Menus Subscribe Search
men-in-shorts

(PHOTO: A.DAVEY/FLICKR)

Why Do Men Wear Shorts?

• July 16, 2013 • 11:39 AM

(PHOTO: A.DAVEY/FLICKR)

Related: Why does everybody seem to care?

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.

Ryan O'Hanlon
Senior Digital Editor Ryan O’Hanlon joined Pacific Standard from Outside, where he was an online editor. He is a graduate of the College of the Holy Cross, and his writing has appeared in Grantland, the New York Times Magazine, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @rwohan.

More From Ryan O'Hanlon

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


August 28 • 12:00 PM

The Ice Bucket Challenge’s Meme Money

The ALS Association has raised nearly $100 million over the past month, 50 times what it raised in the same period last year. How will that money be spent, and how can non-profit executives make a windfall last?


August 28 • 11:56 AM

Outlawing Water Conflict: California Legislators Confront Risky Groundwater Loophole

California, where ambitious agriculture sucks up 80 percent of the state’s developed water, is no stranger to water wrangles. Now one of the worst droughts in state history is pushing legislators to reckon with its unwieldy water laws, especially one major oversight: California has been the only Western state without groundwater regulation—but now that looks set to change.


August 28 • 11:38 AM

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.


August 28 • 10:00 AM

The Five Words You Never Want to Hear From Your Doctor

“Sometimes people just get pains.”


August 28 • 8:00 AM

Why I’m Not Sharing My Coke

Andy Warhol, algorithms, and a bunch of popular names printed on soda cans.


August 28 • 6:00 AM

Can Outdoor Art Revitalize Outdoor Advertising?

That art you’ve been seeing at bus stations and billboards—it’s serving a purpose beyond just promoting local museums.


August 28 • 4:00 AM

Linguistic Analysis Reveals Research Fraud

An examination of papers by the discredited Diederik Stapel finds linguistic differences between his legitimate and fraudulent studies.


August 28 • 2:00 AM

Poverty and Geography: The Myth of Racial Segregation

Migration, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality (not to mention class), can be a poverty-buster.


August 27 • 4:00 PM

The ‘Non-Lethal’ Flash-Bang Grenades Used in Ferguson Can Actually Be Quite Lethal

A journalist says he was singed by a flash-bang fired by St. Louis County police trying to disperse a crowd, raising questions about how to use these military-style devices safely and appropriately.


August 27 • 2:00 PM

Do Better Looking People Have Better Personalities Too?

An experiment on users of the dating site OKCupid found that members judge both looks and personality by looks alone.


August 27 • 12:00 PM

Love Can Make You Stronger

A new study links oxytocin, the hormone most commonly associated with social bonding, and the one that your body produces during an orgasm, with muscle regeneration.


August 27 • 11:05 AM

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”


August 27 • 9:47 AM

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.


August 27 • 8:00 AM

A Skeptic Meets a Psychic: When You Can See Into the Future, How Do You Handle Uncertainty?

For all the crystal balls and beaded doorways, some psychics provide a useful, non-paranormal service. The best ones—they give good advice.


August 27 • 6:00 AM

Speaking Eyebrow: Your Face Is Saying More Than You Think

Our involuntary gestures take on different “accents” depending on our cultural background.


August 27 • 4:00 AM

The Politics of Anti-NIMBYism and Addressing Housing Affordability

Respected expert economists like Paul Krugman and Edward Glaeser are confusing readers with their poor grasp of demography.


August 26 • 4:00 PM

Marching in Sync May Increase Aggression

Another danger of militarizing the police: Marching in lock step doesn’t just intimidate opponents. It impacts the mindset of the marchers.


August 26 • 3:03 PM

The Best Reporting on the Federal Push to Militarize Local Police With Riot Gear, Armored Vehicles, and Assault Rifles

A few facts you might have missed about the flow of military equipment and tactics to local law enforcement.


August 26 • 2:00 PM

How the Other 23 Percent Live

Almost one-fourth of all children in the United States are now living in poverty, an increase of three million kids since 2005.


August 26 • 12:00 PM

Why Sports Need Randomness

Noah Davis talks to David Sally, one of the authors of The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Soccer Is Wrong, about how uncertainty affects and enhances the games we watch.


August 26 • 10:00 AM

Honor: The Cause of—and Solution to—All of Society’s Problems

Recent research on honor culture, associated with the American South and characterized by the need to retaliate against any perceived improper conduct, goes way beyond conventional situations involving disputes and aggression.



August 26 • 8:00 AM

The Transformative Effects of Bearing Witness

How witnessing inmate executions affects those who watch, and how having an audience present can also affect capital punishment process and policy.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.

How Gay Men Feel About Aging

Coming to terms with growing old can be difficult in the gay community. But middle-aged men are inventing new strategies to cope.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.