Shorts Wars

Amanda Hess and Troy Patterson chat about rising hemlines, trend pieces, and men’s short shorts.   

Bill Clinton (R) responds to a supporter as he and his new vice presidential candidate, Sen. Albert Gore.
“A gentleman engaged in an athletic activity should wear his shorts at whatever length maximizes his physical performance and psychological comfort.”

Photo by Tim Clary/AFP/Getty Images

In celebration of Slate Plus’ first anniversary, we’re republishing a selection of pieces from the past year, including this article, which was originally published on May 21, 2014.


A recent fashion dispatch from the Wall Street Journal about men wearing short shorts compelled Slate staff writer Amanda Hess to share her thoughts on “How Men Can Fight Sexism by Wearing Very Short Shorts.” But are short shorts sexy? And just how high is too high?  

In this Slate Plus conversation, Slate’s Gentleman Scholar columnist Troy Patterson talks with Hess about rising hemlines, fake trend pieces, and the allure of the male thigh.

Troy Patterson: Hi Amanda. As a keen admirer of your monocle-related work in the field of Trend Piece Studies, I am eager to further read your comments on this vital topic.

I must start by observing that the Wall Street Journal piece sparking the general explosion of shorts-form journalism is pretty weak. I have a hunch that its premise (shorts are shrinking) is correct, and I think the advice it offers (about selecting a hem length to suit one’s body type) is quite sound, but I am otherwise unimpressed.

Amanda Hess: Troy, I concede that this is a trend story of the bogus variety. However, I am happy to buy into the more fantastical elements of the WSJ’s argument in the hopes that if enough trend-story writers wish hard enough, the premise might some day come true.

Male short shorts are an important development for gender equality: Imagine a world where middle school boys and girls are subjected to the fingertip test; where men and women are equally criticized for showing too much skin; where both leg men and leg women are free to discreetly ogle passers-by on a summer’s day.

This is not the world we live in. But a girl can dream.

Patterson: This world that you envision: Would it there be acceptable for a male writer to employ Jezebel’s imperatives—“Show us your legs,” “Bring up that hemline!”—in response to a fake trend piece on miniskirts?

Hess: Touché. It’s an interesting question: Were men and women to reach parity in the sex object department, would male commentary on women’s looks be freed of its discriminatory trappings, and be freed to adopt the fun-loving, boisterous atmosphere of a mom’s night out at a Chippendales show? Or would female commentary, instead, take on the skeezy, desperate quality of today’s typical strip club audience? Perhaps the world may never know.

So I’ll pose a more pressing question: Is there an inseam length that’s most befitting of a gentleman? I know some people believe that shorts don’t belong on a man at all.

Patterson: A gentleman engaged in an athletic activity should wear his shorts at whatever length maximizes his physical performance and psychological comfort. For that matter, it is not unsportsmanlike for a gentleman playing tennis to try to psyche out his opponent by rocking Fila whites of Björn Borg brevity. A gentleman hanging out at a casual summertime function, such as a public-park picnic or backyard barbecue or boathouse flip-cup death match, should wear his shorts at whatever length best flatters his quadriceps without offending his modesty.

I am not the sort of gentleman who publicly wears shorts of any length in any contexts other than those, no matter the temperature, unless we’re out of half-and-half or something and I gotta run to the deli. If I had to take sides, I would align myself with those who believe that shorts are, to quote noted anti-shorts activist Alex Balk, “fine for little boys but comical and embarrassing on grown men.”

I would like to share with you my two-tiered theory explaining why shorts tend toward the comical, but first I would like you to explain the nuances of the male American thigh as an erogenous zone and object of desire. I am tempted to think that one reason the topic of men’s shorts hits a nerve—the femoral nerve, to be precise—is this: The average gentleman rarely considers that some ladies like to see more than a little above-average leg.

Hess: Well: I think the basic phenomenon at play is that many women (and some men) are simply sexually attracted to men’s bodies. But some women are specifically and unabashedly leg women: Jezebel maintains a “Thighlights” feature for leering at footballers in action; just about every social network supports an offshoot of this community. I think there’s a particular thrill in seeing a man’s thigh, because while the media landscape is saturated with images of women’s bodies, and male chests also get their due, the male upper leg is typically hidden from view. The modern man’s thigh is the Victorian woman’s ankle.

And because that’s true, a man in a short short gives off an air of confidence, but not an arrogant sort; the short-shorted man conveys an embrace his own vulnerability. Plus, some women believe short shorts appear more tailored than the extended style. Understandably, many men aren’t interested in embracing its look, despite its many female admirers. “I find shorts on men to be, generally, a bit undignified,” says a friend who wears tights under his shorts on the rare occasion that he dons them.

But I’d like to explore this assertion that a man in shorts presents a comical image. Aren’t humor and sexuality often inextricably linked? I’m thinking of women who “love a man with a sense of humor,” of tickle fights, and of the aforementioned giggly atmosphere of male strip clubs. A boyish appearance is also not necessarily antithetical to male sex appeal. But I’d love to hear your grand theory of the silliness of male shorts.

Patterson: I like these ideas, and I’d especially love to hear you discuss them in front of an undergraduate audience, as a guest speaker visiting a gender-studies seminar. Perhaps we should get in touch with some of the on-campus “ambassadors” for Chubbies, the San Francisco-based retailer at the forefront of this fake trend.

(Forbes recently identified Chubbies as “the Bay Area’s frattiest company”; here we have some photos of the ambassadors, “that badass crew of thigh-liberating patriots.” Note that they tend to accessorize their shorts with untied bow ties, blow-dried Pi Phis, and Sperry Top-Siders.)

There is a point to this digression: The first comical thing about men in shorts is that socks generally look kinda goofy against bare legs. Therefore, by corollary, preppy fratboys like the Chubbies crew—a demographic quite at ease with slipping sockless feet directly into boat shoes—will always be standard-bearers in this arena of endeavor. Same thing goes for Italian playboys in loafers and Spanish playboys in espadrilles.

The second comical thing about men in shorts is a conceptual matter. There is an old tradition of regarding shapely legs “as a mark of masculine beauty,” to quote a study of courtliness and sexuality that ogles a few lines lavished on the hero of Tristan and Isolde:

…his legs

in which his beauty was most apparent,

were praiseworthy indeed,

as such things should be praised in a man.

This old tradition—this primal force?—contrasts sharply with the strong modern association of shorts and boyishness. “Short trousers,” Desmond Morris writes, “began as part of the uniform of the Boy Scout movement.” I’m trying to suppose that there is an absurdity in the tension between the earthy virility of the thigh itself and the inherently juvenile connotations of the garment that exposes it.

One is tempted to say, further, that the shorter short exposes something uniquely interesting about the relationship between power and vulnerability. But maybe that’d be going out on a limb.

Hess: Indeed, my tights-wearing male informant disclosed that his chief beef with shorts is that they are “steeped in bro culture.” I’m hoping that some day the short can attract a more inclusive audience, but the fact that the most high-profile company leading this charge is named after a juvenile term for an erection does not bode well. Perhaps I’m aiming too high—and I should be focusing more attention on the ankles, where the sock problem originates. This is an even tougher nut to crack. I, for one, am not prepared to accept the dreaded socks-and-sandals solution​.