Philip Hensher: The answer lies in the length of men's shorts

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The Independent Online

The early outbreak of summer made me crack open the hot-weather wardrobe. In the way of these things, it turned out to contain, like Tutankhamun's tomb, treasures dating back practically to the dawn of time, favourite old T-shirts, ancient cracking pairs of sandals, and, especially, a long run of pairs of shorts. Some were 10 years old; others were from just last year.

The odd thing was that pretty well all my shorts turned out to be roughly the same length; descending from just below the knee to mid-calf. Had fashion in short-lengths really changed so little in 10 years? Apparently so. Roaming the streets, an almost universal tendency towards shorts bang on the knee to, roughly, two or three inches below was clear, with an occasional cargo pant or cut-off. Above the knee, nothing.

Now, I like to think I've been a pioneer in shorts since youth, working the knee-length-with-espadrilles look in 1983 and the mid-calf since the late 1990s. Some pairs of my sandals, this year, looked ludicrous or embarrassing at first glance; on the other hand, I don't think I've had any incentive to reconsider styles in shorts for some time now.

As you will have guessed, this is really a column about economics. There is a long-standing theory, the origins of which nobody seems able to pin down, about skirt length and economic optimism, which runs that in good times, skirts are short; during downturns, they lengthen.

As far as I can discover, the theory started in the era of the mini-skirt, with some ex-post-facto analysis of the rise and fall of skirts in the 1920s and 1930s. My observation on a hot London Saturday night was that skirt lengths seem all over the place, with perhaps a tendency towards the on-the-knee prom-style dress. I don't know what the theory would do, however, with the horrid and ambivalent spectacle of a mini-skirt over gloomy black leggings.

The combination of mass trends, conscious decisions and subconscious pressures which we call popular fashion has been subject to some investigation. There's a completely ludicrous book from 1953 by Edmund Bergler called Fashion and the Unconscious which set a series of hares running, notably the one about women's fashion being so hideous because of being designed by homosexuals who hate them. In the case of economic indicators, I would say that the lengths of men's shorts might be more telling than the various and bewildering behaviour of skirts.

The last mass gesture of confidence in shorts came with the move, two or three years back, into the mid-calf. That has clearly retreated now, and nervousness may be to blame. Like me, many men must have got out their old shorts this weekend, and either thought, "I'm not going to spend money on new ones," or gone out, and replaced them as exactly as possible.

It does feel, and not just in the specific area of shorts-buying, as if a mood of pre-emptive retrenchment is in the air, and as the economic gales start to blow, nobody is quite willing to make the first move in any new direction. In small things and large, it might be as well not to act too boldly, just at the moment.

As for me, I've been trying to think what the ideal leg-baring outfit is for the first summer of recession, largely created by one Scotsman, in the face of which another Scotsman seems all but helpless. Well, at the other end of the wardrobe, there happens to be a kilt; an old but serviceable one, as it happens.

How to strike the right note

* The Classical Brit Awards, that puzzling phenomenon, was heralded by the appearance of Sarah Brightman in leather, Miss Hayley Westenra on the back of a motorbike and a boy band called Blake. The awards themselves went to such distinguished artists as Sir Colin Davis, Steven Isserlis and Anna Netrebko, none of whom got much public acknowledgement.

I suppose, in Sir Colin's case, being the best living proponent of Berlioz counts for nothing if you can't carry off a leather miniskirt. The classical music world must be terribly lacking in self-confidence to allow its best talents to be concealed behind what, really, are nothing more than the purveyors of easy-listening selections.

* A lot of people made the same point about a prospective Conservative victory in the forthcoming Crewe by-election. It would be the first Conservative by-election win since 1982. The trouble is, it's not true. I would have thought William Hague's entry to parliament on a Richmond by-election in 1989 might, even now, be fairly well remembered, but clearly not so. Did it not strike anyone as odd that, even in their decade of triumph, the 1980s, the Conservatives were so universally unpopular that they couldn't win by-elections? The stigma and shame runs deep, and, until very recently, it was a task to find anyone prepared to have voted Conservative even in the 1980s. Polling organisations extensively found before the 1992 election that Labour were about to win. Asking again, five years later, how its sample had voted last time round, one polling organisation found to its great surprise that Labour, apparently, really had won in 1992. Give it another 20 years, and no doubt that will be a generally-held belief.

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