In her imperious 1964 tome A Guide to Elegance, Genevieve Antoine Dariaux declared, "After sixteen years of age, you should not wear shorts of any kind except on the beach, the tennis court, or on board a boat."
Oh, and even on deck, Madame tells us, most of us shouldn't bother.
If you are not absolutely confident of the length of your legs and the loveliness of your knees, it is better to do without them. Long shorts are the most difficult kind of all to wear. Very short shorts can be alluring, provided that you have lovely thighs which are neither too thin, too heavy, nor flabby; and provided also that the shorts do not bare the lower part of the buttocks, and that they are narrow enough so as not to be indecent. In any case, you should always wear a snug, opaque panty underneath, preferably of the same color as the shorts.
In other words, give up now. On the other side of the debate we have every store in America right now, hawking a dizzying range of short-pants in every color, shape and fabric imaginable. Oh, and of course Plum Sykes, who wrote an ode to shorts in Vogue, and quotes Tory Burch as saying, "Shorts have become part of our office uniform." Asserts designer Riccardo Tischi in the same piece, "It shows a woman has the confidence to to play with her sexuality, showing the leg but at the same time saying, 'I'm still wearing the trousers.'" Indeed. And check out the spread of "6 Perfect Outfits for Spring" featured on Refinery29: 3 involve shorts. Like rompers and maternity silhouettes and gladiator sandals, the sheer ubiquity of the trend begins to wear away at one's resistance and judgment until, before you know it, you're in shorts.
That said, they are still one of the most fraught garments out there and I know plenty of women who foreswear non-athletic shorts entirely and still manage to live rich, full, happy lives. Even those who do indulge do so with lists of stringent personal rules and no small measure of anxiety. From a quick poll of various friends, I obtained the following range of responses:
- "Longish/Bermuda shorts are the only non-athletic ones that work for me."
- "I like a high waist with some minimal pleating and a pretty short leg: also known as the diaper. A few exceptions for hip-slung shorts, also with a short leg, but only if the front is flat and the pattern is distracting. otherwise the wearer ends up looking like an Abercrombie and Fitch tween. I personally don't care for knee length shorts, but if they must be worn: skin-tight please, otherwise the shape of one's leg is obscured and the eye begins to make negative inferences."
- "I prefer a higher rise but have had some luck with Gap's men style shorts, especially because they have petite sizes so the lower rise isn't too low."
- "I LOVE SHORTS! Waist Height - not too short, it makes me self conscious."
- "I have a habit of making impulse cutoffs — when it's hot and I have nothing to wear and am maybe feeling a little like a teenage tomboy — out of pants that are too long and that I know I'll never get around to tailoring. they vary in length, depending on how much care i put into the cutting/measuring process (usually very little), and how many times i mess up."
- "I wear shorts, but I would never wear them back in Ireland, at least not in public. Here, I wear them mid-thigh with a relatively high waist. And I don't feel confident about wearing them, particularly."
- "They have to be very short for me not to feel like a tree stump. I feel like I get away with crazy short-shorts cause I'm so short myself. So it reads in proportion, not crazy sexy. I only wear shorts for day, with tee shirt, tank, and maybe a blazer. I'm definitely not into the shorts as evening wear thing. Its weird, that's what little dresses are for!"
- "3" inseam, hip bone high. But only on weekends. (I passed a girl on the street today in high-waisted drawstring silk shorts and I knew instantly she had to work for Vogue!)"
- "Though I like them, knee-length looks sort of stupid on me. These days I am wearing mid thigh length with pleats (both high-waisted and hip rise). I own a pair with cuffs but they're starting to bug me"
The Jezebel staff was similarly divided. "Only board shorts at the beach," said Anna Holmes firmly. Margaret was also anti-shorts, saying "I only wear them in public as bathing suit bottoms." And Noorain is even less shorts-inclined: "I've never owned a pair! I used to wear hijab, and when I stopped after 12 years when I was 20, I just wasn't used to it, so I never bothered to buy any." Dodai has a measly one pair — "They are camo (?!?!) and I purchased them for $2.50 at a thrift store in Palm Desert" — that she pairs with "red wedge heels" in the most casual of circumstances. However, as a rule, she's wary of "the thigh rub and the bunching." The only one who expressed a strong positive feeling was Katy who was not only sporting freshly-made cut-offs as she wrote but says she wears them "anywhere and everywhere," including with heels, and with tights in winter.
This, I feel, shows how polarizing a subject shorts are for women, and how fraught. It's never just, "pull on a pair of shorts." Some magazines may tell you there's a short for everyone. I doubt it. I doubt there's one that, even if it looks fine, can make everyone feel comfortable. I think of myself as a shorts-wearer. High-waisted, swingy-legged 40s styles from Urban Outfitters, Modcloth, the much-lamented Lyell and Steven Alan sales are one of the mainstays of my summer wardrobe. And yet, when I actually thought about it, I realized that I feel comfortable in these highly specific garments only after my legs have acquired a little Jergen's natural glow, I have on a slight heel, and my top is tucked in. Then too, I'm over 16 and never set foot on a boat. In short, I got freaked out. This is what shorts will do to a woman. Well, that or a really autocratic Frenchwoman.