From the early 20th century, British soldiers and sailors sported their warm-weather uniforms all the world over, and the Bermudian establishment was especially assertive about adapting those knee-length trousers for respectable use in civilian life. American tourists took the style home, and the 1950s witnessed the broad introduction of Bermudas to the newly minted suburbs, where they soon proved essential. But they were, in city life, a tougher sell. You need only glance at a 1953 Life magazine pictorial — “Men Try Shorts for Town” — to see why. Photographed in Manhattan, walking up Fifth Avenue at lunchtime and leaning on the bar at P.J. Clarke’s, these guys were irredeemably goofy in their long, dark socks. To judge by the trail of trend pieces left behind — reports of Bermuda shorts received by sporadic giggles in Spokane and guffaws in Tuscaloosa — these New Yorkers were not alone in desperately treading water in a sea of self-consciousness. The playfulness of the naked knees was at odds with the formality of all else. It was too soon for this to be happening. The vogue could not hold. Shorts receded to casual environments, where they waited for the culture to relax.
In time, much of civil society reorganized itself as casual environment — a triumph of nonchalance, a sprawl of suburbanized manners, an epidemic distrust of stuffiness. Whether this circumstance represents a byproduct of social progress or evidence of gross decadence is immaterial. Either way, here they come on Friday night: young men in truncated jeans, slim with a morsel of quadriceps exposed by a fastidious cuff. Neatness counts when trying to distinguish yourself from the dudes chilling out on Saturday with their hems loitering just below the knee, minor slobbishness somehow bespeaking devil-may-care machismo. And what is this on Sunday morning? Men at church in “dress shorts”, descending to the pew kneelers on pious patellae, God be with them. Then comes Monday, and the reversion to a decorum. Wearing short pants to the office is the preserve of renegades, tech geniuses and the imminently unemployed.
The sight of the lower leg remains an affront to professionalism. Can shorts and seriousness not be reconciled? Designers’ periodic proposals of suits with shorts are answered with muttering refusal in all but the most peacockish quarters, and wearing a blue blazer and pastel shorts to a beachfront wedding has the flavor of a shenanigan best reserved for the smug. Meanwhile, both established fashion houses serving the urbane and casual-wear start-ups catering to frat boys have recently been pushing men’s shorts with briefer inseams. Such designs tend to meet with titters that drown out whatever cheers of approval they provoke. The sober Bermudas, the workmanlike earth-tone cargos — at the moment, these are as far as the man on the street is willing to go, in terms of flamboyance. Shorts festooned with trim sailboats or blaring with bold paisley are the festive exceptions that define the rule. We are, for all our progress, fuddy-duddies.
Troy Patterson, “On Clothing”, The New York Times Magazine (9 August 2015), 18-19.