Summer’s lease hath all too short a date? From where I’m sweating, that all depends on your feelings about shorts, sandals and skirts.
Several years ago I wore a pair of shorts to a mid-August interview with a multi-millionaire female fashion entrepreneur. They were of a perfectly respectable length, just north of the knee. The day was very hot – for London at least – but the memory of that encounter with the fashionista burns hotter. As I stepped into her corner office she burst out laughing. “Shorts! I can’t believe you wore shorts to a business meeting!” She still teases me about it almost every time we meet.
In Western societies evolved to endure long winters, our brief, hot summers represent a masculine fashion reckoning. When the heat finally arrives, it compels us to cast off our closed shoes, trousers and long-sleeve shirts for flimsier garments. Yet another, even fiercer force compels us not to.
For society is profoundly prejudiced against scanty clothes for men. Whatever the colour of their collar, most workplaces legislate against the right to bare legs and sometimes arms too. And as for feet or midriff, even restaurant dress codes and school-uniform regulations keep men modest. Witness the annual media frenzy whenever a meaningful male authority figure shrugs off his suit and tie on his summer holiday, or even just loosens up a little. Donald Trump once chose to play tennis in semi-sheer fitted shorts over buttock-cupping tighty-whities, and was then photographed lunging low to dig out a forehand. It has become a damning meme. It took months for anybody to pay much attention when Vladimir Putin deployed a secret cyber army to help install Mr Tighty Whitie in the White House, yet when the Russian president indulges in a perfectly blameless afternoon of topless spear-fishing, the images ricochet around a disbelieving world.
Women have a vastly superior suite of wardrobe choices at their disposal when it comes to socially acceptable dressing for high summer. Skirts, maxi-dresses, tank-tops and blouses offer ventilation, comfort and practicality, all without inviting ridicule or censure. Women may wear silk, crêpe and organza, but men are relegated to cotton, wool and polyester (although seersucker is a good niche tip). There is a whole industry dedicated to the upkeep and display of female feet, but the male foot is such a pariah that polite society dictates it should almost never be disinterred from its shoe.
This predicament is entirely the fault of men. One of clothes’ key functions is to signal and emphasise gender difference. And the despicable patriarchy has long ensured that gender relations are unequally shaped to favour male control: men have higher pay, more privilege and a limited array of garments designed to protect rather than expose. That’s why summer is glorious revenge.
Heat turns the tables on the unconsciously constructed gendered agenda in fashion. When flushed and revealed, men seem ridiculous: our shorts infantalise us, our toes are icky, and our body hair is disgusting. Clothes – especially executive uniform – prop up unwarranted masculine authority that is stripped away without them.
Extreme temperatures expose double standards on both sides of gender’s fashion divide. This February, actor Jennifer Lawrence wore a split-to-the-thigh armless Versace gown to a rooftop movie photocall alongside some all-male co-stars – all of whom were swathed in jackets and pants. Keyboard feminists rushed to note the disparity, criticising Lawrence for serving herself up for objectification at the risk of freezing. “Get a grip,” she replied, noting that the dress was “fabulous” and that what she wears is up to her.
Maybe men should get a grip too. The suggested looks at the shows for this summer’s fashion collections included legless romper suits, short shorts – and skirts. That very same (very hot) June, groups of schoolboys in Devon and bus drivers in Nantes evaded institutional bans on shorts by wearing skirts instead. They looked fabulous.
The catalogue of unfair advantages long afforded to males are being called out and rebalanced. This summer offers men an opportunity to express their solidarity with women, while also enjoying one of the few advantages afforded to them. Forget shorts. 2018 should be the year men get seriously into skirts. Leg hair be damned.