There is an economic truism that the shorter the skirt, the better the times, but is this true for the male equivalent: shorts? This summer, designers from Yves Saint Laurent’s Stefano Pilati to Raf Simons seem determined to find out. Indeed, the style is so prevalent that designer Neil Barrett has given it a name: “rising short syndrome”.
“The move towards shorter shorts is certainly gaining momentum,” says Mr Porter’s buying director Toby Bateman. “Conservatives who used to wear long board shorts seem to be moving to mid-length, and the more fashion-forward among us are moving towards the shorter shorts.”
One of the site’s strongest selling products continues to be Orlebar Brown’s Bulldog mid-length swim short, “but we’re definitely seeing a focus on that particular length across all shorts,” says Bateman.
Adam Brown, founder of the British swimwear brand, which recently opened its first freestanding store in London, says that sales are doubling each year, largely on the popularity of its Bulldog short, which can be worn both at the beach and in the city as walking shorts.
Tom Kalenderian, general merchandise manager and executive vice president of men’s wear at Barneys New York, says this might be down to the fact that Orlebar Brown takes its cues from the streamlined mid-century silhouette. Jim Moore, creative director of American GQ, agrees: “We’re in a slim culture now, and it feels like the one thing that was holding up the slimness of the entire wardrobe was the short.”
“There is a definite shrinking of the overall silhouette that has changed the focus of one’s eye where a traditional length can be challenged,” says Ed Burstell, managing director at Liberty. “This is coupled with a retailer’s constant need to offer a new silhouette to entice their customers to spend.”
To understand how big a change this might be, consider: for the past two decades the majority of the shorts seen on men hit at, or below, the knee. They were shorts that were not, in fact, short. In the 1970s and 1980s shorts typically hit the mid to upper thigh (think of Tom Selleck showing off his hairy legs in short shorts on Magnum PI) but by the 1990s they had started to lengthen, in part because of changing body shape.
“The American body is a bit overbuilt on top while legs are covered up,” says designer Michael Bastien, long a proponent of men’s short shorts. “Europeans’ bodies are more natural and thus there lies no fear in showing a bit more leg.”
“Being English, I always struggle with the American style because, for me, it’s way too safe, streamlined and lacking in personality,” says Ryan Jordan, creative director at public relations firm Harrison & Shriftman, who wears short shorts nearly every day from April to November. “But I think American men are starting to find a better aesthetic balance.”
Exactly how balanced is debatable. Although sales of men’s shorts in the US rose 5.6 per cent in the 12-month period ending March 31, according to market researchers NPD Group, Kalenderian admits that Barneys’ success with Orlebar might be an anomaly. “Men in the US are more conservative in general with their style,” he says. “They might wear a strong colour or pattern but they wear their shorts long.”
Eric Jennings, vice-president and fashion director at Saks Fifth Avenue, detects some reluctance: “As I’ve spoken to men across the country at our stores about this trend, the reaction I usually get is a groan!”