The History of Shorts

The history of shorts from practical to fashionable is a unique one. This article offers a highly abridged history of the garment, some varieties for a gentleman to consider, and situations in which to wear them.

A “Short” History of Shorts

Shorts for Children

While variations of the ‘short’ can be traced back to tunics and togas, the ‘short’ as we know it didn’t come to prominence until very recent history.

Rather, between roughly the late 16th through early 19th centuries mens’ lower-body garments took the form of breeches. These short trousers finished at the knee, and the rest of the calf was covered by a stocking of either wool or (more luxuriously) silk.

The short trouser evolved into a more contemporary form in the mid 19th century. Colloquially known as ‘knickerbockers’, children wore them almost exclusively until they reached pubescent age.

Plus fours.
Plus Fours. Photo credit: Wikipedia

The word “shorts” first pops up in the 1920’s as an abbreviated version of “short pants.”

Example of plus fours worn in 1926. The pre-cursor to modern day shorts.

Shorts for Sports

As early as perhaps the 1890’s, men wore “plus fours” for golf and recreation. The garment were aptly name after the four inches they came below the knee.

During the 1920’s men wore one-piece swimsuits which covered their chest. By the early 1930’s, the risque European trend of topless swimming had gained momentum.

However, it took tennis for shorts to go mainstream in sport. Senorita de Alvares played tennis in a below-the-knee divided skirt in 1931. Bunny Austin wore shorts at the 1932 U.S. Men’s Championships at Forest Hills, New York. And, Alice Marble wore shorts for a professional tennis match in 1933.

Alice Marble wearing  playing tennis.
Alice Marble

The Short Today

The short today is an almost ubiquitous piece. Many men wear them almost daily in the spring and summer months. They’re a frequent sight gyms, golf courses, and many casual errands. However, as lines between formal and casual clothing have blurred, the short has begun to creep into social gatherings, restaurants, nights out, and even to some offices.

The jury is still out on what this means for the modern gentleman. However, we’d like to give you some inspiration on various types of shorts and how you can wear them.

Short Fabrics and How to Wear Them

If you can weave it into cloth, someone has probably made a short out of it. But, we’d like hit on some common variants and give you some places to wear them.

Chino/Cotton

Perhaps the best blend of formal and casual, the chino short is made of the soft twill weave material found in trousers of the same name. They come in colors from navy to Nantucket red, but are most common in khaki or stone.

Mens Chino Shorts

Chino shorts will work with polo shirts and long and short-sleeved tees. The more sartorially-inclined may consider adding a belted safari jacket.

Madras

A light, colorful fabric woven into far more than shorts, Madras has become a prep style staple.

Madras Shorts

Consider letting the shorts speak for themselves and keeping your upper half rather plain. Boat shoes in navy, yellow, red, or green could be an excellent pairing, though- especially at a backyard barbeque.

Bermuda Shorts

As the name suggests, these were invented on the island to assist British troops stationed there during the First World War. A longer short, they became popular with resort-goers during the first half of the 20th century. They are still common today, and are acceptable business attire on Bermuda when worn with knee-length socks and business shoes.

Golf Shorts Tiger Woods

Even you’re not doing business around the Triangle, consider donning a pair on the golf course. The PGA Tour has actually approved knee-length shorts for range sessions and Pro-Ams!

Denim Shorts

Denim Shorts–or “jorts– are perhaps the most despised of the shorts world. A modern man would do well to avoid these, as they are equally confounding and impractical.

Cargo Shorts

While these get a lot of (well-deserved) grief, the cargo short is a practical garment for those who need it. Carpenters, masons, millwrights, and those who work frequently with their hands may find it useful to have pockets to store things in.

Mens Cargo Shorts

If so, we’d recommend a neutral color like khaki or olive to disguise the inevitable stains and smudges.

Gym and Performance Shorts

As the name also implies, these are designed for gym and athletic wear. Supremely comfortable and breathable, it can be tempting to wear them out and about. However, we’d strongly suggest resisting the urge!

Longer items are favored by basketball players, and runners tend to go for shorter. However, for a man of average height, something in the 7-9″ inseam range should be just fine.

Where Not to Wear Shorts?

As we discussed earlier, the history of shorts and society’s increasing casualness has made the short much more prevalent. We believe one should opt for trousers over shorts- there are plenty of light, breathable fabrics to work with even on the hottest of days.

We’d suggest avoiding shorts at weddings, funerals, all but the most casual of restaurants, and certainly meeting a significant other’s parents for the first time.

The History of Shorts: A Note on Length

The history of shorts length tends to be pretty cyclical. Those in decades past favored as short as a 5″ inseam, and others the (1990’s-early 2000’s) went for a 10″ inseam or longer.

Here at Ask Andy, we tend to favor a timeless style based on proportion. You should aim for the hem to hit slightly above your knee. So, if you’re more modest in stature, a 5″ inseam might be what you need. Or, if you’re quite tall, that 10″ inseam would be right for you. However, for most men, between 7 and 9 inches should sit just about right.

If you’ve wondered which is right for you, our community of stylish gentlemen have a whole thread going on just how short you should go.

Thanks for reading this ‘short’ piece! If you’d like more- or if you think we got it right or wrong, be sure to chime in on our community!