Temperatures are climbing here in Italy, it’s getting close to 90 at mid day. As summer heat builds, you may be tempted to toss a pair of shorts in your vacation bag. For most people in the US, summertime heat means shorts weather…unless you’re from Seattle where even sun and 55 calls for bikinis. If your travel plans are taking you to Europe, you may want to take pause and consider if wearing shorts in Europe is a great idea.
As a traveler, shorts in Europe are problematic for sightseeing. They are not allowed in most churches unless they cover the knee. So what’s a traveler to do in a heat wave? Is there any way to bring shorts and wear them the right way?
Many travelers ask me if shorts in Europe are ok to wear at all. In the past I would have said no, no, NO. I’ve spent a good chunk of my life in Italy, beginning more than 20 years ago. The customs I picked up back then still ring in my thoughts, and shorts were strictly a no-go, considered crass and too casual even for the grocery store. I don’t think you could have even bought them here when I was a student living in Rome.
Things are changing but still, on the whole, Europeans tend to dress more formally than we do and shorts are something you mostly see in a beach resort. If you see them in the city, it’s a dead giveaway for a tourist.
Most European women choose skirts and dresses in a heat wave. That’s smart because dresses tend to be comfortable and have the natural advantage of, um, let’s call it “air-conditioning.” For women visiting Europe I would tend to encourage adopting the skirt and dress custom over shorts. You’ll be more comfy, plus dresses have versatility–add leggings and a sweater if the weather gets cool.
The other option is Capri pants, or pants that go just below the knee. That is usually my go-to choice. My bag right now has two pairs. Capris usually look best if they are slim fitting, think Audrey Hepburn, and worn with sandals or flats. A nice pair of black Capris with a crisp white shirt and a scarf or necklace, that is a classy, no-fuss look.
Women have plenty of good options for comfortable, classy, feminine summer wear, so my answer is no, women should not wear shorts in Europe.
It’s tougher for men, I know, I know. Telling them not to wear shorts is dooming them to being sweaty, or more so at least. The reality is that these days, shorts are beginning to be worn by Italians on hot days, even stylish city folk. It’s more common to see on young men outside of the big cities, but can be anywhere.
The difference here is keeping it classy. Sloppy cut-offs, overly baggy shorts, or shorts worn with tube socks up to the knees don’t look good on anyone. Socks with sandals? Mammamia! That’s cause for deportation in Italy.
My advice for men- bring shorts that are fitted, that won’t wrinkle, in a neutral color like black or gray. Collared polo shirts are a far better look than T-shirts here. Wear nice shoes: leather sandals or boat shoes are a good choice.
Some other solutions for men are long shorts, the kind we call “Board Shorts.” As long as they cover the knee, they will probably be fine most places, but not the opera. I have noticed a trend in Europe that you may not know about. I call them “Manpris”…Capri pants for men. If you see them, you know one thing immediately- the person wearing them is not American. But they look nice in general and are pretty common.
If you have a young woman in your life, please spread this advice- if your buns are hanging out the bottom, they are too short. This fashion is popular with American girls and isn’t appropriate. Anywhere. Please make it stop.
The best insight I have heard was from a local. One of my girlfriends, an American married to an Italian and living in Italy, gave this take: “You can wear shorts, everyone does, but most women will do that only if they dress it up. They will add layers and accessorize with cool jewelry or a scarf to make it look presentable.”
In the end, there is no right answer here. Bring shorts if you have a good reason, if they look good on you and make you feel comfortable. I’m old fashioned I guess. You’ll never see me wearing them in Italy, not unless I’m at the beach laying in the sun. Preferably with a cocktail.