The shorts story
LODESTAR - Danton Remoto (The Philippine Star) - October 17, 2020 - 12:00am

In this tropical weather, the discovery, or rather, the recovery, of the shorts as appropriate for outdoor wear is one of the most significant fashion finds. I still recall those days when my mother would ask me to change into something “more presentable” when I’d venture out of the house. That meant a pair of long pants: double knit and gabardine in the 1970s, corduroy in the 1980s and, then and now, the old reliable red-tag Levi’s 501.

When I was studying at Ateneo in the early 1980s, we could not wear shorts in school, except in our Physical Education classes. Only the jocks of the basketball team would dare wear shorts on campus.

But when I came back to Ateneo in 1986 to teach and take my MA at the same time, the world had changed. Both boys and girls were wearing shorts with sangfroid. They moved around the campus in their casual chic, as if it were the most natural thing in the world to do. I was mildly shocked. So this is what growing old means, I told myself.

But why not? Why not wear shorts if that would make you more comfortable in the deadly heat of this country?

Wearing shorts goes a long way back. It was called calzoncillo, shorts that went past the knees. I heard my father use this term when he would talk to my mother and grandmother in Bikolano. During the Philippine Revolution of 1898, young boys wearing calzoncillo acted as couriers from one battle front to another. Thin rolls of paper inscribed with coded messages were sewn inside the hems of the calzoncillos.

Verily, this was a revolution not only of guns but also of words. The “symbolic activism” that Eric San Juan articulated finds an image here. San Juan’s “symbolic activism” means “symbols that are formed by community experience that can be appropriated to signify the popular will.”

Later, that calzoncillo became part of men’s wear but only at home and in the back yard. Through the years, severe rules on clothing were handed down by the American colonizers and by the books. Among them were “Urbana at Feliza” and “Nena at Neneng,” guide books for good, lowland Christian behavior as opposed to the “bandido,” or the rebellious bandits, in the mountains and the “uncivilized folk” who lived there.

The concentric ripples produced by these guide books of good behavior can still be seen in how some characters are drawn on Philippine television and film. If you were a child (excusable because cute) or if you are old (excusable because you were senile), you could wear shorts outside the house. But teenagers and fathers couldn’t and, of course, it was taboo for women to wear shorts before.

But this is the Philippines, please, where the jeweled islands lie on the edge of the Pacific Ocean and north of the burning equator. Ernest Hemingway was here in 1940, on a brief visit. He stayed at the Manila Hotel and tried to write in all that heat, but failed. He read some of the short stories of Manuel Arguilla and said to a gathering of writers that he liked what he read. “But tell me,” he added, “how on earth could you write in this heat?”

Later on, there would be modulations on the calzoncillo. In the 1970s, we were wearing colorful shorts at home: either shiny basketball shorts or plain cotton shorts. My sisters wore loose floral shorts. We wore shorts in school and changed into long pants when we moved on to high school. It was an event to be able to wear long pants, a sign that one was already a teenager. Those teenage years filled us with expectation and dread.

In the mid-70s, Dolphy and Nida Blanca starred in the iconic TV series, “John en Marsha.” Dolphy always wore his John Puruntong shorts, which later morphed into JPs that flooded the country from Divisoria to Davao. It was long, plain and loose – and very functional. In the mid-1980s came the walking shorts, with the colors of the Scottish Highlands Tartar tribes being the design of choice. Along with them came the beach bum shorts, with the blazing colors of the California sun.

There was a boom in the production and wearing of shorts. Later modulations took the form of the cycling shorts and boxer shorts – and they were worn in public.

It began in London in the 1980s, when cycle couriers began blooming on the streets. “Blooming” is an apt word, indeed, for the shorts came in all colors imaginable, turning gray London into a new blur of Lycra.

Lycra was justly called the fashion fabric of those times. A British writer for the style rag I.D. Magazine wrote: “As the fitness ethic infiltrated fashion, the baggy hide-it-all shrank to a blatant show-it-all courtesy of the stretchy fabric that hugs every inch of flab and lovingly embraces every well-honed muscle.”

Moreover,, the fashion icons Jean-Paul Gaultier and Katharine Hamnett adapted the cycling shorts in their hip fashion shows. Like ideas, the fashion trend crossed continents and reached us through the United States, which is still the major source of fashion ideas in our country.

After the cycling shorts came the boxer shorts. It had always been there in the UK, but on Boxing Day in 1985, Levi’s had a launderette ad showing the model Nick Kamen stripping down to his boxers. The effect was electric. Soon, fashion designers and high-street stores were producing boxer shorts like anything. It could even be found in as common a store as Marks & Spencer. The good thing about boxing shorts was that it took away the VPL (visible panty line) for men.

In a tropical country like ours, we can hang loose and keep cool by wearing shorts for informal wear. We should welcome the shorts in its various modulations. But it will only keep us really cool if we wear it the way it should be worn: with a dash of nonchalance and elan.

Penguin Random House has just published my novel, “Riverrun,” available at Email:

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