I HAVE TO admit: John Wayne had some nice legs. And he must have known it too, because during a 1959 vacation to Mexico, the chisel-chinned star wore a pair of hot pants so microscopic that his shirt tails nearly hang below the shorts’ hems. They have maybe a 1-inch inseam and, on a towering fella like Mr. Wayne, who clocked in at a purported 6 feet 4 inches tall, that is awfully eensy.
The inseam length of Mr. Wayne’s audaciously undersized shorts is at the extreme end of the scale (truly, I don’t see how you could get smaller) but men’s shorts today are inching further up the thigh. Men are flashing their legs “in kind of an aggressive way,” said Ryan Robison, 31, an inventory planner in San Francisco. In his city, short shorts have become something of a norm—within reason. He more conservatively leans toward 4 or 5-inch inseam shorts from J.Crew and Patagonia, which land above the knee. (For those who have always wondered: “inseam” refers to the measurement taken at the inner thigh.)
Meanwhile, Fendi and Prada produce mini-shorts so mini they rival Mr. Wayne’s Mexican gam-flashers. In some places, particularly coastal cities, men have taken to running errands in wee running shorts from sporty brands like
and Stone Island, which can have a sub-3-inch inseam. Threes, twos, Mr. Wayne-like ones—such scanty inseams leave little to imagination and, in the most extreme cases, can also leave you vulnerable to a wardrobe malfunction. Overly lengthy shorts have their drawbacks, too. William Ryan, 25, a brewer in Portland, Maine, dramatically declared that anything longer than 5 inches makes you “look like you’re this giant baggy mess.”
RISE AND SHINE / Should You Decide to Follow Mr. Wayne Into the Valley of the Tiny Inseams, Here Are Some Options
For the reasonable version of the short-short look, a 4- to 5-inch inseam—hitting just above the knee—is the sweet spot. This is a shift from the 7- and 8-inch-inseam board shorts of the ’90s and early aughts. Those hung so low they shielded lower limbs from critical examination. Today, men appear to be feeling more confident. “Maybe it’s just we’re feeling good about health and we’ve got nice legs now,” said Alexander Taylor-Sattler, 28, a freelance graphic designer in Knoxville, Tenn., who favors a 5-inch inseam. Mr. Taylor-Sattler’s use of the royal “we” is generous, but many (often young) exercise-happy men do want to showcase the fruits of their fitness. As Mr. Robison, a longtime runner, bashfully said, shorter shorts “show off your quads a little bit. That’s kind of cool.”
Though fitness flashing might explain the current up-creep of inseams, as Mr. Wayne demonstrated, men wore short shorts well before the advent of CrossFit. Cary Grant, Dean Martin and Sean Connery were all fans. Shorts began as beachwear so they were designed to be cool. A man “will never wear shorts except at the water’s edge” wrote British designer Hardy Amies in his 1964 book “ABC of Men’s Fashion.”
The neat, natty look of the ’50s and ’60s appeals to Mr. Ryan. “I always look at ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’ or some of the older photos of John F. Kennedy and [think] like, ‘OK this is when shorts were great.’” His neat 4-inch-inseam Carhartt and Patagonia shorts complement his retro camp-collar shirts.
“In San Francisco, men are flashing their legs ‘in kind of an aggressive way.’”
Short shorts can involve some comfort challenges. “I don’t really like wearing shorts that are like borderline underwear,” said Sean Sutherland, 35, a freelance creative director in Verona, N.J., who prefers a 6-and-a-half to 7-inch inseam. Anything shorter, he added, “always rises up and then you get the awkward picking at [the rear end].”
To compensate for that discomfort, many short-short-seeking customers choose pairs that slightly flare out at the leg. “In terms of function it makes it easier to move around,” said Chris Gentile, the owner of Pilgrim Surf + Pilgrim in Brooklyn, N.Y., who has noticed customers’ going up a size in his brand’s knee-length shorts to get a roomier fit. Certainly roomier than Mr. Wayne’s Saran-wrap skivvies.
Write to Jacob Gallagher at Jacob.Gallagher@wsj.com
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