The Surprising History Behind Men Being Shamed For Wearing Shorts

July 7th 2017

Kyle Fitzpatrick

I’m a gay guy who only wears shorts.

There are a few reasons for this: I live in the perpetually warm city of Los Angeles, am a queer person, and believe that gender equality can be helped by men showing more leg.

After an initial hump of my shorts being a major taboo—from being reprimanded at work to being denied entry to a bar—most places have become amenable to them. Nightclubs, fancy restaurants, multiple jobs, weddings, even funerals: people have come to expect that I come in shorts, dressed up or down for the occasion.

But while people have seemingly become more accustomed to my shorts, the practice of shorts shaming is still a persistent phenomenon. The month of June saw a score of viral headlines related to the subject. Boys in the U.K. protested uniform guidelines by wearing skirts to school. After being sent home for wearing shorts to work, one worker—also in the U.K.—drew attention for wearing a dress to the office. And French bus drivers pulled a similar tactic in response to a ban on shorts

The stigma against men wearing shorts is related to cultural norms and rules of etiquette.

“Shorts in the workplace is generally a no, unless specifically stated in the dress policy,” Diane Gottsman, founder of The Protocol School of Texas and writer of “Modern Etiquette for a Better Life,” shared with ATTN:. “Regardless of what the fashion magazine say, in a conservative corporate environment, it's still not mainstream or appropriate when it comes to traditional business attire.”

Jack Colton, nightlife expert and creator of the eponymous Las Vegas website, shared a similar point of view as it relates to spaces like nightclubs. “Women are afforded considerably more fashionable options when it comes to dresses, skirts, and even nicer shorts, each allowing them to look more presentable when going out,” Colton told ATTN:.

“By contrast, nearly all men's shorts indeed look casual, which feels out of place in a nicer setting,” he added.

Shorts stigma also has to do with past rules of formalism.

To understand the place of shorts in today's society, you have to consider that they are an outgrowth of a mid-century population shift to warmer climates and the suburbs.

 According to Linda Przybyszewski, associate professor of history at University of Notre Dame and author of “The Lost Art Of Dress,” shorts grew in popularity during a suburban boom and westward migration trend after World War II. “California is a heck of a lot warmer than a lot of the country and certainly the Northeast,” Przybyszewski told ATTN:. “You now had patios and barbecues and dads grilling outdoors. There was this whole notion that this was a playtime.”

As shorts became associated as “playtime," and distinctly disassociated from the formal wear worn in mixed company, at work, or in the city, they took on an infantilizing quality as well.  

“In the recent history of many Western cultures, only young boys wore short pants,” Erynn Masi de Casanova, associate professor of sociology at the University of Cincinnati, explains to ATTN:. Casanova noted that pants were granted with age, thus marking a rite of passage. “This is not really the practice anymore, but some of those infantilizing associations may still linger.”

Shorts are also tied to class, further complicating the matter.

When asked about the acceptability of men wearing shorts, etiquette expert Jacqueline Whitmore said that shorts don't typically fit in offices because they seemingly belong elsewhere. “The men I see who wear shorts most often in business are hotel valets, pool attendants, and restaurant servers who work outdoors,” she told ATTN:.

Deirdre Clemente, associate professor of history at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, noted that the associations made in relation to shorts are complicated.

“RICH DUDES STARTED SHORTS AS FASHION,” Clemente noted in an email to ATTN:. “Rich dudes started sports coats as fashion, button-down collar shirts as fashion, white bucs as fashion, no-ties as fashion, and the majority of other casual trends.”

“You have to control the rules in order to say ‘fuck you’ to the rules,” Clemente added.

The connection between gender and shorts highlights another issue: men are only offered pants or shorts—and nothing in between.

While I wear shorts to rebel, some men are finding another solution by wearing skirts. The image of a man in a skirt is traditionally seen as a queer, gender-bending transgressive flipping of norms.

“Traditional heterosexual gender ideals involve men doing the looking (at women) rather than being looked at,” Casanova said. “If these recent protests by students and public and private employees in the U.S. and Europe are resulting in changes to official dress codes, then that is evidence that men’s desire to wear shorts is being taken seriously, at least in those settings.”

Przybyszewski agreed but had a more radical solution: “Honestly, I think the toga would be great. Togas are handsomer and more graceful.”

One thing is certain: fashion is political.

In my experience—and in consulting various experts on the subject—what we wear is much more than skin covering. Clothing is an extension of the body, a means to display our politics and point of view. The man in shorts is a small accessory in the outfit of change, born of a long give-and-take of formalities, class, and gender

"The public acceptance of men is shorts demonstrates how the meanings of masculinity have changed—and how much they have changed in the past half century,” Clemente said.

“Do I think a man in shorts will be taken seriously? I think he already is."