Should Women Bare Their Legs in the Office?

As the mercury starts to rise, so does the great pantyhose debate.

May 9, 2009— -- April L. Burke doesn't think bare legs are unattractive -- just unprofessional. So pantyhose are a must at her Washington, D.C., lobbying firm, Lewis-Burke Associates. In a conservative field dominated by big players, she tells her employees, it's crucial to look put together from head to toe.

Still, in her city's suffocating summers, even Burke has trouble with stockings. Her solution as the mercury rises: "I wear slacks a lot," she says.

As the weather heats up, so inevitably does the annual office leg debate, in which women grapple with dictates that can seem designed to keep us as sweaty, uncomfortable and -- many say -- dowdy as possible. In traditional industries, rules about women's summer legs and footwear, whether written or unwritten, can inspire fantasies of mutiny among interns and corner-office executives alike. In finance, law and other professions, even seemingly innocuous summer staples such as cropped pants and open-toe shoes can be verboten.

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But making our own decisions can be worse than a draconian list of don'ts. If your firm has no stance on hosiery but you don't have Malibu Barbie legs, must you wear hose anyway? If you can show toe cleavage, should you? When does stylish cross the line into sexy? "The semiotics of uncovering or covering the leg are unresolved," says Susan Scafidi, a visiting professor at Fordham Law School in New York City who teaches fashion law. "We're beyond a glimpse of stocking being thought of as something shocking, but we're not sure what we think when we see a glimpse of skin."

When Michelle Obama appeared on an episode of The View last summer, talk turned to her legwear -- or lack thereof.

"I stopped wearing pantyhose a long time ago," she said, after the camera had ducked under the table to confirm this fact. It was an uncomfortable, disrespectful moment, as if Mrs. Obama's lack of hose gave the entire nation an excuse to leer at her legs.

Which is precisely why so many of us spend more time wrestling with this question than it deserves. We don't want to be told what to wear, so we make our own guidelines. Often it's through trial and error, by realizing too late that the peep-toe pumps that looked appropriate in the store leave us feeling naked at the sales meeting. Or that everyone in the elevator is staring at our pale legs. Or that, after a certain age, we'd rather cover up.

Daniela Elliott, a New York lawyer, works at a casual firm -- "My secretary frequently goes around barefoot," she says. In court she wears pantsuits and closed shoes, but for the office she loves mules, and will, very occasionally, wear a skirt slightly above the knee. But she draws the line at sandals, even elegant ones. "I think they're too casual. You should wear them only when you're going out," she says.

Then there are the beauty minefields: scaly skin, poorly maintained toenails and cracked heels, to name a distasteful few. Sarah Shirley, a New York fashion stylist, prescribes a pedicure every two to four weeks, supplemented by frequent pumicing and a daily spritz of oil on legs and feet to add moisture and shimmer.

And be sure your toes don't hang over the front of your sandals, a faux pas so reviled there's a name for it: the shrimp cocktail effect. "That's the worst, isn't it?" says Shirley. "Nothing looks trashier." (Hint: Your shoes may be too big, not too small.)

It wasn't the literal exposure that made Edgenia Robinson rethink her hot-weather wear. Two years ago Robinson routinely wore flip-flops to her entry-level job at Pom Wonderful, a Los Angeles beverage company. "I'm kind of ashamed of it now," says the 24-year-old marketing assistant, who realized she wanted a more mature image. These days closed-toe flats are her go-to summer shoe. "We can get away with a lot here," she says, "but at the end of the day it's not how I want to present myself at work."

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