Swim Trunks as Shorts?

Publication: The Wall Street Journal
Year: 2019

IN THE 1996 DOCUMENTARY “The Endless Summer,” two surfers embark on an adventure around the world. The film teems with epic swells, sun-drenched beaches and devil-may-care surfers in smart swim trunks. Those retro beach bums love their waterproof shorts so much that they wear them on dry land as if they were regular shorts. In one scene, the fashion rule-breakers pair trunks with a blue oxford shirt and cardigan sweater; in another, with a crisp white polo shirt. It turns out these overenthusiastic swimwear devotees were onto something: In 2019, trunks-as-shorts are having another moment in the sun. 

Today, even non-surfers like Brandon Mahler, a remodeling consultant in balmy Houston, are subbing in swim suits for traditional shorts, finding them a sporty, moisture-wicking, often expressively patterned option. “I was having a hard time trying to find a short I liked for the hot Texas summers,” explained Mr. Mahler, 28. “Once I started wearing [swim trunks] I couldn’t stop.” His collection ranges from a simple black pair from Acne Studios to louder styles from Outdoor Voices and Nike . He said he finds the waterproof fabric and drawstring waistband more comfortable than true shorts, while the trunks’ short inseam length and untimid colors deliver the flashy, athletic style he wants. A bonus? Trunks can do double duty as low-maintenance workout gear while on the road. “I’ll hand wash them and dry them in the hotel room,” he said. “They dry fast so they’re usually ready to go again in the morning.”

Patterned bathing suits can make chino shorts look lamely staid. “I think swimwear has been a great opportunity for many guys to play with prints,” said Colin Tunstall, the co-founder of Saturdays NYC, a surf-rooted clothing label that offers trunks in wide colored stripes and an abstracted palm-leaf print. Since men have historically been more open to experimenting with prints while poolside with a mai tai, designer brands like Loro Piana and Hermès as well as swimwear staples like Vilebrequin offer extensive variations on this theme. Still, if you're going to try trunks-as-shorts, we recommend you limit wilder prints, like leopard, to the beach and stick to tasteful stripes or quiet flora and fauna for jaunts around your neighborhood.

To underscore the versatility of the trunks on its website, Saturdays NYC showcases them on shirtless models conceivably about to get drenched, but also shows each suit styled as part of a head-to-toe city look, worn with polo shirts, Windbreakers and button-ups. Fittingly, Mr. Tunstall cites the aesthetic of “The Endless Summer” as an inspiration, though he knows that many of his customers don’t surf. “You see a lot of people putting these on that will never get in the water. They’re just worn around the city.”

Yet for all their charms, many swim trunks have maritime details that translate poorly to everyday wear. They may lack pockets (which can trap water while swimming), forcing you to carry your keys and cards in a bag, or be fitted with a cumbersome mesh lining. Jason Stewart, 38, a Los Angeles brand strategist who has worn trunks as shorts for years, just snips the liner out. “Myself and some friends co-opted the phrase ‘brains blown out’ which [to us] means buying shorts that have the liner built in, and then cutting it out,” he said. Sporting a pair of Patagonia trunks to the coffee shop is his small way of rebelling against the ho-hum J.Crew “tailored dress short” style that is prevalent across the U.S.

It’s not all sartorial revolt though. Mr. Stewart has stumbled upon a curious advantage of his moisture-wicking shorts: They’re somewhat stain-proof. “If some aioli lands on my thigh, it’ll dry after an hour and scratch right off.” On regular cotton shorts, a stain like that would make for an endless bummer. ■