Hot-Weather Fashion: The Right To Bare Legs

Aug. 14, 2007, 12:48PM
Hot-weather fashion: the right to bare legs
It’s a fine line between dress codes and staying cool

By CLIFFORD PUGH
Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle

When it comes to dressing, Houston is a conservative town – professionally speaking. It’s so traditional that until last week, female employees in the Harris County District Attorney’s Office had to wear pantyhose – even under their slacks.

Some other professions are just as strict. The only time hotel employee Davonna Arceneaux takes off her blazer is “in the office with the door closed.” Hosiery is part of her everyday work ensemble, no matter the temperature.

“It’s corporate America – 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,” she said while sweltering on the streets of downtown Houston Monday afternoon.

Yet the wilting heat seems to have a silver lining: It’s slowly shaking up the rules of appropriate fashion. If you want to update your office dress code, there’s not a better time to make your feelings known than now.

In any season, it’s a fashion minefield out there. But summer offers more pitfalls. Bare legs are accepted in many workplaces, but what about bare arms? Pants are usually OK, but are capri pants a little too out there, even if they’re cooler? When are dress sandals too casual? When are dresses not dressy enough?

“Summer wreaks havoc on all dress codes, and women have the most room to err,” noted Houston image consultant Helen Perry.

Case in point: The recent contretemps that ensued after Washington Post fashion writer Robin Givhan noted Hillary Clinton’s V-neck top, which revealed a hint of cleavage. (Clinton hasn’t worn it since.)

Every work situation is different – many lawyers keep a suit jacket on hand, while most computer specialists get by in a polo shirt – but there are some rules to stay cool while looking appropriate to the situation.

“There’s a way to be dressed up and look professional and still be comfortable,” said marketing consultant Cherri Carbonara. “It isn’t easy. You have to do some planning and make sure you have the right pieces in your wardrobe.”

During the heat wave, Carbonara prefers to wear an embroidered white linen blouse with dark slacks to the office. “It’s very lightweight, but I can still visit a client in a law firm and look professional,” she said.

Wearing white is a winner, said retail consultant Roz Pactor, who gives lectures to professional businesswomen’s groups on “How to Look Good When It’s Hot Outside.”

“While many women think they have to wear a suit, a crisp white shirt with a skirt is very professional-looking and a lot cooler than layering up with a jacket,” Pactor said.

Another advantage this summer: Stores are filled with dresses made of lightweight fabrics that are more bearable in the heat but also look good when worn with a jacket in an overly chilled office.

“I wouldn’t wear anything with a plunging neckline, but even a sundress with a short jacket or sweater over it can take care of you in the office right out to dinner or a party,” Pactor said.

Pactor also favors stylish cropped pants or Bermuda shorts with a short jacket. “I don’t know if you could wear it in a law office, but you could wear it if you work for a retailer or someone like that,” she said.

A more acceptable alternative in more conservative offices: blouses with three-quarter sleeves or skirts that don’t fall below midknee. “When your limbs are cool, your body is cool,” Pactor said.

Sleeveless blouses are fine, she said, as long as they don’t resemble a tank top or plunge too low at the chest. “It still needs to have a tailored look.”

Most women find that bare legs look nicer with a little maintenance, with regular application of moisturizing lotion or tanning cream, Perry said.

“Legs just don’t naturally come off that great, unless you’re under 29,” she said.

clifford.pugh@chron.com

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