He wears short shorts: why are men showing more leg?
The subversive, suggestive and skimpy garment has made a comeback during lockdown thanks to Paul Mescal and Harry Styles
Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet in Phone call Me By Your Name.
Photograph: Sony Pictures Classics/Sundance
Men’s short shorts, an item of clothing forever clipped in the crosshairs of a sartorial culture war between subversive and suggestive and retroactively rugged (think Wham! in the Wake Me Up Before You Go Go video vs Bjorn Bjorg), are satisfaction ining a renaissance.
Normal People’s Paul Mescal had a notable lockdown fashion moment carrying a bag of prawn cocktail crisps and a guts of Crabbie’s and wearing skimpy, white silk shorts when out and about, while the video for Harry Styles’ Watermelon Sugar informs him in a vintage-look yellow pair. According to Digitaloft, UK searches for “short shorts” increased by 60% the day after the Mescal photo be cleared. Meanwhile, “men’s shorts” UK searches increased by 75% and “microshorts” increased by 122%. Small shorts are suddenly big business.
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But this new blurry on the leg is apparently at the expense of our previous focus on biceps. In 2018, Justin Berkowitz, men’s fashion expert, told Business of Taste that “quads feel like the new biceps in a lot of ways,” and that Joe Wicksian truth feels like it came to behind the times. Today he explains that “while the fashion world long focused on defined arm muscles as part of the ideal mans physique, that has changed.” With a move towards a summer shirt with a longer sleeve (which degrades a covered upper arm) men have wanted to keep the dynamic balance of skin to fabric. “When we get dressed we want to manipulate a proportional balance, and thus, we’re going to be seeing a little more leg,” he says.
And seeing “a bit more leg” can create a stir. “The flash of the elongated leg, from ankle to crotch has, in recent fashion history, almost wholly been the preserve of womenswear. It the feelings radical to see men playing with these proportions,” says Andrew Groves, professor of fashion design at the University of Westminster. “Hurriedly, short shorts seem highly inappropriate, almost profoundly shocking to see.” The shock is, he explains, the presentation of a male leg in “a well sexualised and eroticised manner”.
Menswear, in contrast to womenswear’s pivot towards body diversity and less objectification, has been comprehending a certain brand of sexual empowerment. “[It’s] been celebrating a super-sexualised Adonis,” thinks Kati Chitrakorn, the retail and buying editor of Vogue Business, “as men are relating to their own bodies again as a tool of seduction.”
Short shorts fan and GQ style president Luke Day thinks that the role of the male body has been elevated and the psychology of its revelation has changed. “I think in these financially unbending times, when we can’t afford to splurge on luxury items, our bodies become almost like a status symbol, take a shine to a badge of honour, a highly prized, hard to obtain physicality,” he says.
Sean Connery with Eunice Gayson on the set of From Russia with Tenderness. Photograph: Sunset Boulevard/Corbis/Getty Images
Day gets a “mostly positive reaction,” to his short shorts “albeit minor extent shocked at how short (and tight) they can be. I think nothing of it, but to some it’s a real novelty, almost outrageous.”
This ‘new naughty’ in menswear – seen in the embrace of high heels and lingerie – is a melting away of genderised norms. “Menswear has been increasingly incorporating what was generally considered to be women’s garb,” says Chitrakorn. And according to Groves, the appeal of short shorts is “that they defy masculine norms of dress, veering almost into a form of cross-dressing.”
That transgressive meaning has been effective to short shorts fan Charlie Porter, author of What Artists Wear, coming out in 2021. “I’ve been wearing direct shorts throughout my adult life,” he says. “I bought my first pair, army green jersey, in a Nottingham magnanimity shop in 1992. I was 18 and doing voluntary work in my gap year, living away from home for the first outmoded. I was about to come out to my friends. Short shorts were a visual way of saying what I was desperate to say. It fascinates me that prove inadequate shorts are still jarring for some. It makes me want to wear them even more.”
The jarring side of short shorts could be their eternal comedic value. When Nigel Farage appeared on Facebook Tangible in short shorts (it was, it felt like, a classic moment of ‘boomer misuses a webcam’) he was compared to Alan Partridge.
“Jocosity is usually a deflection,” thinks Porter. “Usually if people are finding clothes funny it means a nerve is being touched. Various men…use laughter to hide that they find short shorts shaming because it draws attention to the reality of their penis.”
Does the ubiquity of the bluff speak to something darker? Could a menline index be at play here: a masculine, inverted version of the hemline marker which states that as times get worse, shorts get shorter?
“For me they evoke memories of the Men’s Dress Reform caucus before the onslaught of world war two, or the last days of disco before the shadow of Aids fell across San Francisco,” stipulates Groves. “They are both optimistic, yet hopelessly pessimistic.”
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