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A woman wearing jean shorts with a man wearing khaki shorts in the background.
Shorts are a garment worn by both men and women over their pelvic area, circling the waist, and covering the upper part of the upper legs or more, sometimes extending as far as the knee, but not covering the entire length of the leg, either as outer or undergarment. They are called "shorts" because they are a shortened version of trousers which cover the entire leg.

Transatlantic terminological confusions

In British English the term "short trousers" is used, but only for shorts that are a short version of real trousers, e.g. tailored shorts, often lined, as typically worn as part of school uniform for boys up to their early-to-middle teens from roughly 1920 to 1980 (and still in Australia, Singapore, New Zealand and South Africa), and by servicemen and policemen posted overseas to tropical climates. The American-English term "short pants" is probably the nearest equivalent. These might nowadays be called "dress shorts" or "walk shorts", terms which have not gained currency in Britain. A somewhat similar garment worn by men in Australia is called "stubbies". "Shorts" is used unqualified in British English to refer to sports shorts, athletic shorts, or casual shorts, the latter nowadays being, in the United Kingdommarker itself, commonplace in warm weather but never worn in the winter.

Matters are further complicated by the fact that "shorts" in American English can refer to underwear, which is not the case in British English (except recently in the compound term "boxer shorts"). Conversely, the word "pants" refers to outerwear (= trousers) in American usage but when used unqualified in British English usually means underpants.

Sociology

United States & Europe

In the United States, and much of Europe, historically, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, shorts were worn as outerwear only by young boys until they reached a certain height or maturity. When boys got older, typically around puberty, they would receive their first pair of long trousers. This produced the perception that shorts were only for young boys. Because of this, men would not wear shorts to avoid looking immature. Women tended not to wear shorts in most cultures, due to social mores.

In the 1890s, knee pants (an early type of short pants) became the standard wear for American boys. Many urban school portraits from the 1890s show all but the oldest boys wearing knee pants.

American boys normally wore knee pants with long stockings. This began to change after the 1900s when American boys began wearing knickerbockers, while short pants became more popular in Europe.

Since about World War II, when soldiers often served in tropical locations, adult men have worn shorts more often, especially in summer weather, but the perception of shorts as being only for young boys took several decades to change and to some extent still exists in certain circles.

However, in many countries there are few formal settings where wearing shorts would be acceptable, as they are considered casual wear. Notable exceptions where men may wear short trousers to the office or at a formal gathering are South Africa and Bermuda.

Since the 1990s, casual office dress has grown in some U.S. and U.K. businesses, but by no means universally, to include formal shorts. Gym and jean shorts are still seen as too casual for office attire.

Worldwide

In Africa, the Middle East and much of Asia, the wearing of shorts by adults is less common. While it is common for boys to wear shorts, adult males are rarely seen wearing them for many of the same reasons that men in the United States and Europe did not wear them in the 19th century.

Wearing shorts is less common among women than in the West, but this varies widely by region - women more often wear shorts in large, cosmopolitan cities. These customs are often due in part to moral and social taboos regarding the perceived sexually suggestive nature of exposing the female legs. In some countries adult women can be seen wearing loose-fitting shorts that end at or just below the knee, as these are seen as sufficiently modest. Above-the knee shorts are more often seen on pre-pubescent girls.

