Men’s shorts exemplify America’s current obsession with THE CASUAL. It is undeniable that shorts have their place in a complete wardrobe. But, questions of appropriate use come hard and fast upon this admission. For, it seems, no article of clothing is more ill-used, over-used, and over-estimated than the men’s short-pant.
A SHORTS HISTORY
The historical development of the short is more about practicality than it is overt style-ism. It is clear that the first incarnation of the short came in the 14th and 15th century when a tight knee-length pant called Breechers became the fashion, these were commonly wore with tights or hosiery. Breechers can be called quite easily to mind with the mention of one name: Shakespeare.
To this day Breechers are worn to demarcate historical dress in regional and high school theaters worldwide. There is a small amount of truth to this usage, in that, breechers were worn on the boards of the Globe, Curtain and Rose theatres. In fact, the deep, foot forward, knee-bending bow, the signature move of the Elizabethan actor, was a racy display of, what was then, thought of as one of the sexiest parts of a man’s body, the calf muscle. So, you can see how the knee-length breecher was the perfect garment for flexing and displaying the calf to the groundlings packed tight before the stage. In fact, the phrase “break a leg” refers to the break in the leg that occurs with the Elizabethan bow, it is not an ironical hex to ward off failure. If an actor performed a soliloquy particularly well the audience would cheer, upon the receipt of this approbation the actor would break character, take a bow, and “break a leg.”
In the 1800s, the Plus Four or Knickerbocker became the default pant for sporting gents. Extending a modest four inches below the knee, the Knickerbocker is familiar to any fan of golf history or English hunting apparel. A version of the Knickerbocker was also worn by young men and boys, this similar below-the-knee look was called a Knee Pant. But, the important idea within these incarnations of the short-pant is that the leg was not bare. Although these trends can be likened to shorts, simply because of their length, the contemporary descendent of the Knickerbocker is not the short, but the full-length casual or sport pant. No self-respecting member of society would have, in these eras, worn a bare leg in public. In fact, it was only young men, under the age of sixteen, who wore what came to be known as short-pants without high socks or hosiery.
This speaks directly to today’s problem: No grown man should wear a bared leg in public. This may seem extreme and of course there are exceptions, but they are just that, “exceptions” to the rule. The default should stand: unless you are a child you should not wear short-pants.
There are exceptions to this rule. Rules can, through time and use, change. Obsessing on a radical traditionalism or blind historicity limits and dislocates. A Gentleman must know when to follow the letter of the law, evolve and elaborate the spirit of the law, and sometimes blatantly and forcefully break the law.
Shorts are indispensable, when needed, and can be a lot of fun. It is clear that proximity to water necessitates the wearing of shorts. The closer to the water you are, the more appropriate it is to sport shorts. On the water, there is no shame in wearing a bare leg, no socks, and boat shoes. Truly this is the best-case scenario for the short. Sailboats being the best of the best, when you are tacking in high winds pants seem superfluous. And, even when the boat is larger, the short is appropriate. Unless it’s the Captain’s dinner, black-tie only.
A few other sports warrant the short-pant, but be careful that you do not wear shorts to and from the sporting venue. Take a page from Roger Federer who, at Wimbledon, wears long pants and a blazer over his tennis togs as he walks on and off court. Never wear shorts to and from the gym, especially if you live in a city, no one wants to see your bare legs while commuting to work in suit and tie. The one exception here is jogging, if you are going for a run it is appropriate to leave and return home in shorts, there is no place to change into your running shorts and sneakers. So, it’s all just between you and the doorman. In general be smart and courteous, if you can help it, cover up.
The beach community presents a real problem, a venue that elicits the most over-use of the short. During the day, within close proximity to water, you may choose to wear shorts around town. At the beach, riding your bike around, even stopping in at a shop or two. Resort or Cruise wear is acceptable pretty much everywhere you go. But there are two instances that you should give up the short for a long pant.
One: Any time you dine. Never, ever, wear shorts into a restaurant. There is absolutely no time when it is appropriate to enter a restaurant of any type in shorts.[i] No one wants to see your hairy legs while eating, no one. It is rude and simply unacceptable. Of course, if it’s a lobster-shack, actually on the sand, then the restaurant has come to you and shorts are okay.
Two: After sunset shorts must be traded out for long pants. Even on the beach, once the sun is gone so should the shorts. This is probably the most difficult of the shorts restriction to follow, during the summer months the day melts into night and there is no easy delineation point. But, no one ever said being a Gentleman is easy. After dark, the tone and mode of the outfit must formalize. Obviously, you don’t need to put on a tuxedo, but a casual pair of khakis will dress an outfit up just enough, while keeping it beach and resort casual. If you are of college age or younger, shorts can be an okay wardrobe component after sunset. If you are hanging out around a bonfire or around a keg, feel free to short it up. However, if you are over the age of twenty-five, please step away from the keg and grab a pair of adult pants. Aging gracefully is the hallmark of all Gentlemen, and thirty is far too late to begin growing up. Tee shirts, baseball caps, and shorts should be left behind after college. The graduation from University is the dividing line from child to adulthood. Take this rite-of-passage seriously and make sure it is reflected in your wardrobe.
There is little worse than a grown man dressing like a boy. It shows a lack of responsibility, a lack of seriousness, and an obsession with youth that borders on the pathological. A large part of being a Gentleman is culpability: always be personally responsible, and never allow your code of conduct to go by the wayside. Your clothing is a statement of your character and for a Gentleman that statement should never be, “I’m just a boy.” To be taken seriously you must take yourself seriously.
-Erik C. Nelson
[i] The one exception to this is Thursday night seafood dinner at the Coral Beach & Tennis Club. The dress code is dinner jacket and Bermuda shorts.