(Just so’s everyone knows, I really like overthinking things. I’m basically always writing thesis essays in my head. This is an example of such a thing. You’ve been warned.)
About once a year, various internet pundits will make broad, sweeping statements about various fashion elements and how they’re wholly unacceptable and should never be worn. Repeat offenders are usually flip flops, crocs, and, in this instance, shorts.
This past weekend, US foreign policy wonk Andrew Exum created the following flow chart, condemning American men for ever wearing shorts:
Now, at the time that I read this, I had just come in from running errands on a 102 Fahrenheit day in Austin, Texas. And yes, I was wearing shorts.
My response was not polite. In response to me, I was told that rudeness was a common characteristic of men dressed as children. I decided it must be a pretty position to be in if one could feign surprise that people do not respond well to being called children.
And normally, I would drop this. But this kept bothering me. And I wasn’t sure why.
Let’s get some of the basic stuff out of the way first.
THE UTILITARIAN ANGLE
So here’s the weather forecast in Austin, Texas:
This is actually quite balmy for us. We’ve had a cold front come through. We had 18 days over 100 this month, and today, the day I am writing this, the heat index is 107.
If I’m out running errands or going for a casual lunch, then I am not wearing jeans in this weather. Nor am I wearing slacks. I am not doing this because the sight of a grown man beet red and covered with sweat is far more unattractive than the sight of a man in shorts. And I’m also doing it because it could literally be dangerous to me. Heat stroke is real, and its chances get worse the older that you get.
For example, this past Sunday I went to a writing meeting in San Antonio. I wore jeans, because I’d be inside, and I’m not really a shorts guy. I don’t think I have badass calves, and I’m pale with long legs. That’s not my look. So I wore jeans.
BUT, when the writing group got out, I found that my wife and son had gone to the zoo. In extremely hot weather. They were dressed appropriately – loose shirts and shorts. But when I got there, I was dreading the idea of spending any time there, because – what was I thinking – I was wearing jeans. Luckily, we just rode the little train and went home. But man oh man, is wearing pants outside in public in Texas in summer just the worst idea in the world.
So, to a certain extent, telling people they can’t wear shorts in public is a little bit like saying, “I find air conditioning units unattractive. There is no way to render them attractive. As such, please remove them from all your homes.”
Anyone who said this would be a clueless, out-of-touch bastard, right? The entire thing drips of East and West Coast condescension, as if those who would wear shorts are hapless plebeians, who clearly have not received the scripture of fashion from New York or Europe – places which, I note, never really get into the 100s. And if they did, lots of people would die, because these places are wildly unequipped to handle these temperatures.
So there’s that.
But this goes further. Even I found I agreed that shorts aren’t great in all occasions, or most. But why? Why do I think this? What’s the problem? How does this rule work?
I think this is actually about our conception of how a straight, white man is supposed to look.
THE HISTORICAL ANGLE
Shorts being exclusively for kiddos isn’t a new thing. In the 1930 Laurel and Hardy short film Brats, a lot of the humor is derived from seeing the two grown men dressed like children, wearing shorts:
This was tremendously amusing for people back then. The stars’ own children came to the set, and thought the sight of them was hilarious. This was because, back then, shorts were exclusively reserved for children – for male children, specifically. Girls wore dresses, naturally.
A real man did not dress like this. A real man was actually burdened with a tremendous amount of clothing, and looked more like this:
Observe the layers and layer of wool and cotton. Nearly every inch of these men’s skins are covered, with barely any flesh visible whatsoever. And usually a hat was expected as well. The only times that a man was allowed to show any skin was – as Mr. Exum cites – at play, or at the beach.
This attitude wasn’t born in 1930, though. This was a carryover from Europe in the 19th Century, where in Victorian times it was scandalous if a man of high society even took his coat off, revealing his shirtsleeves – let alone show a calf.
The same standards applied to women, though, as well. All of the mature adult form was to be veiled as much as possible. The Victorians, in short, were so devoutly terrified of sexuality (lie back and think of England, hon) that it’s had reverberations throughout our own history, and our sense of fashion.
