He wears short shorts: why are men showing more leg?

The subversive, suggestive and skimpy garment has made a comeback during lockdown thanks to Paul Mescal and Harry Styles

Men’s short shorts, an item of clothing forever caught in the crosshairs of a sartorial culture war between subversive and suggestive and retroactively rugged (think Wham! in the Wake Me Up Before You Go Go video vs Bjorn Bjorg), are enjoying a renaissance. 

Normal People’s Paul Mescal had a notable lockdown fashion moment carrying a bag of prawn cocktail crisps and a bottle of Crabbie’s and wearing skimpy, white silk shorts when out and about, while the video for Harry Styles’ Watermelon Sugar shows him in a vintage-look yellow pair. According to Digitaloft, UK searches for “short shorts” increased by 60% the day after the Mescal photo appeared. Meanwhile, “men’s shorts” UK searches increased by 75% and “microshorts” increased by 122%. Small shorts are suddenly big business.

 But this new focus on the leg is apparently at the expense of our previous focus on biceps. In 2018, Justin Berkowitz, men’s fashion expert, told Business of Fashion that “quads feel like the new biceps in a lot of ways,” and that Joe Wicksian truth feels like it came to pass. Today he explains that “while the fashion world long focused on defined arm muscles as part of the ideal male physique, that has changed.” With a move towards a summer shirt with a longer sleeve (which means a covered upper arm) men have wanted to keep the dynamic balance of skin to fabric. “When we get dressed we want to feel a proportional balance, and thus, we’re going to be seeing a little more leg,” he says.

And seeing “a bit more leg” can create a stir. “The display of the elongated leg, from ankle to crotch has, in recent fashion history, almost wholly been the preserve of womenswear. It feels radical to see men playing with these proportions,” says Andrew Groves, professor of fashion design at the University of Westminster. “Suddenly, short shorts seem highly inappropriate, almost profoundly shocking to see.” The shock is, he explains, the presentation of a male leg in “a highly sexualised and eroticised manner”.

Menswear, in contrast to womenswear’s pivot towards body diversity and less objectification, has been embracing a certain brand of sexual empowerment. “[It’s] been celebrating a super-sexualised Adonis,” thinks Kati Chitrakorn, the retail and marketing editor of Vogue Business, “as men are relating to their own bodies again as a tool of seduction.”

Short shorts fan and GQ style director Luke Day thinks that the role of the male body has been elevated and the psychology of its revelation has changed. “I think in these financially tough times, when we can’t afford to splurge on luxury items, our bodies become almost like a status symbol, like a badge of honour, a highly prized, hard to obtain physicality,” he says.

Sean Connery with Eunice Gayson on the set of From Russia with Love.

Sean Connery with Eunice Gayson on the set of From Russia with Love. Photograph: Sunset Boulevard/Corbis/Getty Images

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