Around this same time during each of the past few summers, the Internet has hit a breaking point over a seemingly innocuous sartorial conundrum: Should men wear shorts? Of course, men can wear shorts. They can zip the bottoms off of their polyester cargo pants, they can snip off their jeans at knee-height, or they can buy a pair of ready-made “shorts.” But the thinking on one side goes, “A man is an adult and therefore a man should not be wearing shorts because, again, he is not a child.” While the thinking on the other side is “Yes, I am an adult and therefore I can choose what I put on my legs, especially when it’s so goddamn hot out.”
(Another take is: Your knees and shins look weird! But you can still wear shorts—though only if you absolutely have to.)
As I sit here in Southern California, wearing pants, while also surrounded by the throngs of men wandering the streets and wearing shorts (and also wearing mid-calf socks, which … is confusing?), the distinction is no less clear. Pants? Shorts? Man, I just don’t know. So, I exchanged emails with Professor Susan Kaiser of the University of California-Davis, who is an expert in the psychology of clothing. To get a hold on Arguably the Most Important Question Facing the Modern American Male, Kaiser suggested we look at the Western history of shorts:
Within Western culture, the history of shorts becomes intertwined with those of breeches or culottes (worn prior to the French Revolution in 1789), and thereby linked with issues of class as well as masculinity. Long trousers had been worn by the working classes, whereas aristocratic and bourgeois men wore breeches/knickers/culottes. This changed after the revolution, and long pants began to be worn by men of all classes in the 19th century. Shorts per se were for little boys, who “evolved” into their manhood by switching from long white dresses (infants) to shorter white dresses (toddlers) to shorts (little boy) to breeches (middle childhood or so) to long trousers (probably teens). This progression—associated with the 19th and early 20th centuries—was associated not only with age grades but also with a kind of “flight from femininity” and toward manhood. (The implication, of course, is that femininity did not have the same trajectory; it was infantilized to a much greater extent.)
At one point, yes, being an adult male was essentially defined as “someone who wears pants.” While that cultural guideline is no longer so strict (see: evidence), has it totally disappeared? “I suspect that the residues of these historical meanings with respect to age (early boyhood) and gender (effeminate) sort of linger as connotations,” Kaiser wrote , “even though there are competing connotations (sports attire, hip hop, etc.).”
Sports and progressive gender-views on the same side! Yet shorts still manage to divide. Why can’t our leg-wear unite? “Maybe the contradictory meanings, overall, contribute to the debate and the strong feelings in both directions,” Kaiser wrote, “coupled, of course, with climate and other practical matters.”
Climate change. We cannot escape.