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For me, the real first day of summer is the first day you can wear tiny shorts. It’s a defiant and democratic fashion holiday, the day when it’s at last warm enough to go outside with the maximum possible amount of your body exposed, when clothes become something to escape from rather than to hide in or display. Shorts are, to me, as much a part of the joy of summer as air conditioners and sprinklers, a symbol of a carefree season, the way summer always feels like the freedom of being let out of school, even when one hasn’t been a student in years.
As a kid and a teen, I never wore shorts even when everybody else did. I was tall and pale and weird-looking, and shorts were for attractive, small people with a tan. Finally, in my late 20s, I started wearing them just in time for people to tell me that I was about to have to stop wearing them — that shorts, this clothing item I’d only just discovered as an adult, were only for kids, and not for adults.
Short shorts and cut-off shorts are always on the list of things that women over 30 or women over a certain weight are not supposed to wear. Like crop tops and colorful makeup and mini skirts, they are an embattled item of clothing, perpetually categorized as belonging to only the young and the conventionally beautiful, those privileged enough to have a body that the world would be willing to look at, a body that is familiar from mainstream representation and therefore inoffensive, a body that requires neither explanation nor negotiation.
The idea that only certain people can wear shorts is akin to the concept of the “summer body” and the “bikini body.” All these posit that meeting a certain standard of physical smallness is the exam you have to pass in order to get to summer. Too often, people are made to believe that the careless joy of summer is only for the thin and the familiarly beautiful, that the hot-weather celebration of sweaty bare flesh only includes certain bodies.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, shorts were only worn by male children and adolescent boys — school uniforms from these eras, for instance, comprised a suit jacket and usually knee-length shorts until the wearer was in his late teens. Being “out of short pants” was a euphemism for adulthood; wearing pants that covered the whole leg meant that a man had grown up and become serious, putting aside childish things. Shorts were the uniform of play; pants the uniform of work. It’s also worth noting that this distinction was made mainly by upper-class individuals; being able to distinguish clearly and sentimentally between childhood and adulthood, to have a uniform for play and a time in life without the obligation to work, was expressly an upper-class luxury.
Even as short pants for men passed out of mainstream fashion, shorts retained their status as a permanent symbol of youth and a refusal of adult convention, of the world of work and good manners. Starting in the 1950s and persisting through the ’70s and ’80s, shorts were the clothing choice in youth culture, worn by kids refusing to conform to their parents’ standards and choosing not to declare seriousness and maturity via appropriate fashion choices. In the 1970s and ’80s, and even up into the outfits of 1990s metal bands, shorts were a symbol of dissent; the point was to take a piece of clothing and destroy it. Patti Smith and Debbie Harry on stage in cut-offs are deliberately messy, deliberately distressed, demonstrating a small violence against normal and appropriate clothing.
If one item is the opposite of office-appropriate clothing, it’s the short short. Mainstream brands like J.Crew have tried to sell “formal shorts” as summery work attire, but it never quite works. Wearing shorts can’t help but be at least a little rebellious, a little against the rules. Shorts are are the clothing version of the feeling you get on a Friday afternoon when you still feel like you just got let out of school. They are the same emotion as a whole day off from work, as deleting your inbox, as turning off your phone. These qualities are also why certain people believe shorts are meant only for the very young and very conventionally attractive — the people who don’t want you to wear shorts also believe that anyone who is not very young and very physically small should be shut out from these particular types of joy. This is the idea that as one ages one must present proof of one’s seriousness, act like an adult, give up childish things.
There used to always be a day in summer when it was very hot and I’d had a very bad day and I’d cut an old pair of jeans up into a spontaneous pair of shorts. They were never flattering — making shorts with a pair of kitchen scissors and a random whim isn’t exactly a recipe for a well-fitting or elegant piece of clothing — the hems were uneven and jagged; one was inevitably longer than the other. But that was the point — it was a piece of clothing that defied the conventions of adulthood, which demand we wear what is flattering.
Shorts on any body are an aggressive choice to display and promote that body; shorts are never an accident. There is a perverse and persistent way in which fashion choices originally intended to be anti-beauty and anti-convention become the sole provenance of the conventionally beautiful. The whole point of Patti Smith destroying her jeans was for her to look like she was breaking the rules, up to and including the rule that clothes are meant to make the wearer look good. If you want to look good, wear a sundress (honestly, this applies to every body type: If you just want to look nice, you should always just wear a sundress). Shorts are aggressively unflattering on just about everyone, which reaches back to their origins in youth culture.
While adulthood comes with many horrible restrictions and responsibilities, one of its small mercies is that, outside of whatever professional environments you have to enter in order to make money, you don’t have to listen to anyone telling you what to wear. No one who says that shorts are for certain ages or certain bodies actually has any real authority. The full control over one’s life that adulthood signifies is objectively terrible: It means taxes and jobs and bills, the responsibility to treat others well, and the acceptance that you cannot control the behavior or reactions of others. But it does mean that you have no obligation to listen to anyone saying that you have to throw out your tiny shorts because you turned 30 or gained 15 pounds. The choice to show one’s body as one gets older is a refusal to let an idea of age-appropriate clothing sap the joys of living in a human body. Shorts are a refusal to privilege what is appropriate over what is joyful. Saying that we should refuse youthful joys when they are readily available and hurting no one, simply because our bodies might not visibly fit an arbitrary standard, is both unnecessary and cruel.
Summer is a season about being impolite, about acknowledging the fact of your body rather than hiding from it. Summer is a time for being a body rather than presenting a body, running around out in the world like a kid in a sprinkler. Summer clothing choices like shorts offer one small way to reach back to the things that were good about childhood — or even just good about the idea of it. For me, shorts in summer are about living beyond self-consciousness, making choices for myself and my own comfort rather than for the reactions of others. No one can stop me from walking outside, wearing very small shorts, and holding the consequences of my actions in my own two hands.