workplace are the equivalent of their male colleagues’ chinos for dress-down Fridays: a bridge between the weekday and weekend that must be crossed by each individual as they see fit.

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