Spring is in the air, and you know what that means: It’s shorts season. While women routinely face pressure to shave (and/or contour!) our legs, as well as policing and slutshaming about the length of our shorts, the idea of a woman in shorts is widely regarded as uncontroversial. It’s a much different story for men.
Shorts for men have long been dismissed as unappealing and unprofessional. And once upon a time, shorts weren't simply frowned on, they were outright prohibited. In 1938, a Pennsylvania town banned both men and women from wearing shorts in the name of modesty. For most of the 20th century, the only grown men who fought for the right to wear shorts were college students.
But these days, according to a recent poll conducted by The Huffington Post, people are resoundingly and refreshingly pro-shorts for dudes. With any luck, 2016 could represent a turning point in the shorts conversation, marking a less rigid approach to masculinity and a more open appreciation for the male body.
It wasn't always this way—not even in the last five years. Shorts-bashing became something of an annual warm-weather tradition on the internet in 2011, when fashion designer and Jay-Z song subject Tom Ford expressed his disdain for the article of clothing in an interview:
A man should never wear shorts in the city. Flip-flops and shorts in the city are never appropriate. Shorts should only be worn on the tennis court or on the beach.
In the wake of those remarks, just about every blog and news outlet discussed their thoughts on "real men" or at least adult men wearing shorts. The general consensus was that shorts were unsophisticated, juvenile, a definite "don't." (Keep in mind that cargo shorts were still popular at this time, which probably made it a lot easier to hate on all shorts as a general rule.) In 2012, Dan Savage smoothly dismissed the question of whether he wore shorts: “No, no. I’m a grown-up.”
But this debate doesn't sound the same everywhere. Ford’s words addressed an issue that many people tend to forget when talking shorts: geography.
“The perception [of men wearing shorts] is wildly different in different regional areas,” Anna Akbari, founder of Sociology of Style, told Fusion. “Where there are distinct seasons, you’ll hear stronger opinions and sharper criticism… we’re talking about the East Coast and maybe parts of the Midwest where they’re wrestling with what’s acceptable professionally.”
She explained that shorts are a relative non-issue in California and parts of the South where it gets super hot. After all, shorts have a very practical purpose that becomes far more apparent when it’s 90 degrees outside. “Shorts are a garment that are functional. They’re designed make you cooler or give you range of motion,“ Tom Montgomery, founder of Chubbies, a purveyor of "radical shorts," said in a phone interview.
Of course, the physical benefits of wearing shorts are just one facet of the conversation. The anxiety around men wearing shorts is a direct result of anxiety around masculinity, and our surprisingly fragile societal conceptions thereof. Why on earth is it such a big deal to see a man’s gams?
Considering that shorts were historically worn by young boys, whose transition to pants in their early teen years was considered a rite of passage, it’s not hard to see why shorts are seen as a symbol of immaturity. That association is part of why they have been written off by many, including the brilliant and terrifying Fran Lebowitz. "It's repulsive. [Men in shorts] look ridiculous, like children, and I can't take them seriously," the writer said in an Elle interview last year.
But there’s more to it than that. These strangely visceral reactions to the sight of a man’s legs point to a deeper, gendered discomfort. For over two centuries, the suit—revealing as little skin as possible–has been the epitome of masculine dressing. “For us the clothed man is the sexy sophisticated man,” Akbari explained. “We see the guy in the custom suit beautifully tailored made of gorgeous fabric—that’s a sexy guy.”
In her 1995 book Sex and Suits, Anne Hollander discussed the staying power of the suit, an emblem of masculinity and power that has reigned since the 19th century as an expression of masculinity and "male pride":
The masculine suit now suggests probity and restraint, prudence and detachment; but under these enlightened virtues also seethe its hunting, laboring, and revolutionary origins; and therefore the suit still remains sexually potent and more than a little menacing, its force by no means spent during all these generations.”
The sexiness of the suit is inextricable from its coverage of the entire body, but shorts are essentially its opposite. There’s nothing to hide—there’s just leg, and plenty of it, to an extent that may be jarring to someone whose sensibility is steeped in Western ideals of masculinity.
“[Men’s bodies have] different kinds of curves… We’re not used to looking [at the male form] and we haven’t come to terms with the sexual nature of that," Akbari explained, saying that a more conservative observer might interpret the very sight of a man wearing shorts or a tank top as homoerotic.
There's obviously a double standard at work here. As America's Next Top Model catwalk coach Miss J Alexander told Zach Stafford for The Guardian, “Women in mini skirts and daisy dukes are the norm in society through the eyes of men, but a man wearing shorts shocks men.”
Either way, shorts have already made their way into fashion and have been featured on the runway for designers like Louis Vuitton, Rick Owens, and Todd Snyder, in addition to a number of international brands like Dubai's House of Nomad and Chinese designer Zeng Fengfei.
Shorts are also becoming more acceptable in some workplaces, perhaps thanks to the increasing influence of startup culture and its dressed-down fashion sense, as well as athleisure. Every year, it seems like there are more attempts to marry the comfort of shorts with some form of sophistication, whether by paying homage to WWII-era khaki shorts or trying to make shorts suits a thing (key word: trying). And honestly, if there's one indication that the shorts tide is truly turning, it's that the garments are the hot-button issue in the world of golf this year, with many rallying to overturn the PGA ban on shorts.
“No one needs to feel self-conscious about wearing anything, let alone shorts, or showing their legs,” Chubbies’ Tom Montgomery said. Last year, Chubbies held an "anti-model" contest, promoting their brand value of body positivity with a talent search for regular dudes to rock their products. "What we’ve been pushing as a brand is just the notion of fun and inclusiveness," Montgomery told me. "You don’t have to be caught up in the negative stuff because there’s a lot of that out there." Shorts for the people, if you will.
“This obsession or opposition against [men wearing shorts] stems from insecurities and a frail sense of masculinity that has plagued this sometimes backwards country for so long," Tommy Lei, high-fashion blogger and founder of My Belonging, told Fusion in an email. "It's time for Americans to embrace what men in other countries have long enjoyed.”
We may not be seeing shorts in a Goldman Sachs boardroom or in the courtroom any time soon—and despite Jaden Smith’s efforts, the same probably goes for men in skirts—but it’s clear that the broader conversation about men wearing shorts is no longer the oversimplified debate it was even just a couple years ago. At the very least, we're finally chipping away at dumb conventions about masculinity and power that have dominated men’s fashion for too long. But let's agree to leave cargo shorts and those zip-off numbers in the past, yeah?