We typically think of women as the gender that is uniquely beholden to mystifyingly restrictive rules of fashion — no mini skirts after 35, always remove one accessory, every woman must own a little black dress. Turns out, men have one clothing item that’s at least, or arguably even more polarizing: shorts. We as a culture can’t stop debating where you can wear them, what length is appropriate, and of course, the perennial debate, whether or not cargo shorts should be banned universally in perpetuity.
But there is also among us a subset of men who’ve unsubscribed altogether from the mania, waving off shorts entirely: Let’s call them Never Shorts, to be contrasted with the Never Nude, coined on Arrested Development when Tobias reveals he’s unable to ever be completely naked, even when alone. Such men are hard pressed to ever slide on a pair of shorts unless it’s absolutely necessary for sporting, entering water or hanging out water-adjacent. Otherwise, they wear pants year-round, their legs rarely seeing the light of day no matter the weather.
Only recently did I put together the fact that I’ve known a lot of these Never Shorts. Growing up, many of my male friends, including boyfriends, not only never wore shorts, but most of them didn’t even own them, save for that one old pair of swim trunks, just in case. Not even to the lake. Not even while mowing the lawn. Not even on the hottest days of the hottest Southern summers, where temperatures routinely hit 100 and humid.
I figured it was because these dudes were indoor kids. Musicians. Too nerdy or creative to do sports, and therefore not likely to work up a sweat regularly enough outside to need shorts. That’s partly right. On some level, the Never Shorts are exactly the men who weren’t jocks and alphas, who lived on the outskirts of conventional masculinity. But a hatred of shorts is also their way of rejecting traditional, buff manhood. Instead of if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, the Never Shorts man says if you can’t join ’em, hate ’em.
We’ve told you before about America’s rich history of hating on men in shorts, including bans and fines for showing off your calves. The root of it seems to be the idea that shorts are simply not manly; They are for children and eventually, for women (given that the world often still regards grown women as children, this commonality is no coincidence). Grown men don’t wear shorts. Grown men should not show off their legs for any reason unless they are participating in sport or leisure. Showing off one’s legs is something children do for functional reasons, and women do for sexy reasons. Men are not children, and men shouldn’t ever look sexy in the same way women do — that would be gay.
There’s also a rural/urban shorts-wearing divide. Designer Tom Ford made that clear when he issued the decree that “A man should never wear shorts in the city. Flip-flops and shorts in the city are never appropriate. Shorts should only be worn on the tennis court or on the beach.”
In response, The Awl agreed, responding that “Men should not wear shorts.” Then Sarah Kliff at Vox made a fun little flowchart for helping men decide whether or not to wear shorts. The answer is, of course, mostly don’t.
But all sorts of men do. Athletic types, yes, but also middle-America dad types and the sort of guys who are immune to fashion concerns. Never Shorts position themselves apart from both groups. When I put the question to my social media networks, the answers came back with resounding consistency: Hot or not, cool men do not wear shorts. (And, also, it turns out, neither do some insecure ones.)
Shorts are cool, of course, in the literal sense. They are half the material of pants or less, and usually both lighter and looser, so they literally let air and light touch your legs. And yet, for the Never Shorts, they could not be less cool, in the figurative sense. Shorts have a strong association with douche-bro hacky sack type dudes who are ultra lame.
A friend tells me that when her boyfriend puts on shorts, particularly with a ball cap, he transforms into a character he calls “Jazz Fest Dad.” Another guy tells me the association with shorts, especially as an Asian man, was a specific breed of white lameness he and his friends couldn’t bear to be lumped in with.
“I stopped wearing shorts in high school because my friend and I made a pact that we weren’t going to wear shorts in public,” Sam, a graphic designer, told me. “It was understood that they were representative of a bro-y dude, generally white, pretty dumb, not very sophisticated, no sense of style, didn’t read books, certainly not very cosmopolitan. People who wear shorts are either jocks or the dorkiest guys, wearing cargo shorts with their tube socks. Either of those scenarios were not something we wanted to be associated with.”
A British man named Jon said that while he would wear shorts when going for a run, or in the house when it’s hot, he “would never wear them when just going out.” I asked why. “I’d look like an Australian.”
But plenty of other dudes hate them, too. “I never wear shorts ever,” a musician named Ryan told me. “I guess because I think that shorts made for dudes look really dumb or bro-ish.” He admitted to wearing them when he swims, “But then it’s right back to jeans.” He also wears them when he mows the lawn, and says he noticed his neighbor, also a musician, does the same thing. “Shorts aren’t very rock ’n’ roll,” he added. “Unless you’re this guy.”
Jay, also a musician, echoed Ryan’s opinion. “Not rock and roll.” Michael, a record store and club owner, agrees: “I went through a period of not wearing shorts when I was 8–12 years old. I thought it was very uncool to wear shorts, not rock and roll at all.”
Also not cool: anything that makes a man feel like a boy. “I only wear shorts at the gym, on vacation at the beach, when I swim, around the house,” a bassist/bartender named Alex told me. “I feel like shorts are for boys/children. Which is why I think [AC/DC guitarist] Angus Young’s costume is stupid. Adults wear pants. Same with flip-flops. I wore [shorts] on stage once and an older, wiser musician told me not to. I immediately reconsidered them. They’re not ‘professional.’”
