Most fashionable types think of shorts as an afterthought, permissible for boys and professional athletes, but never stylish on serious adults. Yet the range of khakis, cut-offs, lederhosen, jorts, basketball shorts, and any number of other styles is proof that short pants are an important part of the male wardrobe, and deserve a place of recognition in our sartorial history.
Men have not always been so ambivalent about shorts. In the late 16th century, knee breeches were a standard part of aristocratic menswear in Western Europe and the colonial United States. These buckskin or woolen breeches typically fastened with buttons or buckles at the waist—there was also a set of small buttons on the outside of the leg. For more formal occasions, short silk pants were worn with high white socks and white waistcoats over ruffled shirts. At the time, the youngest boys wore dresses until they were “breeched” and began wearing shorts, which typically occurred by age 6.
In France, the breeches worn by upper-class men were known as “culottes.” Sometime during the late 18th century, these noble breeches were adopted by German peasants who made them from durable materials like leather to withstand rougher daily wear (“lederhosen” translates to “leather pants”).
Up through the 19th century, parts of the British military wore white breeches that ended just below the knee and were layered with black gaiters that extended from knee to boot. These shorts were usually unlined, had a fall or “drop front” opening, and were detailed with regimental buttons along the outer seam.
Knee breeches fell out of fashion in the early 1800s as most adult men aside from servants transitioned to tighter, full-length pantaloons. By the end of the century, most westernized cultures reserved shorter knee-pants for boys, who transitioned to full-length trousers around puberty.
During the early 20th century, a new style of baggy pants that gathered in a tight cuff below the knee, known as knickerbockers, became popular among adults, particularly for athletic activities. Short trousers or “shorts” closer to their contemporary design weren’t actually adopted until the early 1900s, when the British military adapted shorts into their uniforms for warmer, humid climates like India and North Africa.
British vacationers brought the loose, military-style “walking shorts” to the island of Bermuda in the 1930s, and eventually the look became called Bermuda shorts. Bermuda’s strict laws on public indecency meant that men’s shorts had to be at least 22 inches in length, and policemen carried rulers to verify if a pair was too risqué. Eventually, retailers caught on and started making Bermuda shorts with carefree tropical prints or madras fabric...
During World War II, a fabric shortage in Bermuda pushed local bankers to adopt the style for business attire; the shorts were worn with knee-high socks, a dress shirt, tie, and blazer, which soon became the standard professional look in the subtropical region.
In postwar America, shorts were increasingly acceptable for casual leisure activities, especially as the temperate climate of California became the setting for countless films and television shows. From the board shorts of surfers to the denim cutoffs of the hippies, shorts were here to stay.