The shorts answer to short skirts

The Independent Archive; 5 August 1988 City shorts are high fashion this summer and are the modern answer to the rising hemline

THE PRINCESS of Wales walked into Le Caprice last month in khaki shorts and a bush jacket. Not since the sun set on the Empire has there been such a fetching outfit to show off royal knees.

The shorts suit has become the star of this doubtful summer. The princess put her seal of approval on an outfit that is now city sleek, rather than just for weekends and sportswear.

Long shorts have become the answer to the short skirt. You see shorts in the office - trim, well-pressed in cotton drill, and as business-like as when they were part of a colonial military kit. The favoured colour is khaki, but shorts come also in crisp navy blue poplin, in pin-striped linens, in dark Madras checked seersucker, or in white cotton. They look their best with a tailored top half - a plain white shirt or waistcoat.

The idea of shorts as a divided skirt is as old as gymslips, St Trinian's and games mistresses who played jolly hockey sticks. In those far-off schoolgirl days, the motive was to keep girls looking decent while playing male sports. Today's shorts - so different in spirit from the stern navy serge and chaste pleats - serve a similar function. They are worn by women who are in favour of the freedom and style of the short skirt, but unwilling to accept its sexist connotations.

The mini-skirt of the 1960s was born of the Pill and sexual liberation, and its perky, peek-a-boo image expressed that social change. Now that women are aware of the darker side of the sexual revolution, such insouciant, come-on clothes seem foolhardy. For professional women in positions of authority, the mini-skirt suggests dolly-girl status.

This summer, there are far more shorts on the streets than short skirts, and they come for both sexes - convincing proof that shorts are accepted as stylish and practical. But, whereas men have only pleat-front shorts in varying degrees of bagginess, women's fashion has come up with alternatives.

The tailored above-the-knee shorts, cut like trousers, are by far the most popular and are worn in heavier fabrics as well as the summer cottons. There is also a flirtier short, shaped on Lana Turner lines, with a defined waist and flaring legs. These shorts look more playful and are therefore for the beach rather than the office. They are worn with shapely off-the- shoulder blouses or scoop-front T-shirts, with wedge-heeled sandals or ballerina flatties.

On the waterfront, there are also sporty cycle shorts in stretch lycra, that mould to the figure and are also worn by both men and women. On Mediterranean beaches, boxer shorts are still the height of fashion, this season coming up in fluorescent colours and wild primitive prints.

In town, there is another type of shorts which should more properly be called culottes. They look like a skirt except when sitting down, and seem to be worn by women who are hovering uncertainly between mid-calf skirts and shorts, and have settled at half-mast.

How the shorts are worn makes the real difference between sporty and city styles. Holidaymakers will wear shorts in the familiar way, with white socks and trainers, with a T-shirt or cotton sweater on the upper half. It is essentially a casual look.

For work, shorts are worn with sandals or flat pumps or, increasingly, with a low-heeled shoes that smartens up the outfit. On the streets of Paris, shorts suits are pulled together with a battery of accessories - wide elastic belts to cinch in the waist with a brief bolero jacket, or a tan leather belt to grip tailored shorts or to fasten the longer fitted jackets that partner them.

Accepting that shorts are a modern fashion far removed from their original sporty associations is the hallmark of this summer's style. The Princess of Wales wore her shorts suit with beige pumps and a clutch bag tucked under her arm. Perhaps the only thing that cannot be worn with shorts is a pair of tights. Even in a British summer, the ultimate accessory is a pair of well-browned legs.

Suzy Menkes

From the Fashion page of `The Independent', Friday 5 August 1988

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