The science of shorts: how to pull off this summer's toughest style

This week’s dress code can be summarised in one word: shorts. There is a heatwave incoming, for a start. Plus, this weekend would have been Glastonbury, so the spirit of imaginary Worthy Farm is in the air, conjuring up the ghosts of Kate Moss and Alexa Chung in hot pants and wellies.

Look around you. It is boom time for shorts: perfect with trainers when you are walking or cycling rather than taking public transport; ideal for impromptu frisbee games. Also, the are-they-office-appropriate problem is, well, not an problem. (Marks & Spencer reported that nine out of the bestselling menswear items in the first days after it reopened were shorts.)

The past three months have relaxed our standards of wardrobe formality. Not getting dressed up for work events, weddings or parties has dialled down our wardrobes to the point where what used to look scruffy now looks acceptable – and what once looked like a baseline level of public-facing polish reads as if you have made a tremendous effort. Something has shifted, also, for those who have tended not to be “brave” enough to wear shorts. The past three months has pushed us outside our comfort zone in so many ways. Getting hung up about whether other people are looking at your knees? Maybe we can leave that one in the old normal.

Ryan O’Neal and Barbra Streisand in The Main Event

Ryan O’Neal and Barbra Streisand in The Main Event. Photograph: Photo 12/Alamy

The shorts vibe of 2020 is one part Paul Mescal owning lockdown London in his O’Neills Gaelic football shorts and one part Carrie Bradshaw tapping at her laptop on a hot Manhattan night in a stretchy tank top and a pair of boyish athletic shorts. (Carrie Bradshaw at her laptop is a bluechip working-from-home icon, of course.) The loose, boxer-style shorts Rachel Green wore to hang out at home with Monica in Friends two decades ago are now turning up on Instagram: see Teen Vogue’s fashion editor, Michelle Li, who has been chronicling her at-home athleisure during quarantine in New York.

Leggings were ideal when we wore our athleisure in the sleek, minimal aesthetic of a yoga studio, but when your exercise class is an Instagram Live in the kitchen or tricep dips on a park bench, the lo-fi, games-kit mood of what are essentially PE shorts hits the spot. Cut-off denim Daisy Dukes are a touch too poseurish for this moment. Culottes, which are basically shorts pretending to be midi skirts, are a little unnecessarily fiddly and formal. Cycling shorts are still going strong, buoyed by Lizzo and their usefulness when riding a bike, and long, tailored Bermuda shorts would probably have been more of a hit had this summer involved more urban commuting. There is a niche revival for the buttock-hugging micro boxer short in its 70s-retro mode – think Barbra Streisand in the 1979 film The Main Event – but the loose, athletic style short is where it’s at.

Do not be fooled by the air of pull-on ease, however, because this is not a straightforward look to pull off. Too saggy and scruffy and you inch perilously close to “Boris Johnson out for a jog”. You need a wide waistband and enough fabric to give a standalone, slightly A-line silhouette – not a million miles from the paper-bag waist silhouette, in fashion terms. You need to accessorise, to make the point that this is fashion. (A bumbag will do the trick nicely.)

High-rise rose-print cotton-poplin shorts from Ganni

High-rise rose-print cotton-poplin shorts from Ganni.

Consult Milan fashion week, where the athletic short has made multiple appearances on the catwalk, usually teamed with chunky gold jewellery and a well-tailored blazer – see the model Imaan Hammam in electric blue silky shorts on the Versace catwalk last year for the masterclass. Prada does a mean athletic short, in signature heavyweight nylon with a front zip pocket and a Prada triangle logo, as seen on the influencer Camille Charriere. Gucci’s elegant white swim shorts are a particularly elevated take on the look – think Paul Mescal meets Slim Aarons. Ganni’s rose-printed cotton-poplin shorts are on sale on, reduced from £115 to £69.

These shorts can be sourced without a designer price tag, however. Sportswear is the obvious place to start – this short is modishly gender neutral, so take your pick. In fact, purists insist that the best versions are the stiff, gabardine PE shorts sold in John Lewis’s school uniform department for less than a tenner. Girls and boys, runners and cyclists – we are all in this together, remember? And it’s time to let our legs out of lockdown.

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