By ERIC WILSON
NEW YORK -- IN the late 19th century, Oscar Wilde was ridiculed for his views on fashion, specifically that men should follow the enlightened example of women in the Victorian era: lighter fabrics, brighter colors and generally more comfortable clothes. A parody of Wilde in Punch caricatured a man wearing shorts as effeminate and wimpy.
At the same time, English literary journals also began to suggest a less regimented dress code for men than the prevailing dark suit, and by the 1920’s, the idea had become a serious movement with the formation of the Men’s Dress Reform Party. None of its ideas got anywhere. Valerie Steele, the director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, said such movements were considered so leftist, associated with utopianism or vegetarianism, “that men thought they would be moving to some ideal of nonfashion or total nudity.”
Last week during the heat wave, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg suggested New Yorkers wear light-colored, loose-fitting clothing, though he continued showing up to work in a dark suit. His remarks drew the same tone of derision as Wilde suffered. Gawker.com posted an old photo of Mr. Bloomberg in shorts with readers’ comments like “What can brown do for you?” and “Mikey is escorted to his first day of school by gigantic lesbian bodyguards.”
Nevertheless, I, neither vegetarian nor nudist, wore shorts to work on Thursday. It was partly a show of civic-mindedness, but also a way of redressing the disparity between men, who wear a stifling suit and tie to the office in summer, and women, who breeze by in ventilated cotton eyelet skirts with loose silk camisoles or the bubble silhouette dress of the season that barely seems to graze the body.
And clearly I was not alone in noticing this double standard. The designer Cynthia Rowley had been reading a report from The Associated Press that day that advised women to prepare for the heat wave by wearing dresses, but offered no guidance for men. “I should go down to Wall Street and set up a little booth where I could cut off their pants legs and hem them into shorts,” she said. “But they would have to throw away their socks.” There was a short-lived shorts moment in the 1950’s, abbreviated for that reason.
It is not so easy for men to put together a cool shorts outfit as designers would suggest: shorts suits were the big message for spring men’s wear shown in Milan by designers like Miuccia Prada and Raf Simons for Jil Sander. You can imagine there are men’s magazine articles in the works about the effects of global warming on fashion.
I wore a dressy pair of low-waisted, narrow knee-length navy twill shorts from Joseph, a white dress shirt, brown loafers (no socks) and a tightly tailored gray jacket from Thom Browne, another designer who put shorts suits in his fall collection. I found myself cooler, strangely confident and, because of that, walking more gaily than usual.
But on the street, people stared. Some took pictures.
“What country are you from?” asked Joe Gianotti, an insurance executive, who was eating lunch with Jim Silverberg, a manager at the New York Public Library, in Bryant Park, where the temperature approached 100 degrees. Mr. Silverberg wore long sleeves and a tie. Mr. Gianotti had taken his tie off and described himself as something unprintable for wearing it at all.
“It is unfair,” he said. “Women wear flip-flops and miniskirts, and some of them even have their stomachs out. But if I wore shorts, they’d make a big deal of it in the office. You look around, and all the men have long pants on, so it’s obvious that you have to wear them. We’re not in Bermuda.”
“Shorts are against library policy,” Mr. Silverberg added. “Though women tend to get away with them.”
But why does this have to be so? On Wall Street, I was surprised to discover that with the exception of two suits, and the many tourists, the male dress code had already adjusted to the heat. And yet everyone was dressed exactly alike: instead of a suit it was a dress shirt, either white or cobalt with the top button open, and trousers. The uniformity was startling, but apparently comforting as well. Two men — wearing clunky lace-up shoes, thick belts and sunglasses meant for extreme surfing — were pointing at my shorts and laughing.
The philosopher J C Flügel explained a similar reaction to dress reformers in the 1930’s as rooted in “man’s intense fear of appearing different from his fellows” and also fear of association with tendencies of narcissism and homosexuality. I went ahead walking more gaily.
Still, it struck me as defeatist that Mayor Bloomberg would not take his own advice and lighten up. “There are red lines that men won’t cross,” said Michael Anton, a former speechwriter for President Bush who now works for Rupert Murdoch at News Corp. Under the pseudonym Nicholas Antongiavanni, Mr. Anton wrote “The Suit,” a book on corporate style.
“Shorts, for the immediate future, are a step too far,” he said. “If we ended up dressing identically for work and for leisure pursuits, men would feel intuitively that something has been lost.”
Comfort, for one thing. But on Friday I wore pants.