By RUTH LA FERLA
DRESS codes these days are as elastic as a bungee cord, expanding to accommodate all manner of once unthinkable workplace infractions: midriff-baring T-shirts, visible bra straps, slips that double as skirts and jeans paraded everywhere, save for those last redoubts of propriety, the courtroom and the church supper.
This year that increasingly flexible standard has stretched to encompass shorts, of all things — not the tight-fitting Daisy Duke variety, but crisply tailored, razor-creased versions with hemlines that hover chastely at the knees. Called city shorts by some of the merchants who promote them, they are intended, as the name suggests, to be worn around town and on the job.
"Women of every age and type are embracing shorts," said Stephanie Solomon, a women's fashion director at Bloomingdale's, where sales of elongated, street-worthy styles are outpacing dresses as the first retail hit of the spring. Still, for stores like Bloomingdale's, which heralded spring as the season of the dress, the success of shorts confounded expectations.
"We felt the dress would overpower shorts because it was something you could wear to work," Ms. Solomon said. But many women are buying shorts instead because, she said, they too "are acceptable now at the office."
And well beyond. Elisabeth Hasselbeck, a host of "The View" on ABC, strolled down Spring Street in SoHo last Friday wearing a pair of tapered shorts from Theory with a snug denim jacket. She was carrying a quilted leather Marc Jacobs bag. Her ensemble had taken her from a business meeting to a quasi-formal lunch and shopping. "These shorts are serious and refined," she said, "but they have some travel in them."
So versatile are the new shorts that quite a few women said they were stockpiling them, buying multiples at chains like Zara and Marshalls, where they sell for under $100, and snapping up more extravagant alternatives at citadels of luxury like Chanel, where shorts range in price from $800 to about $1,100. Most were gussying them up for the city with cashmere cardigans, linen jackets, brief coats and wide belts.
"Shorts are definitely a movement, very strong," said Wayne Mahler, the fashion coordinator of Linda Dresner, the boutique in Manhattan and Birmingham, Mich. Sought-after looks vary from cargo shorts by Dsquared to more formal knee-length versions in khaki, white cotton and tropical wool. Customers routinely couple favorite styles from houses like Tuleh and Marni with jackets and three-quarter coats. "As part of an ensemble, they acquire a bit of seriousness," Mr. Mahler said, "and that's what's turned this into a very popular look."
So successful, in fact, that retailers and consumers alike are championing shorts as the jaunty foundation of a spring wardrobe, one as functional as jeans, but with a surprise hint of refinement. "Compared to some jeans, shorts are a step toward civilization," said David Wolfe, a creative director with the Doneger Group, which forecasts retail trends.
Their popularity was all but ensured, he said, when fashion's premier influence peddlers, the stylists and junior editors attending New York Fashion Week last winter, showed off their spray-can-bronzed legs under shorts. The look was promptly picked up by their celebrity clients and soon thereafter by legions of Hollywood copycats. "In this food chain, the trend does eventually trickle down to the retailers," Mr. Wolfe said, "and they present it in such a way that the average woman thinks it's O.K."
Consider Michelle Stein, a fashion public relations executive, who wears shorts to work two or three days a week. "It's interesting how shorts have really infiltrated the executive wardrobe," Ms. Stein observed, explaining that many of her friends in offices more formal than her own have adopted shorts as a workday uniform. "As for me, they're an integral part of my wardrobe, another option besides the black dress."
Some women initially resisted the trend, which surfaced as early as a year ago. Michelle Braverman sells plenty of dress shorts at Anthropologie in Houston, but she has no personal affection for the style. "Nobody has great knees," she said dryly.
Until recently, Kristyn Hume, an animator who works in an office in Midtown Manhattan, preferred skirts and jeans to shorts because, she said, "I thought shorts would show too much skin."
But last week's unseasonably balmy temperatures softened her skepticism. "I wear these to work," Ms. Hume said of the abbreviated khakis she had combined with a pale green sweater.
"They're not so different from a skirt," she reasoned. "They have the same amount of fabric."
It is hardly a surprise that some employers frown on inappropriately sporty or revealing styles. "We have a rule here that shorts can be no more than three inches above the knee," said Anna Befanis, who sells cosmetics at Bergdorf Goodman.
Even in a law office, though, shorts are not necessarily an affront to convention. Last week, Melissa Gluck, a lawyer in New York, wore shorts to work with a tank top and a tiny black sweater. She conceded that her outfit might cause a stir if she wore it to court, but was quick to add that it would probably pass muster if she paired the shorts with a jacket.
So newly minted is the shorts trend that as late as a week ago, some merchants were still fumbling to give them a catchy handle. "I call them longs," Mr. Mahler said, joking that the term might lend the style a certain gravity. At Marshalls, where popular looks vary from denim cargo shorts to mariner shorts with brass buttons, long tapering styles have been designated "skimmers."
" 'City shorts' — that's so confusing," Mr. Wolfe complained. "What does it tell you about how and where to wear them?
"The style is fine," he said, adding emphatically, "Now we need a name."