Many of us have a love/hate relationship with shorts. Love: the weather, activities, and casual vibe that go along with wearing them. Hate: finding and styling shorts for our real and fantastic bodies, rather than that of a stick figure with really great skin.
Shorts in and of themselves are not the enemy. The problem is the way in which they break up the line of vision. We’ve previously discussed on this blog how the eye likes to run unhindered in the vertical line of an ensemble. This is why the Duchess of Cambridge so often wears a monochrome coat and dress, and looks fantastic in every single picture ever taken, including the days she must be in a crazy-bad mood. Shorts* throw a block of contrasting color in the middle of an outfit, causing the eye to stutter over your mid section. Add to this a top that may or may not bunch up all funny and your shorts angst makes perfect sense.
So here’s a guide to the three basic shapes of shorts, and a number of other options in case you still aren’t sold on shorts at the end of this article:
Shorts come in three general shapes: Rectangle, square, triangle. The trick is to figure out which woks best for your body and activity, and what to wear with each.
A rectangle shape can run from a full on Bermuda short to a mid-thigh pair of hiking shorts. They come through season after season in different fabrics and patterns, but they remain a fashion staple. They are practical for outdoor activities, and can be dressed up easier than short shorts. You just have to keep them from looking frumpy.
You want your rectangle shape to say “I chose these shorts because they are fantastic and fit my busy, active lifestyle,” not, “I don’t want anyone to see my thighs.” A floppy top hanging over a pair of ill-fitting long shorts is among the most awkward ensembles out there. It’s also the signature look of middle school boys.
To keep from looking like an Oompa loompa in your rectangle shorts…
- Wear a slightly fitted top, like a heavier weight v-neck t-shirt, a nicely structured polo, a button down.
- Or, if you choose a looser fitting top, make sure it finishes at your high hip. Ideally, it should still show a little of your shape
- Show some collarbone. Anything from a modest boat-neck top to a spaghetti strap tank will help draw the eye up.
- Beyond your choice of top, keep your longer shorts simple. Unless you really need the extra pocket space, skip cargo shorts. Make sure they fit well, the pockets lie flat, and the waist hits you at that perfect point. It is not weird to have your shorts altered to fit you correctly.
Think a great pair of denim cut offs, or soft linen shorts you slip into after work, a square shape is classic. By far the most common short shape, the wrong square shorts run the risk of being too short, too long, bunching up and generally looking like a ratty mess of fabric wadded up in the middle of our outfit. Squares can be comfortable, easy to move in, and have an easy, casual vibe. It’s time you find the right pair. Here are a few tips
- Try sizing up. You are on the go in the summer, or in the hammock. Neither scenario calls for anything pinching against your skin.
- The top options are endless with the classic square: a fitted tank, a sweet peasant blouse, a chunky fisherman’s sweater in the evening. Just be sure that you have a good 3 inches of shorts showing below the hem of your top.
- Go for a fabric that moves. I can’t tell you how many wrinkly, stiff pairs of square shorts I have tried to make a go of. Soft linen, denim and synthetic fabrics feel and ultimately look better.
- Make sure the waist stays where you want your waist to be. Squares, like all pants, may have a tendency to slide down. This can produce an uneven waistline that looks particularly ridiculous.
- Consider a flat, wide elastic waist. I don’t know what genius thought of attaching this waistband to shorts but it is comfortable, flattering and perfect for a half-tuck.
Marilyn Monroe, Meghan Trainor, Jennifer Lopez, these women have all shown us the beauty of a triangle short. Fitted at the waist, flaring out over the behind, these shorts are feminine and attractive. These have never found a place in my active wardrobe, but if you’ve figured out a way to take these into the woods, let me know.
- Tuck in your top. To make the most of this shape, you need to show your waist.
- Fitted tops work best. You’ve got a lot of fabric going on with these so you need to keep proportions balanced.
- To make the shape work, they really do have to be short, with a 4 in inseam or shorter.
- Because the look is retro, try to add a few modern, grown up details like a leather cuff bracelet or a strong pendant necklace. Triangle shirts with a gingham top, pigtails and pearls is a bit too precious.
Commonly asked questions:
Q: Can I wear the same shape of shorts all summer, or should I mix it up?
A: No mixing is necessary. Ever. If you’re rocking the rectangle no one is going to question it. I spent all last summer in squares and managed to evade the fashion police successfully.
Q: What are the best colors for shorts?
A: Navy, black, denim, deep red and olive are the easiest colors to work with. They don’t show dirt, and dark bottoms tend to ground an outfit. With these colors you will have a lot of options for tops. That said, there are a lot of fun patterned shorts out there in bright colors. The eye will be drawn to the brightest, lightest, busiest part of an outfit, if you want that to be your shorts, go for it.
Q: Should I invest in active or tailored shorts?
A: Tailored shorts can look amazing, but unless your workplace gives a nod to shorts, they aren’t super practical on a Mud-and-Grace scale. If you run a lot of errands all summer, are vacationing in a city, or are just an uncommonly neat person, go for it. Otherwise, more active styles and fabrics can be worn neatly for town chores, and still take a beating on camping trips, gardening and other summer adventures.
Q: Can I wear a tunic top with shorts?
A: It’s pretty difficult to pull that off without a kindergarten art-smock vibe. Fitted ankle skimmers are a better option for tunic tops, unless you are a tunic master, in which case please send me a picture.
Q: If I’m over 40, do I have to follow the One Skin Rule?
A: I like to think of “One Skin” as an interesting option, rather than a rule. Blogger Erin Busbee, of Busbee Style, suggests only showing one area of skin per ensemble. So if you go with a tank top, you would wear long pants. In shorts, you would choose a long-sleeve top. These ensembles look great. One Skin is a nice guideline for work or more dressed up occasions for women of any age. Even Ms. Busbee, who lives in Texas, admits there are days so hot that she throws out her own rule. Most of my summer days don’t include anything even bordering on dress up, and my shorts and tops are modest enough I don’t feel like the one skin rule is necessary.
Q: Do I have to wear shorts at all?
A: Nope. Read on, my friend.
How not to wear shorts
One of my favorite things about growing up is figuring out I don’t have to wear anything I don’t want to.** You can find cool, active, summer appropriate clothes that will never, ever call to mind lederhosen.
Skirts / skorts
There are so many fantastic summer options for skirts and skorts.*** From sport weight fabrics to classic chino or denim, you can grab your favorite and go. Just look at the shape (Rectangle? Square? Triangle?) and style accordingly.
Wide leg pants
A pair of light, wide leg pants and a tank top is a classic summer look. If this is you, rock it all summer long and never look back.
An easy pair of sport weight joggers are great for running errands, or hiking though poison oak infested hillsides.
My grandma wore an easy summer shift dress with pockets everyday, all summer long.**** In this look she gardened, pickled, canned, dealt with all manner of cats, dogs, cattle and hogs in the sweltering mid-west summer heat. This is your official endorsement to wear a dress all summer long if you want to.
Have a picture of yourself in your favorite pair of shorts or other summer ensemble? Send it in to firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll run it in Inspiration.
* which are much more appropriate for a camping trip than a monochrome coat and dress.
*** skorts are now skirts with shorts sewn into them, not the skirt in front, shorts in back abomination that was popular 20+ years ago.
**** with the exception of Sunday mornings, when she might be inclined to rock a pantsuit.