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Beat the heat and still look professional

Lawyer Emma Williamson wears skinny jeans for casual Friday at her office in the financial district of Toronto.

Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

No matter how hot the summer gets, Mardi Walker says, remember one rule when dressing for the office: Know your audience.

Even in a heat wave, it's crucial to be ready for a meeting with a moment's notice, says Ms. Walker, a senior executive with Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment. When she arrived 15 years ago at MLSE, she saw employees making ill-informed wardrobe decisions in the summertime – and began the tradition of sending an annual dress-code newsletter or video to MLSE's 700 full-time employees.

"I don't know if it's the sunshine or heat, but people seem to lose their minds about what they should be wearing to work," says Ms. Walker, MLSE's human-resources head.

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Ms. Walker's code provides a written reminder of the unwritten rules of summertime professional dress that have evolved over time. The suggestions she provides range from the obvious (denim shorts? "Save them for the weekend.") to the very obvious (clip your toenails, please). But such guidelines are gaining relevance in the summer of 2012, as hot weather roasts some of the country's largest business centres – including Toronto, expected to hit 34 C on Monday (feeling like 40 with the city's incessant humidity) and Montreal, where it is expected to be 30 C, feeling like 36.

As in many other workplaces, the dress code at MLSE has loosened over the years, Ms. Walker says – particularly in summer months. Men can wear a blazer and jeans, and women a sleeveless dress, as long as they're prepared for meetings. Male executives all have a spare shirt and tie in their office, she says. "All of our sales guys would do the same. For women, it's about making sure you've got a jacket or nice sweater."

On Bay Street, it's about audiences too. Deborah Glatter, the director of professional development and student programs at Cassels Brock & Blackwell LLP in Toronto, said the firm's rules are flexible enough to allow lawyers to seek some relief from hot weather, provided they still project a "professional image."

For example, men aren't required to wear ties, but must wear their suit jackets to meetings with clients. Dress shoes and dress pants are still required. Women can wear suits or dresses, but spaghetti straps are banned. And women are free to wear slingback and peep-toe shoes.

"We're seeing folks wearing less, but it certainly isn't crossing the line," says Ms. Glatter, who advises the firm's annual crop of summer students on the finer points of the dress code. "No flip-flops."

Emma Williamson, a lawyer at Fraser Milner Casgrain LLP in Toronto who writes a fashion blog for the lawyer lifestyle magazine Precedent, tells colleagues to try to tweak their wardrobes to beat the heat. Dressing too lightly, she points out, only means freezing once inside a law firm's air-conditioned offices.

"Our offices are ice-cold freezing even when it is hot outside," Ms. Williamson says. "So you have the first part of your day when you're getting to work and you are sweating your head off, and you've got the rest of your day when you are in your overly [air-conditioned] office."

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Her advice? Avoid heavy tweed or even silk, and stick with cotton or a cotton blend. Keep a jacket in your office, and dress down on your commute. "Wear sandals and your dress on your way to work. But when you get to the office, put on your hose, put on your jacket and that way you sort of bridge the gap between the two environments."

Jeff Wilhoit, vice-president of investor relations with Goldcorp Inc., says his Vancouver office has already shed ties most regular business days – and on the city's rare hot days, "we just go a bit lighter. Maybe leave the jacket in the car."

He doesn't speak for all of the West Coast, though. Doug Horswill, a retired executive with Teck Resources Ltd., says he mostly sees ties and jackets in formal business meetings – though he admits that in Vancouver, "ties are becoming less common."

If you have to wear a suit, it's helpful to keep a freshly-pressed shirt in the office to change into after perspiring, says Anne Sowden of Here's Looking at You, an image consulting firm. An undershirt might seem counter-intuitive to keeping cool, but if it's a light cotton, it will actually help absorb and hide sweat. And there's always the trick Mad Men's Don Draper uses – keep an entire drawer full of spare dress shirts.

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