What's Appropriate to Wear to Work in the Summer?

Even if it’s blazing outside, select your summer office attire with caution.

Woman wearing shorts jumping in the street with a briefcase

In Pictures: 6 Summer Office Attire No-Nos

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Many of us have already swapped our winter sweaters for summer-friendly short sleeves. But when it comes to selecting summer wear for the office, it pays to do so cautiously. Workplaces have different rules regarding how employees should dress, and according to Sally J. Scott, a partner at the law firm Franczek Radelet in Chicago, it's up to the human resources staff to educate employees about what's suitable. "I think employers should set a dress code for the summertime because it's hot out and people want to wear clothing that's more comfortable in the hot weather, but it may not be appropriate in the workplace," says Scott, who specializes in labor and employment law.

Unsure about what to wear to work this summer, and what is off-limits? Scott has some ideas:

1. Shorts. Unless you're working as a camp counselor or manning the front desk at a sports-apparel store, shorts are almost always a no-go in professional office environments. But if you do opt for shorts, make sure they are an appropriate length. "Anything that's more than an inch or two above the knee is probably too short," says Scott.

2. Sleeveless tops. As the outside temperature exceeds 90 degrees, you might be tempted to don a bare-armed look at the office. But take caution before adding sleeveless shirts to your summer work wardrobe. The lifeguard at the neighborhood swimming pool may be able to get away with wearing a tank top to work, says Scott, but "pretty much anywhere else, I would say no. Tank tops, sleeveless tops, spaghetti straps—I think there are very, very few work environments where that would be appropriate attire."

3. Flip flops. Low-heeled, semi-casual sandals are probably OK to wear to your office job, but flip flops are too casual. "No flip flops, regardless of where you work," Scott says. "Not just law firms."

4. Beachwear. Unless your day job involves spearheading a volleyball tournament, it's a good idea to leave the bikini tops, bare midriffs, and jean cut-offs at home. "Beachwear is not office wear," says Scott.

5. Message T-shirts.From tanks baring your beloved baseball team's insignia to T-shirts adorned with images of your favorite band, it's usually best to leave shirts proclaiming your favorite pastimes and personal tastes at home. Still, Scott says employees should use their best judgment. What's acceptable for a concert promoter might be ill-advised for a business executive. "If that's part of your office culture and it's not an offensive T-shirt or slogan, then that's fine," says Scott. "For a lot work environments, it would not be fine, so it just really depends on what the office norm is."

6. Anything see-through. If your undergarments are clearly visible beneath that new white sundress or blouse, you probably shouldn't wear it to the office. "Look in the mirror. Look in different light," Scott advises. "For a sundress, you probably should have some kind of sweater or something on for the office. Again, if it's spaghetti-strapped or sleeveless or bare-backed, you probably need something else over it for most work items."

Finally, Scott says if it smells, if it's torn, if you've slept in it, or if it looks like you slept in it, you shouldn't wear it to the office. Warmer weather is not a license to throw dress decorum out the window. "Your clothes should always be cleaned and pressed," she says. "If you don't want the clients to see you in it, then you shouldn't wear it."

Summery items that are fit for work include dresses and skirts that rest at or above the knee, tasteful sandals or open-toe heels (no stilettos), short-sleeve shirts that aren't sheer, and dress slacks.