While extolling the virtues of her A-list trainer Tracy Anderson recently, Gwyneth Paltrow gushed that her exercise regime enables her to do "ridiculous things like be a 37-year-old mother of two and wear shorts!".

Gwyneth's threshold for ridiculous behaviour must be quite low if that's how she defines it – maybe she needs to get out more, cut loose a bit. At least that's what I thought until I tried to buy a pair of shorts myself, and decided that maybe she is the ultimate arbiter of seemly legwear after all. It was trying on a pair of leather shorts in Cos that did it. The vision in the mirror was less Alexa Chung, more Miss Whiplash. Not good.

But they're everywhere this season, and like the inane hum of the vuvuzela, hard to avoid and likely to blur one's judgement. On the catwalks, there were brown leather laced-front hotpants at Alexander Wang, loose boy shorts and gold sequinned versions at Philip Lim, and tailored knee-length shorts and silky knickerbockers at Prada, while the high street is awash with ditsy flowered culottes, jersey harem shorts, denim hotpants and tailored city shorts. So how does one sort the wheat from the chaff – or should that be chafe, when it comes to leather hot pants?

Alas, leather shorts are probably the edgiest way to do the trend, along with high-waisted denim, but the most flattering styles tend to be either above the knee, tailored city shorts (try APC's navy 'Catherine' shorts) or silky shorts. When there's volume involved, the fabric needs to drape elegantly rather than bunch in a Tudor knickerbocker fashion – Whistles have a nice silk striped pair. Shorts-suits are risky territory; a warning that comes too late for Ms Paltrow and the shimmery white version she wore to the 'Iron Man 2' premiere. Instead, tailored styles look best with a loose top, such as a silk T-shirt or oversized shirt, while structured jackets or boyfriend blazers will offset more fluid styles. Balance the top and the bottom and there's more chance of looking sublime than ridiculous.