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

Priya Elan Deputy fashion editor

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. Justin Berkowitz, an expert in men’s fashion, 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, 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. 

Day gets a “mostly positive reaction,” to his short shorts “albeit slightly shocked at how short (and tight) they can be. I think nothing of it, but to some it’s a real novelty, almost outrageous.” 

This ‘new sexy’ in menswear - seen in the embrace of high heels and lingerie - is a melting away of genderised norms. “Menswear has been increasingly embracing what was generally considered to be women’s garb,” says Chitrakorn. And according to Groves, the appeal of short shorts is “that they transgress masculine norms of dress, veering almost into a form of cross-dressing.”

That transgressive meaning has been important to short shorts fan Charlie Porter, author of What Artists Wear, coming out in 2021. “I’ve been wearing short shorts throughout my adult life,” he says. “I bought my first pair, army green jersey, in a Nottingham charity shop in 1992. I was 18 and doing voluntary work in my gap year, living away from home for the first time. I was about to come out to my friends. Short shorts were a visual way of saying what I was desperate to say. It fascinates me that short shorts are still jarring for me. It makes me want to wear them even more.” 

The jarring aspect of short shorts could be their eternal comedic value. When Nigel Farage appeared on Facebook Live in short shorts (it was, it felt like, a classic moment of ‘boomer misuses a webcam’) he was compared to Alan Partridge.

“Humour is usually a deflection,” thinks Porter. “Usually if people are finding clothes funny it means a nerve is being touched. Many men...use laughter to hide that they find short shorts shaming because it draws attention to the reality of their penis.”

Does the ubiquity of the short speak to something darker? Could a menline index be at play here: a masculine, inverted version of the hemline index which states that as times get worse, shorts get shorter?

“For me they evoke memories of the Men’s Dress Reform party before the onslaught of world war two, or the last days of disco before the shadow of Aids fell across San Francisco,” says Groves. “They are both optimistic, yet hopelessly pessimistic.”