May 23, 2014 7:07 pm

A shorts story

‘‘Is it ever safe to wear shorts?’ one Radio 4 presenter asked another’

It was in New York that I noticed it. Men wearing shorts, their female companions still covered up in jeans or leggings. On Wednesday just over a fortnight ago, the weather was heating up but not yet hot. The certainty of US weather patterns meant New Yorkers knew the upcoming weekend would be the first of summer. But, even before, men seemed to be baring flesh quicker than women.

That first day, it was young men in shorts. But when Saturday came and the temperature in Manhattan was above 25C, those I saw were often in their thirties and forties. One crucial point: storms had been forecast for that afternoon. Women had erred on the side of functional caution. Men, it seemed, were desperate to get their legs out.

To me this was extraordinary. The negative relationship between men and shorts tends to weigh down menswear, it’s an area cloaked in doubt and, as with men and sandals, assumed shame. Yet here were men switching to shorts by instinct, quicker than women moved to sundresses, skirts, or shorts for themselves. Of course, it wasn’t universal and only the slightly obsessive eye would notice it (guilty as charged) but that’s what made it all the more interesting. This was a natural, subconscious shift in the way men engage with clothing, rather than some obvious, empty fashion pretence.

To an outsider, the codes of New York dressing still seem guided by the rules of society. These weren’t shorts for slouching, but dressed-up garments in which to be seen. The majority were tailored chinos of various colours, worn with the certainty of a wardrobe staple rather than a new purchase. It was as if the weekend were a dress rehearsal for the season-opening Memorial Day holiday. Forget the “don’t wear anything white after Labor Day” advice, here was a new rule to live by: smart shorts shall be worn from now till Labor Day.

. . .

Back in London, things were much more of a mush. Summer kind of began last weekend but without the full certainty of American heat. On Saturday, the city clouded over. I looked for the same clarity among men and shorts. There was none. Younger men were wearing them as a matter of course. Thirtysomething men, particularly those with a newborn in a pram, looked defeated in baggy combat shorts. One young man was wearing a fully tailored shorts suit cut from brown checked lightweight wool. He was a one-off. Many men were still in jeans. There was no undercurrent of consensus.

On Sunday, the Radio 4 continuity announcer Neil Sleat introduced the lunchtime weather with a question. “Is it safe to wear shorts, Peter?” he asked weatherman Peter Gibbs, “or will you just get goosepimples later on?” Gibbs sounded like a worrier talking over a garden fence. “Is it ever safe to wear shorts, Neil? I don’t know.” Sleat had answered “No” even before Gibbs had finished speaking. Gibbs got on with the weather.

In the courtyard of the block where I live, some parents arrived, carrying boxes. They were visiting an offspring’s first flat. The father was in shorts. A young man came down from the floors above, in a black T-shirt and jeans. The initial conversation was warm but hesitant as a family tried to find its new footing. “Where’s the sun gone?” said the mother. “There’s me, shorts and all,” said the father.

. . .

Menswear tends to change by generational shifts. Today’s British middle-aged men may never feel entirely comfortable in shorts. They were something you grew out, graduating to the adult sophistication of long trousers. You can only hope that they might overcome the idea of clothing being a humiliation. (A good start would be a well-tailored pair from somewhere such as Margaret Howell, whose naval shorts this summer are crisp and clear of any fuss. If £215 for a pair of shorts is too much, friendly British brand Albam has a shortened version of its classic chino at £99.)

This will change. Come back in 30 years, when British twentysomethings are in their fifties. These will be men who’ve grown up on cheap flights to Europe, gym membership, self-exposure on Instagram and the possibility of making a fortune without once wearing a suit and tie. Men bred to be more comfortable in their skin. To them, the thought of not wearing shorts will be strange.

A breakthrough! As if menswear will somehow be solved. Except it won’t. Much of the problem is psychological. In a few decades, this shorts dilemma will be seen as a curious mental overhang of a 20th-century upbringing. But what if men secretly get pleasure from the admonishment they find from fashion? Shorts dealt with, there’ll be some other as-yet-unforeseen male hang-up about clothing to take their place.

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Charlie Porter is the FT’s men’s fashion critic

Stockists

margarethowell.co.uk

albamclothing.com

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