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stephanie nolen

Eduardo Paes, pictured with his wife Cristine, caused a stir when he wore shorts to a New Year’s black tie gala at Copacabana Palace.Paulo Jabur

When Brazil rang in this new year, the country's focus was Rio's Copacabana beach, where two million people joined the celebrations. Presiding over a glittering gala at the Copacabana Palace was the mayor, Eduardo Paes, accompanied by his wife Cristine. She wore white, of course, as is tradition – an elegant one-shouldered gown and diamante earrings. The mayor wore a lustrous white shirt.

And khaki shorts.

Yes, the mayor wore shorts, and made headlines and reignited a debate that has simmered through the last few scorching summers: Temperatures have been over 40 C on several days already this year, and the mayor appears to believe it is lunacy that the streets are full of red-faced men in suits, streaming with sweat, through an eight-month-long summer.

Rio may be best-known for the filament bikinis worn by its beachgoers, but the city is oddly conservative on some issues of wardrobe. Male lawyers must wear full suits, ties and black robes when they appear before the bench – one courtroom has a nurse to tend to those who collapse. Male bankers and some public officials are expected to don jackets and ties; even taxi companies insist that drivers wear long pants and collared shirts.

For each of the past 10 years, city hall has passed an ordinance declaring Bermuda shorts acceptable for all city employees from mid-December to end of March each year. City police are issued uniforms with shorts, and so are bus drivers. But many employers – and almost all judges – have defied it, leading Mr. Paes to take up the campaign.

While some society matrons at the gala apparently reacted in horror to his sartorial choice, the media response was measured, and most Cariocas (as residents of this city are known) seem approving.

"Okay, it was a gala event – but he was elegant and comfortable. Elegance has nothing to do with formality. He looked sharp." So rules Renata Abranchs, who curates the pre-eminent Rio style blog Rio Etc and is co-author of The Carioca: A Style Guide for Living in the Marvelous City. She is not a big supporter of the mayor's politics, but she gives him full marks for style. "Informality has nothing to do with respectability. An attitude like this from a leader is very liberating. It makes us reconsider certain attitudes that don't fit in a tropical country like ours."

This, it seems, is the core of the debate: Should Rio's standards of formality reflect its climate?

"The mayor is convinced that the comfort comes first: We understand that this season is an oven," said Pedro Paulo Carvalho, chief secretary at city hall (an executive role equivalent to a chief operating officer). "Is it too informal? Tell that to people who are out there burning their scalps. Anyone who says it's too informal is sitting in air-conditioning."

The mayor wore shorts to the gala for one simple reason, Mr. Carvalho said. "It's hot … When it's 15 degrees outside and someone is wearing Bermuda shorts, it looks lazy. If it's really hot, no. It's just being sensible."

And Rio's image is not undermined by the fact that the mayor often conducts official business in Bermudas, he added. "When Tim Cook presents the most recent iPad he is wearing a V-neck T-shirt. The most profitable companies in the world don't insist on formality. They are not less professional because of that."

(It should be noted that Mr. Carvalho was not wearing shorts during this conversation. "I don't wear them because I think my legs are ugly. No, I'm joking. It's because I'm skinnier than the mayor, so I don't feel as hot!")

For lawyers – and there are 120,000 of them in Rio alone, reflecting Brazilians' love of litigation – there was a tiny breakthrough last week, when two judges said they would allow advocates in their courtooms to leave off the jacket and tie.

Marcello Oliveria, a senior official with the Brazilian bar association, has worked on a years-long campaign for a laxer lawyers' dress code. He said the summer temperature often passes 45 C in the Rio neighbourhood where he works, and he and colleagues trek between their offices, the registry and the courtrooms all day long. "We see problems such as dizziness, changes in blood pressure, dehydration. The tradition doesn't make any sense here."

On Sunday, four young Rio professionals launched a website called Yes to Bermudas! to take the shorts campaign forward. It provides a list of commandments for would-be shorts-wearers: Bermudas only when the mercury is over 29.8, never more than twice in a week, and swimming trunks and team uniforms are not office wear. The site also offers a handy service: Cariocas can submit their bosses' e-mail addresses, and Yes to Bermudas! will send an anonymous e-mail suggesting a revision of the office dress code.

It isn't unusual in Rio to see a gentleman perspiring in black wool standing in the bank line beside a woman in a thong bikini, or a fully suited executive pushing her shopping cart next to a man in a Speedo-style swimsuit at the grocery store after work. It might seem confusing to outsiders, Ms. Abranchs explained, but it's all in the power relationships. "Brazilian people associate formality with the quality of the service provided, so they don't accept informality from the service providers. They tolerate informality when they are clients, but frown upon a service provider who doesn't behave formally," she said, then added, "It's totally outdated."

One solution, she said, would be linen and cotton suits, but Cariocas favour heavier imported fabrics and synthetics, in defiance of the tropical climate.

"Look at me, I'm drenched," sighed Jose Agripino, a lawyer in a black wool suit and red tie who cut a dapper figure outside a downtown courthouse recently, except for his air of suffering. "I would be just as serious if I was wearing short sleeves and not strangling with this tie." While he confided his discomfort, a flow of women in brief flowered sundresses and sandals moved up and down the steps past him. "It's very unjust," Mr. Agripino added about the gender disparity that leaves his female colleagues vastly more comfortable through summer. "Women are in little dresses and we are strangled."

Ms. Abranchs hopes Brazil's growing self-confidence will cause social mores to catch up to the weather – in real Carioca style. "It's tacky to prohibit something," she said. "Elegance is in respect, kindness and goodwill."