It used to be that if a grown woman were wearing shorts, it would be for purely utilitarian, counter-style moments: jogging, errands on a hot Saturday, a trip to the Laundromat. That is no longer the case.
There is the return of the ’60s high-waisted hot pants, sent down the runway this season by Erin Fetherston and L.A.M.B. There is the Bermuda short that reaches right above the knee, from Tory Burch ($195) and BCBG Max Azria ($138), for the BlackBerry clutching gals in midtown, and the neat little cuffed and expertly tailored Fanciful Short by Alice and Olivia ($165) and Badgley Mischka ($138), preferred by those going for a Lower East Side look, like the actress Kirsten Dunst. There is even the Carolina Herrera Cocktail Short ($990) and the mid-thigh, pleated silk Duchess Short by Dolce & Gabbana ($1,450), for the uptown gala-goer. And Forever 21 carries 112 reinterpretations of all the above for under $25.
“We’re seeing a shift in the marketplace, with tailored dressier shorts in nicer fabrics,” said Danielle de Marne, women’s fashion director at the upscale mini-chain Scoop NYC. “Usually when you wanted shorts, you had your chinos, your denim shorts and your athletic shorts, but now there are designers like Matthew Williamson and Dries Van Noten doing beautiful printed silk and satin shorts.”
And the white-collar woman is succumbing in droves.
“It’s amazing how many women I see wearing shorts in my office building,” said Kayt Barnes, 28, a management consultant for Bank of America, who was standing in line with her fiancé, 28-year-old Kevin Szulwach, at Shake Shack last Friday afternoon. “It’s odd, I see a lot of cuffed shorts and dressier longer shorts in the lobby next to women in business suits.”
Ms. Barnes herself was wearing a pair of cuffed $59 Michael Kors shorts with frontal button detail that Mr. Szulwach had picked out for her.
“I never intended for her to wear them to work,” he said. “I just thought they were a good casual going-out short.”
“I’m off today!” she clarified.
But that same day, we found 26-year-old Yana Yelina, an architect who works for O’Neil Langan Architects, walking up Broadway on her lunch break wearing fitted $180 beige Bermuda shorts by Theory. “The other day, three of us girls in the office were all wearing shorts and my boss, who is 43, looked at us and said, ‘When I was your age, I could never wear those to work,” Ms. Yelina said, admitting that she only wears them when she doesn’t have any meetings lined up.
Theories abound as to why fully mature women are suddenly opting for the girlish short.
“I think it’s about being functionally dressed—gas prices are crazy, you have to walk more, it’s a more practical look,” said Ms. de Marne. But Sass Brown, an assistant professor of fashion and design at FIT suggested just the opposite. “Sometimes fashion is a rejection of what’s happening in the world,” she said. “Certainly America is not experiencing a great economy right now and shorts are fun clothing, they’re a return to rosier times and thoughts.”
Um, yeah, maybe. But here’s another thought: As girls, we used to dress up in our mother’s shoulder-padded blouses and pencil skirts and model them in front of the mirror with a circle of red lipstick around our lips. We were impatient for the day when we could wear such marvelous things. Our shorts were stupid and infantile, the barrier between being seen as girls and women.
But now as adults, when given the option between a pencil skirt and the short, we’ve opted for the latter, in full keeping with our youth-obsessed culture: Guitar Hero! Fully waxed pubic regions! Comic-book heroes!
When the short makes an appearance in pop culture—think Jodie Foster’s trampy hot pants paired with a belly-exposing floral shirt and wide brimmed hat in Taxi Driver; Sissy Spacek wearing those teeny white shorts alongside the James Dean-ish Martin Sheen in Badlands; and Heather Graham as Roller Girl in Boogie Nights, rolling around the disco floor in those titillating shorts that exposed the lower half of her bum—it is often a symbol of adolescence and purity.
A citywide refusal to enter adulthood might also explain the reemergence of the cutoffs: those worn-in shorts cut from vintage Wrangler or Levi’s jeans commonly found on the long-legged models riding vintage bicycles around our streets. (See Agyness Deyn, Kate Moss.)
Even this street style is not safe from the high-end retailers. Scoop offers a cutoff short made from vintage jeans by a brand called What Comes Around Goes Around for $165; Intermix carries a pair of Elizabeth and James suspender cutoffs for $275—a long way from a pair of $9 Wranglers widely available at the city’s thrift stores.
“It looks adorable if it’s a little baggy, if it looks like you borrowed your boyfriend’s jeans and chopped them off and has that look of carelessness and use,” said Sally Singer, fashion news and features editor of Vogue. “It’s the look of teenage life in the ’70s when there wasn’t much fashion around and you just chopped off your jeans and had a Big Gulp at 7-Eleven. But it’s also unforgiving and it certainly helps to be a model.”
Ms. Singer argued that shorts are not really news. “What is new is the profusion of funny pants on the runway,” she said. “The droopy crotch, I Dream of Genie type of number that blurs the line between skirt, pant and odd object—that have made the Bermuda or the abbreviated clam digger suddenly seem very neat and tailored.”
Not every woman, in any case, is willing to revisit her childhood wardrobe. “Those short shorts on women not in their teens….” mused Miriam Molnar, a 37-year-old freelance writer. “They really don’t look good.”