However, the standards for women were slowly rolled back. In the 1934 film It Happened One Night, Claudette Colbert was permitted to show her leg – something absolutely outrageous at the time.
And things went on from there. Fashion for men changed, but with the emergence of such trends as Twiggy, short skirts, and bikinis, women were increasingly expected to show more skin. But for men, that expectation was far, far less.
Why? Well. If this is the first time you’ve ever heard of a double standard for men and women, then I’m not sure what cave you’ve been living in. Women were expected to show skin because men wanted to see it. Specifically straight, white men, who were basically running the show and calling the shots. And what are straight, white men disinterested in seeing? Other men, of course.
And that’s what this is really all about. It’s about what traditional, cisgendered men think about themselves, and what they allow each other to wear.
THE INSECURITY OF MAN
Let’s take a look at Andrew Exum’s flowchart. The chart is specifically addressed to men, and says that men are only allowed to wear shorts if they are children.
He never mentions women, though. The presumption is that women are allowed to wear shorts – and the presumption with that is it’s because we want to see their bodies. We do not wish to see the bodies of men, because we are… Well. Men.
And aren’t we all men? Aren’t we all straight men?
Wait. We’re not?
This, I think, is just another example of a really common problem: assuming that the default perspective is that of straight, white men. Many folks cheerfully refer to this as the “patriarchy,” a system in which everything is gamed to advance the interests of straight men, usually white. Including our fashion choices.
For example, what would Andrew Exum, or the people at Vox, who have supported the article, think if they saw a man in a dress? Or a skirt? As they seem to be (or think they are) generally progressive people, it seems unlikely that they would voice disapproval, or throw a rock or a bottle at him, or something along those lines.
This, it is assumed, is because a man in a dress has “opted out” of the expectations of a straight white man. Between SWM and “other,” he has selected other.
In addition, what about gay men? Popular culture – justified or not – assumes that gay men have far more fashion sense than most men, and even some women. Can gay men wear shorts? Is this permitted? Can they “pull off” shorts, whereas SWM cannot? Or are they doomed to the same failure – resembling children, by wearing shorts? Or are they too allowed to play to different expectations, solely because of their sexuality?
This strict rule about the appropriateness of male flesh seems to only apply to straight male flesh. We have no standards when it comes to male flesh of other sexual identities. Interpret that as you will.
And overlaid in it is this idea of desexualization. A straight man in shorts is a child – a male who has yet to attain the features of maturity. There is something distinctly un-masculine about shorts, to this way of thinking. To wear shorts in public would be to claim, in some ways, that you had the sexual maturity of a child, that you did not have the knowledge or even capability of sexual activity. What a terribly strange association.
And what about black men? Or Latino men? In Vox’s post, the picture is of a white male model in shorts. Would the expectations be different if the man was a person of color? Does this stock photo of a black man in shorts – one who does not seem to be at the beach, or going to the gym – look like a child?
If not, why not?
And moreso, in any random list of the “Muscles that Women Love” – for example, this one from Men’s Health – glutes and calves are always prominently featured. While the authority of these articles is specious at best, it at least suggests that the legs of a cisgendered man are something some women would like to see (provided, perhaps, that they’re well developed.)
Perhaps this shorts panic is just another symptom of the wide-ranging insecurity of the modern straight white man, echoed from multiple perspectives – as the opinions of straight, white men so often are. Perhaps this is just the immediate reflex to the straight, white man’s realization that, for the first time in modern history, his opinions are no longer the majority’s.
He may be getting surpassed. He is no longer the default victor, the usual protagonist. He is, for the first time, vulnerable – and as such, perhaps he’s doubling down on the archaic posturing of passed eras, reaching back to the 30’s and – more popularly, recently – the 1960s*, and trying to siphon off the authority and command from models of masculinity that are, these days, hopelessly defunct.
And those guys sure as hell didn’t wear shorts.
* Though remember, when Don Draper was painting a room while wearing a pair of shorts, it was immediately commended by the woman who entered the room. While we can’t all be Jon Hamm, it isn’t the shorts alone that seem to be the issue.