Winter and shorts used to go together like chocolate and chili. But just as that sweet-meets-spicy combination has recently been winning gastronomic plaudits, so too the sartorial paradox of cut-offs in the cold has moved from niche to mainstream.
Shorts in thick tweedy fabrics and worn with woolly tights featured on the winter catwalks at Gucci, YSL, D&G, Missoni, Marni, Rick Owens and Maison Martin Margiela (among others), and have appeared on the high street at Jaeger, Cos and Topshop. Smarter than the 1970s feel of culottes, more discreet than a mini-skirt and with a youthful edge, they have a surprisingly broad appeal.
“When I first met [US reality TV star and socialite] Olivia Palermo, shorts were very much her signature and she acted as a kind of inspiration,” says fashion designer Markus Lupfer, who offered shorts in bubblegum-pink wool crêpe (£87) for winter. “Now they are ubiquitous: whether it is a girl at the bus stop near my studio or Alexa Chung on the red carpet, they are developing beyond a summer trend.”
It was actually the indie film star Chloë Sevigny who kick-started the movement back in the early Noughties, wearing paper-bag waist shorts in tweeds and wools with thick woolly tights. More recently, trendsetters such as Nicole Ritchie, Lily Donaldson and Rachel Bilson have made them a signature style.
“They are a great way of adding a youthful twist to a heritage fabric like tweed, especially styled up with statement tights, a pair of Superga flatforms [flat platforms] and a big woolly jumper,” says designer Henry Holland, whose own take on the look included a burnt orange Harris Tweed tailored version (£87.50).
It’s one thing for indie actresses and red carpet regulars to adopt this sort of ironic dressing, but it’s quite another for grown-up professional women. After all, shorts are more associated with summer, sports and youth than with the workplace. And that doesn’t even begin to address the thorny issue of what constitutes “age-appropriate dressing.”
Indeed, when Michelle Obama was photographed wearing a pair of short shorts in 2009 during a family trip to the Grand Canyon (in summer, no less) it was described, by internet portal MSN, “the biggest scandal to hit the White House” that year.
However, according to Lupfer, “It’s the cut, the fabric and how you wear them that deem whether shorts are appropriate for the occasion. I have done some tailored quilted shorts (£225) for pre-autumn 2012 that are perfect for corporate dressing. If the shorts are more tailored and slightly longer, they can definitely be worn in a professional environment.”
Emma Saughton, 28, a risk analyst at Japanese investment bank Nomura, disagrees: “I would not wear winter shorts in the office,” she says. “They are just not part of business dress code; neither are jeans.” Still, she goes on to explain, “Casually I might wear them, as I think it’s good to keep warm in a slightly different way.”
Sarah Craig, 41, an executive director at Goldman Sachs, says tailored winter shorts might be permissible at her workplace. “GS is a very tolerant place, despite the widespread perceptions,” she says. “I could get away with them, but I wouldn’t. While shorts are OK for junior staff, on me they would send out the wrong message.” Like Saughton, though, Craig adds: “I love the winter shorts look for weekend wear, and I would definitely wear them.”
Sarah Rutson, buying director at US department store Lane Crawford, is also a fan. “I always wear black leather shorts in the winter,” she says. “I am now in my early forties and I wear them with flat Oxford shoes and a cable sweater or tailored jacket and shirt. But I have to add: I work in fashion, I have a good pair of legs, and I wouldn’t wear them without hosiery.”
Rutson buys winter shorts each winter from Theory and Helmut Lang, but cautions: “The women who buy them are obviously fashion-driven – this is not an obvious must-have that will resonate with a large audience.”
As for wearing shorts in an office environment, she says: “Winter shorts in a corporate work environment? I would say this is a huge no-no. Even if it’s tailored and longer and worn with a jacket, realistically it will never be accepted as appropriate or even look good on the average woman.”
Despite these reservations, Marigay McKee, chief merchant at Harrods, says winter shorts were a sought-after item during this cold spell, especially versions from YSL and Roland Mouret.
“If I was going to wear shorts during the winter, my first choice would be the skillfully cut wool shorts by Roland Mouret that finish just above the knee,” she says.
McKee insists that long and well-tailored shorts can be a viable option for older women in the professional workplace: “The city short is the most flattering and timeless option – not to mention the least scary.”