It’s also, again, something only fitness freaks wear. “I feel great about shorts if I just finished my workout on leg day and my quads are pumped and my calves are throbbing,” Buddy wrote sarcastically. “Otherwise, f*** shortz.”
But not all shorts-haters are sports-haters. Sam, the graphic designer, played sports in high school, he just wasn’t going to go around advertising it. “Unless I wanted to be associated with athletics as part of my identity more than when I was actually playing sports,” he explained, ”I wasn’t going to wear shorts.”
Jeff, a novelist, said he was also an active kid who hated shorts. “I only wear shorts when exercising or doing yard work,” he wrote. “Otherwise never. Also I was an extremely outdoor kid. But I grew up with a lot of farm kids for whom Wranglers and boots were basically athletic wear. I saw more than one kid run the mile in PE class in cowboy boots.”
Several men told me that they didn’t know what to wear shorts with, as if putting them on rendered all other clothing items instantly embarrassing. “I’ve never owned any sort of summer-y ‘athletic’ shoe that looks right with shorts,” Kevin told me. “So I’m supposed to wear boots with shorts? Should I go ahead and get a chain wallet?”
“I don’t often wear shorts because I have a really hard time finding shorts that are fashionable,” a photographer, Lance, said. “Menswear departments are lousy with jorts and baggy cargo shorts, which are cultural punchlines. And, by extension, make you feel like you’re dressing like a joke.” He added that many men’s retail sections key into this infantilized version of men. “I’ve seen way too many Angry Birds T-shirts in adult sizes in these places,” he said. “The whole shorts thing ties in to that.”
While many of the men who don’t like shorts had no problem with their legs, others admitted that they don’t wear them because they just don’t have the gams for the look. “It’s a spiral really,” Seth told me. “You stop buying them because you don’t like wearing them that much. Then, when you do, you feel awkward with your pasty white legs and dumb tattoos of unicorns and pentagrams, and at some point you realize that unless you’re on the beach or Bonnaroo or something, f*** shorts. I look better in jeans nine out of 10 times.”
A designer named Michael told me he’d wear shorts during yard work or “participating in a boat activity,” but in general, not. “I don’t feel very comfortable in them,” he wrote. “To be honest, I suppose it just boils down to self-confidence, and I don’t think there’s any scenario in which my unfit legs need to be showcased.”
That was the case for Mike as well. “I do not wear shorts outside of beach/pool/yardwork/gym,” he wrote. “It comes down to self-esteem. I have pale, gross, fat-dude legs that I’m embarrassed by. If I were a fitter dude, I would probably wear shorts more, but they’d also probably be cargo shorts, because I’m 41.”
Aaron said he refused to wear shorts between the ages of 14 and 38 because of his “pale, nearly hairless legs.” Mostly because he was shamed out of them. “I had multiple people ask me if I shaved my legs, which was embarrassing, and many other people mention that my legs looked like they belonged to a completely different body from my forearms, which also looked like a completely different, potentially deceased person’s arm once you got past my sleeves,” he wrote.
In spite of all this shorts snubbing, many of the men who once refused shorts, in spite of their body insecurities, have now conceded in middle age to wear them anyway. They have, as one man put it, “embraced the ridiculousness” associated with giving up.
In response to Tom Ford’s shorts fatwa, middle-aged man Drew Magary at Deadspin fought back in defense of “normal” men wearing shorts. “I don’t give a s*** what you deem appropriate or tasteful,” he wrote. “I live in Maryland and for the next four months it will be 50,000 degrees outside, and it’ll be so goddamn humid I’ll have to wear flippers to swim through the air. It’s HOT.”
That’s the strange paradox of men’s shorts. It’s clear men do care about their bodies in similar ways to women, but it’s also clear they don’t have to care anywhere near as much as women do. Would the Never Shorts be helped by a little dose of body positivity? Do they just need to decide, as women with non-traditional body types have, to embrace their bodies as-is, and head to the beach in shorts, loud and proud?
As one woman named Jordan noted on the Facebook thread, she found the whole shorts debate fascinating, because in spite of her insecurities about her legs (unsightly veins, cellulite) she would never suffer through jeans on a hot day just because she knows her body isn’t the “right” kind for shorts. “So how do women overcome immense socialized body consciousness to wear shorts/skirts/dresses while men are deterred by often unexamined reasons?” she asked.
It’s an excellent question. It probably comes down to the fact that women have to overcome it. Women still feel far greater pressure to conform to feminine ideals. Men still get more of a pass to not care about how they look, to ignore the trends, to dress the same from age 8 to 80.
It’s hard to imagine a woman never wearing a standard item of summer fashion simply because she didn’t have the shoes and doesn’t care. She’d just wrangle her body into an acceptable version or go out and buy them. Men, it seems, hear the messages, but they also have the luxury of hitting mute, especially if it takes too much energy, time, or consideration to adopt it. What’s more, they can reframe it as ridiculous or undesirable, a kind of sour grapes aversion to something they can’t “rock.”
“Now that I’m thinking more about it, the shoe thing is a big part of it,” Kevin elaborated. “I mean, if you’re going to wear shorts you have to change your whole life pretty much.”
Indeed, and what kind of man would do that?