Short Shrift: The History and Perception of Men’s Shorts

Man walking in shorts and a T-shirt
Image credit: Bruno van der Kraan on Unsplash

Summer clothing is typically relegated to the bottom of the menswear totem pole, with shorts, sandals, and even T-shirts regularly getting a bad rap from more classically inclined dressers. Shorts in particular seem to have committed some of the more historic fashion offences. To paraphrase St John’s gospel: Let he who has not balked at their grandpa in Bermudas cast the first pair of cargo shorts.

The Savile Row designer Hardy Amies wrote that a man ‘should never wear shorts except [when] actually on the beach or on a walking tour’. Fran Lebowitz is similarly on record as believing men in shorts to be ‘disgusting’, saying, ‘I’d just as soon see someone coming toward me with a hand grenade.’

Despite — or perhaps even because of — a widespread relaxation of dress codes, shorts clearly still carry plenty of negative connotations. They might bring to mind Boy Scouts and private schoolboys, or, with the growing disappearance of suits from the workplace, a certain kind of schlubby office bro. Indeed, the association between shorts and the juvenile date back centuries, perhaps because, as Josh Sims points out, ‘in an age before childrenswear comprised scaled-down versions of “adultwear”, they helped children think and behave like children.’ 

Wartime children in shorts
Image credit: Tullio Saba / Public domain

The grown men of yesteryear would only wear short trousers on sports fields, and even there they occasionally proved controversial. Shorts did not appear on tennis courts before 1932 (Bunny Austin wore the first pair during the US men’s championships in New York) and the Professional Golfers’ Association forbids them during competitive play to this day. Until the 1950s, there were towns in the US where short pants on grown men were outlawed, as in Honesdale, PA., where one town leader was quoted as saying: ‘Honesdale is a modest town, not a bathing beach’.

Tennis player Bunny Austin in shorts
British tennish player and shorts enthusiast, Bunny Austin
Image credit: Willem van de Poll / CC0 1.0

There is a certain historical irony in these more recent takes on shorts since trouser snobbery cut the other way prior to the French Revolution. Long pants were worn exclusively by working men, while the well-to-do donned stockings and breeches that buttoned or buckled just below the knee. After the Revolution, all men went in for the more egalitarian trouser we know today.

Bermuda shorts are what changed the tide for gents baring their gams in modern times. Bermuda, famed for short pants and spooky triangles, became the Royal Navy’s North Atlantic HQ in 1816. The story goes that, a hundred years on, a certain tea shop run by a man named Nathanial Coxon became a popular naval haunt. Its crowded interior made the shop a literal hotspot in the already balmy island climate. It was enough for the employees to complain about their uniforms, which included uncomfortably stuffy blazers and khakis. In response, Mr Coxon simply took a pair of scissors to the trousers’ legs, cutting them off to just above the knee. Problem solved. 

Thanks to Rear-Admiral Mason Berridge, the shorts caught on beyond the walls of Coxon’s tea rooms. He was apparently so taken with the ensemble that he adopted it for his officers, noting that it had ‘a bit of old Oxford and a bit of the Khyber Pass’. He also added long socks to smarten up the look to naval standards. Bermuda shorts duly spread throughout the British Armed forces and eventually caught on in civilian wardrobes. Winston Churchill even gave them the stamp of approval, saying: ‘The short-pant is a terrible fashion choice unless it is from Bermuda.’

Ernest and Mary Hemingway at the Finca Vigia in Cuba
Noted Bermuda shorts fan, Ernest Hemingway
Image credit: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration / Public domain

Fast forward to the 1960s and sexual and sartorial liberation meant that shorts no longer seemed all that outlandish, albeit still occasionally stigmatised. These days, showing off your shanks is fair game. But, if wearing pants cut above the knee still gives you pause, think only of that standard-bearer of men’s style, James Bond. 007 has been wearing some of the skimpiest shorts known to man for half a century, so who’s to say you can’t do the same?

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