Styles

There are many styles of shorts:
  • Baggies: Loose-fitting shorts which reach the knees. These were the standard shorts worn by English football teams before World War II. West Bromwich Albion FC are nicknamed the Baggies because their team used to wear particularly baggy shorts. Recently, baggy shorts have become once again the norm in football teams worldwide, after a period from about 1970 to 1990 when football shorts were extremely short.
  • Bermuda shorts (also known in the U.S. as walking shorts or walk shorts or dress shorts): Knee-length short trousers commonly worn in Bermudamarker (with knee-length socks and a blazer and tie) for business attire and even at cocktail parties. The style has also been adopted as a casual style in other locales. Usually has pockets and waist loops for an optional belt.
  • Board shorts: A combination of shorts and a bathing suit, typically worn by men, which have recently gained in popularity. Board shorts are manufactured by such companies as Billabong, Quiksilver, and Old Navy, originally intended as beachwear. The "board" refers to surfers' surfboards although many others also wear them. In the 1980s, board shorts were called "jams".
  • Boxer shorts: Mainly used as male underwear. Some years ago, this term also related to a basic style male short.
  • Boyshorts: In the US, Similar to boxer briefs, but for females.
  • Bun huggers: Short, tight, athletic shorts also known as "racing briefs", commonly made from spandex and/or nylon. These shorts are compulsory for girls and women in some schools and for some adult athletic events such as volleyball. It is claimed that their tight fit and the fact that they barely go down past the buttocks give wearers an unhindered range of motion that is necessary in sports such as volleyball. However, the figure-hugging nature of these shorts makes some wearers feel uncomfortable, and making them compulsory for women has been described as "venturing into the arena of athlete exploitation". Bun huggers for men also exist. These resemble boxer briefs.
  • Cargo shorts: Typically khaki shorts with cargo pockets. Similar to cargo pants, but around knee-length.
  • Culottes: A divided skirt resembling a pair of loose-cut shorts, originally popularized as a practical horse and bicycle-riding garment by dress reform feminists at the turn of the 20th century.
  • Cut-offs: Home-made by cutting the legs off trousers, typically jeans (known as "denim cut-offs"), above the knee. These were particularly popular in the early 1970s. The cut is not finished or hemmed and the fabric is left to fray. They became so popular that they were sold in stores as such. Originally a practical use for trousers with worn-through knees, they are now a type of shorts in their own right. The ultra-short version of jean cut-offs are also known as Daisy Dukes, in reference to Catherine Bach's character of that name from the Americanmarker television show The Dukes of Hazzard. They are a form of hot-pants or short shorts. The character Tobias F√ľnke from the television series Arrested Development is also known for wearing cut-off jeans as an undergarment. Additionally on the television program It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia Dennis demonstrates that cut-offs increase flexibility, thus allowing workers to be more productive.
Blue spandex bike shorts
  • Cycling shorts: Skin-tight long shorts originally worn by cyclists to reduce chafing while cycling, but which have also been adapted and adopted as street wear and active wear by girls and younger women. Also commonly known as "bike shorts".
  • Dolphin shorts: An athletic style of shorts, notable for visible binding of an often contrasting color. The name may refer to a side-view of the binding of each leg's lower hem, resembling the shape of a dolphin tail. Like gym shorts, they often feature a cord to be tied around the waist at the front. These were a popular trend in the 1980s gym scene.
  • Gym shorts: Gym shorts are often worn in gym class or for participation in sports, hence the name, but they are worn as casual wear almost as much, especially by adolescents. They are usually not form-fitting when worn by men or female athletes, but are often form-fitting when worn by women as casual dress. Length is usually from just above the knee to just below the knee. In the 1970s and 1980s in the U.S. gym shorts were often form-fitting and only slightly longer than boxer shorts. Gym shorts are generally made of cotton, spandex, polyester, or another synthetic fiber with a cord sewn in that can be tied at the front to tighten the waist.
  • Hot pants: Categorized as "short shorts", they commonly have an inseam length of two inches or less. These are short, tight shorts, usually made of cotton, nylon, or some other common material. They are meant to emphasize the buttocks and the legs. Hot pants were very popular in the early 1970s. During this time the Philadelphia Phillies baseball team created a unit of usherettes called the Hot Pants Patrol, who wore all-in-one garments incorporating hot-pants.
  • Jean shorts: Made out of denim, jean shorts are worn by both genders. For males, they are generally looser and longer. Also known as Jorts.
