Summer shorts strip down

LOOKING SHARP: Polka-dot styled shorts by World are in this summer.
LOOKING SHARP: Polka-dot styled shorts by World are in this summer.

Because of them we see the sinews, scars and tan lines of our rugby players, the chicken-like limbs and sprouting curly leg hair of our suburban lawn mowers, the goosebumped, slim and awkward upper thighs of the pre-teens, the orange, fake-tan-streaked pins of the young professionals and the cottage-cheese rippled skin of those over a certain age.

They ride up, they chafe, they pucker at the wrong place. They flatter, they don't flatter; they show the crease of your bottom, if you let them. And they can leave little of a man to the imagination.

Worn by school children, grandparents, gardeners, life savers, business men and women, celebrities, teenagers and, yes, lawn-mowing suburbanites and sports stars, they are hocked off by almost every clothing label, store, designer, second-hand shop and street market. Shorts. How did such a small piece of clothing become such a Kiwi wardrobe staple?

TIMELESS: The stubbies look is dear to the heart of many a Kiwi male.
TIMELESS: The stubbies look is dear to the heart of many a Kiwi male.

"I own one pair of shorts which mostly I wear in the garden and they are quite hideous. They make me look like I am a boy scout," says comedian Michele A'Court.

''My legs aren't my best feature but that's OK because there is not that much of them."

Whatever A'Court's wardrobe lacks in the short department, her 20-year-old daughter makes up for. In spades.

"She is a fan of those awful short, short shorts. Can I say it? Oh, the ones where it is like your vagina has eaten your pants."

Yes, those denim shorts with the pockets hanging out the bottom that every teenager seems to be wearing. The ones where the wearer seems a little oblivious to the fact their bottom is hanging out the bottom, too.

The Daisy from Dukes of Hazard-style cut-offs The Washington Post recently referred to as the fashion equivalent of fried dough: "Awful, yet kinda good."

"I vaguely understand deconstruction in fashion," says A'Court.

"But the pockets hanging out the bottom - that just blows my mind. I want to run up and say to people, 'Did you know that we can see your pockets?'"

Shorts, A'Court says, are a real New Zealandism.

"Men certainly don't wear short shorts anywhere else in the world apart from here. I don't know what that is about; it is kinda cute. It's not elegant. Men don't wear shorts in France."

Perhaps, she says, it's our nation's way of trying to show we are sporty.

"I think there is the idea that if you put shorts on and walk to the pub, then that is like playing sport."

Our men started wearing shorts for occasions beyond the rugby pitch when soldiers brought them home from World War II, Richard Wolfe and Stephen Barnett write in Kiwiana! The Sequel.

Eventually, and with the arrival of polyester fabric during the 1950s, the fashion monstrosity that was the 'walk short' was born and by the late 1960s had become a summer standard for both business and casual wear.

It was, by almost all accounts, an utter fashion disaster. Even the Public Service Association (PSA) admits walk shorts put New Zealand on the map sartorially - but not in a good way.

As early as 1946 the union was lobbying for workers to wear shorts in ''hot humid climates such as Napier, Gisborne, Auckland and Whangarei''.

In 1958, that was extended to public servants across the country but only if the shorts were white and worn with a white shirt and white socks.

The following summer the State Services Commission agreed that ''where staff wished to wear shorts they may have the choice of one colour in white, grey or fawn".

In hindsight, the PSA reports: ''It was the thin edge of the wedge - walk shorts, in every hue, in tartan and check, in polyester and cord, became the standard uniform for many male public servants regardless of the season."

By the '70s, more than 160,000 pairs filled the racks of menswear stores. Today, on its website, the PSA apologises "unreservedly for its part in this fashion crime".

Is it ever OK to wear shorts to work? The recent British summer heatwave sent northern hemisphere commentators into overdrive on the conundrum.

As Harriet Quick of Vogue told the Telegraph: "Little Chloe shorts and a Uniqlo shirt might look great in the Vogue office or a creative workspace, but in a city law firm it would be too distracting. Ditto ditsy print flower dresses. What you need there is monochrome sleek tailoring and shift dresses."

