Men's Fashion

The short answer

The tricky business of looking sharp in shorts is easier this summer, with natty new styles that steal the show both indoors and out, says Jonathan Futrell.

June 30 2011
Jonathan Futrell

As temperatures climb, men’s thoughts inevitably turn to their knees; more specifically, the question of where and when to expose them. Some long for the day when a chap can be relaxed pairing tailored shorts with a blazer and dress shirt to wear in a restaurant or wine bar, while others view shorts purely as a casual, outdoor garment, restricted to the wide open spaces, a boat or beach.

The issue divides designers: in one corner is Roland Mouret, who opened his exquisite six-storey flagship showroom and salon earlier this year in London’s Mayfair. “The idea of my spring/summer collection is for men to build their wardrobe from the shorts upwards,” says the French designer, who has dressed many of Hollywood’s leading ladies and launched his menswear collection last year. “Everything in my Mr by Roland Mouret collection is designed to go with a pair of tailored shorts, which give a squarer behind and longer legs. Shorts can be worn either in town with a shirt and a tailored jacket, or for leisure with a fitted polo.”

Jeremy Hackett couldn’t disagree more. He believes shorts are best kept for holidays or the sports arena. “Let’s face it, knees are not the most attractive part of a man’s anatomy,” says the chairman of Hackett emphatically. “Particularly with Englishmen, whose legs remain covered for the vast majority of the year.”

Mouret has given his longer-cut Burgo shorts a tailored edge that goes particularly well with jackets, while all of his shorts have pleats, turn-ups and the sharpest of creases. They come in navy stretch cotton chain-rib (£295), a cotton and silk blend in ivory (£395) and in stretchy cotton gabardine (from £250). Hermès is also reinstating the front pleat for its urban Bermudas (£440) – this at a time when virtually every other designer and manufacturer is following the trend for flat fronts.

Gieves & Hawkes’ pale-blue tailored shorts (£125) fall two inches above the knee and share that slim, flattering profile, while Dunhill has raided the Bloomsbury Group’s historic Omega Workshop archives for its subtle and playful Mysterious Fish pattern (£195). Rapha, for its part, has a solution for anyone who regularly cycles to work and who has experienced the damage that riding a bike can inflict on wool trousers: the 3/4 Shorts (£130). What started out last year as “knickerbockers” (the true ancestor of shorts) is now a more streamlined “plus-four”. Made with stretchy, water-resistant Schoeller fabric, they incorporate a Cordura seat panel as protection from wear against the saddle and reinforced belt loops to support a D-lock.

Whether any of these elegant tailored shorts will make it to the cocktail lounge is anyone’s guess. Out of town, however, the opportunities for a pair of smart, well-fitting shorts, teamed with a loose-fitting shirt or cardigan, are limitless.

This year’s colours are safe and subdued: lots of navy, white and khaki, with a smattering of pink and check, is the order of the day at those standard-bearers of preppy style, Hackett and Ralph Lauren.

It is perhaps surprising, when one considers the US’s predilection for baggy trousers and shorts, that some of the most elegant on sale this summer come from that bastion of East Coast style, Brooks Brothers. It has got the balance between comfort and smartness spot-on. And they’re good value, too: plain-front shorts (£79), without an ounce of flab, in wrinkle-free cotton, and in navy and khaki. Smarter still are the lightweight cotton Bermudas (£65). Teamed with a jacket, they have an irresistible, F Scott Fitzgerald casualness.

Shorts have come of age relatively recently. Until the 1980s, short trousers and shorts were worn by schoolboys until the onset of puberty, whereupon they were presented with their first pair of long jobbies. Yet, for such an emancipating garment, born of sunshine and fun, dangers lurk ahead for the man who wears them imprudently. Fortunately, there is an unwritten dress code. These are its essential points:

First, no man beyond the first flush of youth should go anywhere near a pair of “board shorts”, those billowy, calf-length hybrids worn by surfers and beach badminton enthusiasts. Second, resist all heavily front-pleated chinos, unless your intention is to work the US golfer look. Third, as a rule the side pockets on cargo shorts should decrease in size with the years, and disappear altogether by the late twenties. Fourth, under no circumstances should ankle socks be worn with any shorts worn off the playing field. If socks are necessary then they must be of the ankle-showing, low-top, sports variety.

Of course, it was always going to be tricky keeping up with the high-fashion take on shorts. Away from the city, Hermès’ terry-cotton casuals, in white, black, mint and blue thalassa (£365), are skimpy, thigh-length hipsters. At the other extreme, Prada’s voluminous drill-cotton Bermudas (£280), complete with a fabric belt that the Italian label playfully describes as recalling a “worker’s uniform”, have such an abundance of fabric that they seem more like cut-off culottes.

Shorts that can move with seamless ease between worlds, from outdoors to indoors, from practical to fashionable, will always find a grateful constituency. Henri Lloyd’s Element and Hardy 7 Pocket sailing shorts (£60), for instance, match performance with wine-bar looks. The Fast Dri fabric provides water repellency and is UV-resistant, and the taped zipped pockets are designed to keep your wallet and phone dry, while the slanted pockets and slim lines lend a fashion edge.

Among the smart-casual offerings, Ermenegildo Zegna wins points for its beautifully conceived and constructed cotton Bermuda shorts (£280). Featuring pale blue and white pinstripes, they have angled American pockets, patch pockets on the seat and a label badge on the waistband complete a thoroughly modern, summer-weight take on jeans.

As you might expect for a company that practically defines the active man, Ralph Lauren has a dozen styles of shorts in its range, from the classic Bradbury with side adjusters (£90) to the striped preppy Fielding, with a tab money pocket (£110).

Because the label fully understands the value of a good pair of shorts, many in the range are available in both short and longer lengths. Checks are a feature too, as are less conventional materials: the Fine Italian Tailored short (£120), available in seven colourways, is a cotton/elastane mix; while the Reversible Lagos (£120) gives its owner the choice of two looks, being navy worn one way and vintage Madras the other. Ralph Lauren’s most relaxed pair of shorts is the Vintage Officers Chino, flat-fronted in fishing green, pink, khaki and sky blue, pre-washed and super-soft.

Which side of the shorts split you stand on depends on whether you agree with Mouret, who believes that “a crisp, tailored pair of shorts with turn-ups, worn to the knee, is an important capsule staple for every man’s wardrobe”, or whether you side with Hackett, who insists that “shorts should be worn three or four inches above the knee, and to prevent them looking too precious it is better that they are washed”.

Either way, you can be sure that this summer will be even more of a knees-up than the last.

See also

Shorts