Long Live Short Shorts

Pablo Picasso wearing short shorts
Image credit: Tullio Saba / Public domain

For better or worse, I have spent most of my life wearing short shorts. 

From the moment I graduated out of wearing nappies, I’ve largely favoured an inseam that isn’t much longer than what you get on the average pair of Pampers. Not my school days, nor my years at college, or even my emigration from sunny South Africa to showery Scotland has put me off the habit.

It might well be genetic. I was born of Afrikaaner stock, which meant that it was all but compulsory for me to wear short shorts as a youth, ideally without shoes or socks whenever possible. Afrikaanerdom is an identity defined in large part by a love of rugby, barbecuing (‘braaing’ if you want to get the lingo right), and any other outdoor activity that is best engaged in while wearing tiny, thigh-baring trousers. The shorter the better. And while these days I live in a different country and only ever speak half-forgotten Afrikaans to my relatives, one way in which the values of my upbringing remain firmly intact is in my choice of summer bottoms.

Flat-lay of short shorts on a carpet
Image is my own / All rights reserved

In fact, this is true in quite a literal way. I am, as we speak, a man on the wrong side of thirty and yet most of the shorts that I own are about fifteen years old at this point. I still have the shorts I donned as part of my high school uniform, for example. Ditto a handful of athletic numbers I wore while being forced to play sports as a teen, as well as several retro pairs I scoured the thrift stories of my youth searching for in vain until I eventually discovered some in a farming supply store which duly won me as a life-long customer. If the provenance and lifespan of these garments seem at all surprising, what is perhaps more so is the fact that I still wear all of them regularly and with pride.

What’s more, whenever a pair of longs start looking a little too raggedy or don’t fit quite the way they once did, I’ll inevitably take a pair of scissors to each leg at around the mid-thigh point. It’s a fate that has long faced nearly all of my jeans, chinos, fatigues, and even my sweatpants. And on the rare occasion that I buy a new set of shorts (here’s looking at you, Patagonia Baggies) I always get them as short as I possibly can.

Most of the appeal for me has always been a kind of retro flair. Even as a teen, when I was first developing a taste for the kind of things I liked to wear, I got a kick out of choosing the same style of shorts my dad and his friends wore in their younger days. Then, as I started getting into old movies around the same time, I quickly clocked that I could never hope to look as cool as Sean Connery or Paul Newman in a tie or a tux, but damn it if I couldn’t at least wear the same shorts they did in the summer time. And soon, with every passing year, my list of other short shorts-wearing heroes would grow: Hunter S. Thompson, John Travolta, Harrison Ford, and even an off-duty Dick Cavett, to name just a few.

Man in Palm Springs wearing short shorts
Image credit: Tullio Saba / Public domain

The heyday of the style was, of course, the 1970s, although men had already been wearing similarly skimpy shorts for bathing and athletic purposes in the decades prior. And while the hirsute hams of many a disco-era dad may have defined (or ruined, as the case may be) the look for many, short shorts are probably even more closely associated with the womenswear of the era. A wave of sexual liberation in the 1960s delivered onto the proverbial shores of the 1970s a new set of sartorial standards that meant showing a little skin had become entirely mainstream. Mary Quant, the same seminal designer widely credited with inventing the miniskirt in the ’60s, would define the subsequent decade with her creation of hot pants in 1971. In no time at all, the garment made the jump from the catwalk to the high street and, along with flared trousers and platform shoes, came to define the fashion of the era.

The menswear of the 1970s and ’80s proved every bit as skimpy. Just look at the pop culture of the time. In the realm of music there were the quad-baring likes of Elton John and Bob Weir. On TV the story was no different. Prime time was thigh central circa 1980 thanks to Tom Selleck in Magnum, P.I. and John Ritter in Three’s Company. And if you turned your dial to any sports channel it was more of the same. Any runner, basketball star, or tennis player in sight was inevitably sporting some perilously short trunks.

But while the like of Björn Borg and John McEnroe or Larry Bird and Magic Johnson may have epitomised the short shorts worn by a generation of men both on and off the court, it was another athlete who would put a stop to all of it. Michael Jordan (whose dramatic impact on the style of basketball shorts across the board I’ve discussed before) in the 1990s all but single-handedly put an end to the reign of short shorts and ushered in an era of long, billowing bottoms, some of them so large that they challenged any credible usage of the term ‘shorts’. Goodness knows I revere the man, but it does hurt me knowing that MJ’s influence is largely to blame for me having to clarify my preference for ‘short shorts’ in particular, rather than the counterfactual in which all shorts still clock in at 5 inches or fewer.

Basketball players in short shorts
Image credit: Tullio Saba / Public domain

As an avid basketball fan, I often wonder while watching games how any player makes do with anything other than those razor-thin inseams of yore. Because, for me, comfort is the other great consideration in choosing short shorts. There’s no beating them on this score. No shorts — heck, no pants, period — are more breathable, flexible, or, for that matter, more liberating. They’re also surprisingly flattering to a wide range of leg shapes, although really you shouldn’t be doing it for the onlookers — get those thighs out in the sunlight for your own sake!

All considered, it’s not remotely surprising that the style has come surging back into popularity in the last few years. Thanks to the skimpy shorts of the like of Paul Mescal, Harry Styles, Tyler, the Creator, Milo Ventimiglia, the lads in Call Me By Your Name, and the kids on TikTok, we can all rest assured in showing a bit more leg when the occasion calls for it.

And this all comes not a moment too soon. I’m writing these words in the middle of an unprecedented heat wave here in Britain and, let me tell you as someone who has spent his whole life wearing short shorts, I have never been more grateful for them than I am right at this minute. May their tenure far outlast their leg length. Long live short shorts!

Surfers wearing short shorts
Image credit: Tullio Saba / Public domain