The heatwave sent sales of Bermuda-style shorts for men up a reported 200 per cent on last year's figures. The Times said the skort (shorts from the back and a skirt at the front) was Zara's biggest seller - "cheap, fun, terrifying and a bit weird-looking in equal measure'' - and every northern hemisphere media outlet worth its salt sent reporters to work in their shorts, just to gauge reaction. (Sample online response: "Get a job where you work from home and can sit in your pants all day... just like I'm doing right now.")

Here in New Zealand, where summer is just starting to make its presence felt, Wellington volunteer

lifeguard Brent Harvey says he'd wear shorts all year round if he could get away with it in his day job. And if his wife would let him.

"The only time I don't is when I need to wear something more suitable - for work, or for a formal occasion, or if we are going out for dinner."

Harvey says he'd "mix it up" between board shorts Today's men may have embraced the boardie, but and denim shorts.

The version worn by all lifeguards is trademarked by Surf Lifesaving New Zealand as part of its iconic red and yellow uniform.

"You can't get them unless you are a qualified lifeguard and when you are on the beach you wear them all day, every day," says Harvey.

''They are almost like a boardie material so you can go straight into the water with them. They have an elastic band and a tie there, so they are not going to fall off.''

Today's men may have embraced the boardie, but back in the '70s blokes were all about the short short. The Stubbie. Far too small. Far too tight. Far too much puku and builder's crack.

Stubbies are in fact a largely Australian institution, but we took to them like the proverbial duck to water. Nary a lawn was mowed without a pair of Stubbies stuck firmly to the rear of their owner.

Today, Stubbies still makes school wear for boys and girls. The Beige Brigade cricket supporters club will sell you a pair from its website for the bargain basement price of $25.

"Available in any colour as long as they are brown. Includes that wonderfully annoying tiny key pocket. Powerful.''

Rugby aficionados are more likely to go for the 'Canterbury short': a rugged fashion mainstay for farmers, even in the kind of weather that means your legs are actually looking like a frozen leg of hogget.

Canterbury of New Zealand says it started producing garments in the province in the late 1880s and sells more than 100,000 pairs of shorts a year.

Shorts are everywhere. From casual Fridays to the catwalk, where the likes of Kate Sylvester have been dabbling in them since before they were commonplace, says Sunday's fashion editor Karlya Smith.

"Karen Walker does good roomy, tailored shorts, and Zambesi and Nom*D do more edgy versions."

She lists I Love Ugly, Huffer and Workshop among the local labels turning out options for men. But if you're looking for a pair to go couture, think carefully, says World's Francis Hooper.

"If you want to play in the sandpit of high fashion, you have to have a slim silhouette. Not skinny, but slim. A lot of Kiwi guys are rugby shaped - big, muscly thighs, big everything. So in some cases I would say that's not good for your legs. Just check yourself before you wreck yourself. Have a look and a think and say, 'Is this appropriate or am I looking scary?'

"Women, of course, have more choice," says Hooper, "which is a positive but also a negative because you girls can get totally flummoxed. It's like, 'Holy shit: long, short, wide, skinny, hot pants, not hot pants, culottes.' Then, of course, there is the fit. For me it is always like, 'Guuurl, you are pear shape - what the hell are you thinking?'"

Hooper says being in the New World means New Zealanders are a casual bunch and are able to wear shorts because there are no rules to be broken.

"A woman could wear - if she is not a banker or a lawyer but still in an urban working environment - a great summer suit, but with shorts. She could still be taken seriously; she could still feel dressed up and sophisticated.

''Guys are a lot more restricted, but again, shorts are not seen as wrong in high summer. If a guy is not at work, then shorts are absolutely accepted everywhere. There is no 'what are you doing? You can't come into this restaurant.'"

This season's World offering is a reaction to last summer, Hooper says.

"It was so fricken amazing - it went on for like five months and it was hot and steamy.

"For boys we have done these really great polka-dot shorts (above). And because it is characterful we have loosened it down, put a cuff [on it], made it more of a Bermuda. So a guy can wear it with a T-shirt and feel cool, but it's easy."

Women are getting something called the "Bon Jovi", but Hooper says the mass market will be doing the pyjama short - relaxed, billowy and with an elasticised waist band.

"They will be like $12.99 and every girl is going to buy one. And if you are not too hippy it will be great. Because hey, it's summer. It's hot."

Sunday Star Times