A long story about shorts

Posted by Dan Cerruti on

I’m going to take an educated guess and say you have been exposed to some short-pants related vitriol in your life. It comes in all shapes and sizes. Short-shorts are called immodest, cargo shorts are called sloppy, hell, there’s even a whole contingent of “men shouldn’t wear shorts at all.” Frankly, it’s a lot of horse shit and all-encompassing statements like that are always wrong, but this stuff does come from somewhere, and no just because people hate men’s legs.

Let’s talk just what exactly shorts are. They are bottoms featuring two unique slots for legs and end above the ankle. That’s it. You really think no one had thought of this in the millennia between the invention of pants and, like, 1950? Shorts have existed in some fashion or another for a very long time (call them britches if you want to), but what we conceive as the modern idea of shorts goes back only a hundred years and change.

You see, shorts, as in trousers tailored to end around the knee, became emblematic of schoolboy uniforms. Just picture some fancy lad in a black and white photo, he’s probably in a jacket, tie, and shorts. It’s still an ongoing practice in certain institutions so you may have even seen it with your own eyes if you frequent the tonier parts of the world. In a sort of bar mitzvah rite when the boy became of age he’d be bequeathed his, very literally, big boy pants. After that age it was seen as childish to wear shorts. Real men show no shins!

There were some exceptions. Bermuda shorts, for instance, were created by the British army and wound their way into formal settings in tropical environments. Lederhosen were traditional clothing of the Bavarians, later to be adopted by the world’s drunkest peoples every October. Sorry, Oktober. But for most of folks above the Tropic of Cancer summer was no excuse to be getting out the calves. Could you imagine going through some slog of a mid-August day in, like, five layers of wool? That’s how the gents used to do it. I cannot even begin to fathom the swampiness of it all.

These rules weren’t just unwritten, mind you. Religious leaders preached against the shorts as scandalous and immodest. You can scour town and university charters from the early 20th century and find plenty of real deal dress codes prohibiting the display of lower legs. Admittedly these were more intended to regulate women’s clothing and sexuality, because why break with a species-long tradition, but it applied to men as well. The US loves its puritanical practices, but once you get a taste of sweet leg freedom it’s hard to put that genie back in long pants.

A lot of men were re-introduced to shorts when Bermuda shorts and other styles were part of uniform load outs during World War Two, especially those fighting in the warm weather theaters of the Pacific or North Africa, and those veterans came back no longer willing to suffer the summer in slacks. Didn't take long before those stuffy charters started to buckle under the weight of campus protests from gents ready to strut their gams.

The 1950s models of shorts were styled mostly after the Bermuda and other military styles, in the same way as we got the original chinos, but it didn’t take long for them to be tailored and fashioned into different styles of everyday wear. Athletic wear inspired a lot of the early styles. Playing sports in shorts was commonplace, even when you’d likely have to change out of them immediately when the game is over for propriety’s sake, so we got styles based on basketball, mountaineering, tennis, and more showing up far from the courts and trails. The counter culture boom brought us cut offs, and with it the finest invention in the history of clothing- jorts, baby! And since then the shorts have grown or shrunk, lengthened or shortened, all along the whims of fashion. Nowadays there’s even memes about 5” inseams.

Of course, there’s still plenty of debate as to the levels of formality that shorts can achieve. Plenty of offices, colleges, and businesses with mostly casual dress codes may still draw the line at exposed knees. You have to wear pants in many houses of worship. God hates seeing your calves, I think that’s mentioned in Corinthians. But we’ve come a long way from shorts only being found in the realm of boys, and thank goodness for it. Let your legs breathe free, gentlemen!

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