Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.
Look at them indicting you, like:
Holy yuck! There has to be a better way! Well, fear the scrutiny no longer. We ladies have spent years learning how deal with other people having opinions about our body parts, and the clothes that reveal them. And we are here to teach you our secrets.
The above is my pitch for my new self-help book for men, Da Fuq You S'posed to Do When Someone Has an Opinion About Your Clothes? A Woman's Advice to a Man in Shorts. But you can actually thank Fran Lebowitz for reigniting the annual men-in-shorts debate, which seems to open back up and fester each spring. As temps barely peaked 45 degrees in New York City two weeks ago, the cultural critic told Elle:
I have to say that one of the biggest changes in my lifetime, is the phenomenon of men wearing shorts. Men never wore shorts when I was young. There are few things I would rather see less, to tell you the truth. I'd just as soon see someone coming toward me with a hand grenade. This is one of the worst changes, by far. It's disgusting. To have to sit next to grown men on the subway in the summer, and they're wearing shorts? It's repulsive. They look ridiculous, like children, and I can't take them seriously.
Cue the harrumphs far and wide. They came from fraternity basements. They came from Brooklyn bike racks. They came from startup offices, SoCal juice shops, and country club golf courses everywhere. They came from Racked's Vox Media sibling SBNation, which crafted the best pro-shorts harrumph to date. One half of the city of Boston clutched its cargo shorts and flip-flops, too, just in case. Many men like to wear shorts, and many men are mad about being told they look foolish in shorts.
It's understandable. Lebowitz's proclamation sounded very outdated in a get-off-my-lawn kind of way. And it's not because shorts aren't infantilizing. The ones cut above the knee, like Chubbies or those you'd find at J.Crew, are traditionally associated with childhood, vacation, or the gym. And inseams that fall at or below the knee can make the wearer look stumpy, like a baby. But even though Lebowitz's statement that men look "like children" in shorts might be true, it wrongly suggests that looking like a child is a terrible thing. She assumes dudes have to be he-men respect engines, chugging along in a constant state of distinction once they successfully outgrow the schoolyard. Tell a man not to wear shorts, and you're really telling him how to live.
As the zeitgeist changes, so too does style. Shorts work today because men can be boys. For every 2006 to 2012 article you read about Judd Apatow's much-maligned and sometimes celebrated man-boy, you could have read one about Thom Brown or Michael Bastian debuting shorts on the runway and the crazy sales numbers reported from both mass retailers and designer. Critical mass for both hit around 2011. Clearly, childhood has won this battle.
Still, my first reaction to Lebowitz's interview was vindication. Finally men are being scrutinized like women re: how a popular style affects them professionally and romantically. She calls their choice "disgusting!" It's awesome! And then I realized I'm a big jerk. Fashion shouldn't be an eye for an eye. Better to just support dudes putting any thought into dressing at all. First step, men learn how to wear shorts correctly; next stop, men stop wearing suits too big for them and making me so, so deeply sad!
Take it from a lady, gentlemen: when a stranger expresses an opinion about your style, you're going to go through a gauntlet of feelings. First, there's outrage: Who are you, Fran, to tell me I can't wear something? Then there's insecurity about your body, because below any criticism of your clothing is an opinion about what's underneath. Finally, once you've internalized that criticism deep within your core, there's a split: Some of us become defiant (i.e. "It's hot, don't tell me what I'm allowed to wear," et cetera). Others distance ourselves from caring about clothes (i.e. "Judge me based on my sparkling intellect, not the fact that I'm wearing a Snuggie to the office.")
And then there's a sort of precarious acceptance. We struggle to maintain the balance of skin and professionalism, comfort and an attractive silhouette. We find a trusted tailor. We memorize like three fits that tend to look good on our bodies, and decide on the overall "look" we want to project. We experiment a little where we can. It's not easy, but neither is growing up.
As GQ editor Will Welch told the New York Times last September:
Back in 2011, the men's style community was still trying to teach regular guys the basic rules of getting dressed. Stuff like: Stop wearing oversized cargo pants. Stop wearing shorts and flip-flops to restaurants for dinner. Quit buying your suits two sizes too big. Slimmer is better. All of which basically means: Learn how to dress like an adult.
But wait. Didn't we just agree that it's OK for men to be boys? Well, it's complicated. The moral of the great shorts debate of the past half-decade is that it's no longer cool or practical for men not to care about how they present themselves. More importantly, though, being smart about clothes isn't just a woman's domain anymore. It's an adult thing—not in the old-fashioned briefcase-and-a-job sense of adulthood, but in the sense that society (men's magazines, your boss, your mom) expects you to be responsible and intentional about what you wear.
Women understand what a piece of clothing says to the world because our bodies, and how we dress them, have been the subject of scrutiny our whole lives. The difference is that for us, it's often about sex, while for men, it's more often about power. But it's the same conundrum, with the same (at least short-term) solution: when you get dressed, put some thought into it.
Which brings us back to those knees. Some people are going to make you feel bad about them. They're going to call your knees—and maybe your calves or your thighs—"disgusting." They're going to talk about how hairy they are. You can decide to care or not to care, and there are pros and cons of each side. Enjoy the trial and error of figuring it out. And welcome to our world.