  • Lederhosen: Traditional German leather shorts.
  • Leather shorts: Shorts made from leather.
  • Plaid shorts: Usually made of Madras, fabricated woven of differently colored yarns in a crossbarred pattern. Popularized by "skater" stores, but now becoming more "preppy".
  • Running shorts: Reach only the upper thigh; intended to provide maximum freedom of movement in sports activities. These are often made from Nylon, which has the advantage of being very hardwearing. After Adidas sponsored the 1980 Olympic Games, Adidas nylon track shorts were a fashion item for some years.
  • Short shorts: By the mid-1950s, post-WWII Americans were beginning to relax and enjoy both their new economic and baby booms as their offspring which were just entering their teens. Television and rock'n'roll captured taste and fashion, including the new "short shorts" fad, since Bermuda shorts were considered old, dull, and "fuddy-duddy" although, as History of Costume author and FITmarker Professor Rachel Kemper noted, "Short shorts left a girl's ass hanging out." The Royal Teens wrote and sang the song "Short Shorts" (1957) (in which "short shorts" is mentioned 18 times). That song was itself referred to in Sheb Wooley's song "Purple People Eater" song (1958). Short shorts also refers to the older style of tight basketball shorts which went upper-thigh worn by players until the 1990s, when looser shorts that went down to the knee became the norm. Many clothing vendors refer to 'short shorts' as having an inseam of four inches or less.
    Convertible Ventilated Trousers shown with one leg cover removed (see zip-off shorts)
  • Short trousers (British English) or school shorts are fully tailored and usually lined shorts with full zip fly and belt loops, in former times of flannel, nowadays of a cotton/synthetic mixture, typically in grey, worn by male primary and secondary school students as part of a formal school uniform in Britain, Australia, Singapore, South Africa and New Zealand, and also by Cub scouts. These were typically worn with long socks, often also grey. They nowadays mostly reach down to the knee or even slightly further; from about 1960 until the 1980s they were generally much shorter, typically coming to about half way up the thigh when standing. In tailoring/menswear trade jargon (and colonial English) they are sometimes misleadingly called "knickers". Use of the word "knickers" reminds us that "shorts" for boys descended from "knickerbockers" which were commonly worn by boys in UK bfore the 1920s. Knickerbockers fell below the knee and were attached by buttons to stockings. In the 1920s knickerbockers gradually became shorter and lost their attachment to the stockings leaving the knee bare. Eventually, in effect, the knickerbockers turned into shorts and the stockings turned into turn-over knee stockings with coloured tops (after 1960s increasingly called knee-socks. Hence the new "shorts" were in the 1920s and 1930s (and even later) occasionally called "knickers" by old-fashioned outfitters. Some shorts even retained vestigial buttons reminding us that knickerbockers had been "buttoned" to stockings. But this name, "knickers" was never used among the ordinary public and least of all among schoolboys themselves, since "knickers" in British English had gradually come to refer to a kind of women's underwear and used to be regarded as a somewhat rude word.
  • Skorts: Have a piece of fabric in front, creating the illusion of being a skirt from the front. The term is a portmanteau of "skirt" and "shorts".
  • Slackettes: A term coined in the late 20th century by the fashion cognoscenti of the New York City neighborhood of Nolita (Northern Little Italy) as an alternative to the more frequently used term "shorts", referring to clothing worn around the waist and having two legs extending no further than mid-knee. This term quickly spread to the fashionista residents of New York's Chelsea gallery neighborhood and, by the early years of the 21st century, had worked its way into the everyday parlance of the community of fashion-savvy Manhattan residents.
  • Three quarter pants (Or Flood Pants): A name used to refer to pants such as Shants or Shankles which go down to the calf and are arguably not long shorts but short longs.
  • Zip-off shorts: A pair of long pants that zip off at the knee, allowing the wearer to change from pants to shorts as the weather changes. Originally a hiking garment, these have become a more casual fashion item since the late 1990s.


Notes

  1. U.S. School Clothes: Individual Schools--The 1890s at Boys' Historical Clothing School Uniform Pages.
  2. United States Boys Garments: Pants--Knee Pants at Boys' Historical Clothing School Uniform Pages.
  3. Bermuda Shorts: Local spring to fall male business attire and female smart casuals at Bermuda-Online.
  4. "Bun Huggers: To Wear or Not to Wear", Women's Sports Foundation.
  5. Games of the XXII Olympiad, Moscow. 1980.
  6. "Short shorts" at the Bad Fads Museum.
  7. Sharma, Satish K., "Style Debate: Give Shorts A Leg Up", Times of India, 14 October 2008.



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