Paul Mescal can pull off short-shorts, but can ordinary men? | Barbara Ellen

Something strange is happening to men’s shorts. They’re no longer shorts, rather they’re short-shorts. Last week, Normal People actor Paul Mescal, soon to appear in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator 2, went viral after rocking up at the Gucci menswear show in Milan wearing short-shorts. “I’m a big advocate for men wearing shorter shorts,” said Mescal, an official Gucci ambassador. Teamed with a shirt, loafers and socks yanked up to mid-calf, his shorts were indeed extremely short. A casual observer might think Mescal was standing in the street in his pants.

Mescal, it transpires, is a dedicated all-weathers shorts fan. But this is beyond The Mescal Effect, or even the leggy musculature on display during Euro 2024. Short-shorts are everywhere: on catwalks; worn by the likes of Harry Styles; wafting around social media as a “thigh guy summer” hashtag.

In some cases, it’s not just about the shortness, it’s also the snugness (all I can say is, please Google responsibly). Is it progress that it’s now women’s turn to not know where to look? Indeed, as liberating as short-shorts could be for men, they could also represent reverse sexism in action. Young women, especially, are redressing the male-female ogling ratio, just as previous generations have done (think: Nick Kamen clambering out of his jeans in the launderette in the fabled Levi’s 501 advert). Instead of “hot girl summer”, it could be “female gaze summer” for a change.

That said, would what’s acceptable on the likes of Mescal be just as darling on your brother, partner or dad? How about male co-workers wriggling into the office in racy buttock-skimmers? As women are still routinely pressured to be bikini-ready, I feel emboldened to ask: are British men short-shorts ready?

A wild guess says probably not. British men have form for not even wearing long shorts properly. There’s usually no “prep” (exercising/tanning/suitable footwear). As soon as the sun shines, the vast majority pop them on with porridge-pale legs and any old shoes, resembling shifty 1970s-era scout leaders most of the time. I can’t talk (my bare legs look like something being sorrowfully examined in a pathology lab in an episode of Silent Witness), but then I’m not flashing them around. Men don’t care, which is at once deeply admirable and patriarchal social conditioning 1.0. Yet more proof that they aren’t trained from the cradle to fret over every millimetre of their bodies.

Then there are the double standards. Micro-shorts are also trending for women, but too often it seems that anything showing any part of the female body (cleavage, midriff, thighs) is enough to provoke the slut-shaming hordes. Is this as true for men? Or is it the case that, whatever they wear, however skimpy and provocative, they’re not accused of “slutty” desperation, “pathetically” thirsting for attention, or letting down their entire sex, as women habitually are whenever they show some flesh.

It says everything that, at worst, Mescal’s short-shorts prompted a few bemused giggles. If they are the latest sexual-political minefield, it’s still very different for boys.

skip past newsletter promotion

Barbara Ellen is an Observer columnist

The Guardian