It’s easy to remember the heatwave of last summer through rose-tinted goggles: Soleros for lunch, long nights splayed out in parks and endless reggae playlists. But it is impossible for me to look back on what I wore over those warm months with the same affection.
Many British men – myself included – struggle with what to wear when it gets hot. The streets teem with cargo shorts that are more pocket than leg, sweaty Hawaiian shirts and faux-surfer prints. From Love Island contestants to fashion refuseniks who buy their clothes with their weekly shops, the “summer look” for men seems to be a one-size-fits-all approach of loud swimming shorts, polyester short-sleeved shirts and a slogan baseball cap. It is clothes bought from Asos in a hurry and leather bracelets picked up on past travels. It is an expression of masculinity that feels cheap and disposable – clothes that make some false promise of barbecuing ability.
In the colder months, men’s fashion is a happier prospect thanks to the recent proliferation of Danish and American workwear brands. Almost every city now has an independent mid-range menswear shop such as Norse Projects or Carhartt that make soft-palmed new-media workers look like sexy mechanics. Even men who are uninterested in clothes have benefited from the ubiquity of normcore slacks, tracksuits and grandad shirts on the high street.
But come June to September, even fashion experts struggle. “The first time it was hot this year, I got caught off guard,” says Eliot Haworth, the assistant editor of Fantastic Man. He was wearing too many layers and had to quickly change into shorts and a T-shirt. “I felt weird wearing them.” It made him think of the scene in Pulp Fiction where John Travolta and Samuel L Jackson have to change into Quentin Tarantino’s spare clothes because they are covered in blood. “When they come out, Tarantino says they look like a pair of dorks. And they do, and that’s what I looked like.”
“A lot of men treat summer the same way they do Christmas,” says the stylist Richard Sloan, who has dressed Chris Martin and Skepta. Just as it’s all festive jumpers and comedy socks come December, “It’s the same as soon as the sun comes out, men get out their comedy shirt and flip-flops.” In Britain, it could also be that we simply aren’t used to warmer weather, so when it arrives, we panic. Sloan, however, blames men themselves: “I think a lot of straight men let their girlfriends buy their clothes most of the year, then summer comes around and they go to H&M or Superdry and make … a bold purchase.”
If men are inclined to treat summer fashion as banter, it’s probably because they are goaded by the high street. On a reconnaissance mission to Westfield shopping centre in London, the mannequins in Uniqlo, the bastion of stylish winter basics, were decked out in safari jackets and Mario T-shirts as part of a collaboration with Nintendo. Weekday, the youthful H&M-owned fast-fashion store that has produced some stylish men’s clothes over the past few seasons, has a window full of novelty T-shirts, one showing a smiley face made out of the words “Feelin’ Good Vibes”; another, two kittens above the words “pussy run everything”.
The challenges of summer dressing extend beyond the clothes. The pressure to be “beach body ready” is nowhere near as severe for men as it is for women, but without winter’s jackets and jumpers, bumps and bulges tend to be accentuated rather than hidden. If, like me, you have tree-trunk legs and a rice-pudding torso, it’s easy to feel exposed.
Plus, it can feel like we have a small palette of clothes to play with. Until Topman starts making maxidresses, a shirt and shorts make up men’s summer uniform, but the look doesn’t work for everyone, and efforts to jazz it up can fall flat – see my graveyard of mint-green shorts and bright stripes for evidence.
The first step to stylish summer dressing is to get out of the silly T-shirt mentality and start seeing the possibilities for real fun. “Summer offers a moment to experiment – particularly living in a country where we have long and cold winters,” says Haworth. “Instead of being frightened we should embrace the opportunity to embody a different character, to change the way you hold yourself.” He looks to the catwalks for inspiration. At Prada, for instance, teeny-weeny micro shorts “that were just ridiculously small, like a handspan” were worn with “quite formal tops: blazers and rollnecks”. This might not suit everyone, but the pairing of formal and frivolous might present a fresh way of thinking.
At Marni, three-quarter-length trousers were worn baggy and mid-calf and could easily be worn to the park or the pub. Some version of them will be available on the high street before long – or, if you’re feeling brave, you could always take scissors to some full-length trousers you no longer wear.
According to Sloan, another way to approach summer clothes is wear what you do in winter, but slightly less of it, and perhaps accentuated by one or two key items, such as sunglasses. Accessories can fulfill that need people have to make a statement without being garish. Arket has some grown-up baseball caps.
Zara has cool knitted T-shirts and cotton-blend loose trousers. In summer, as ever, it pays to take high-street trends with a pinch of salt. “It’s in shops’ interests to push shorts on you,” adds Sloan. “Just because it’s there it doesn’t mean you should wear it.”
Often, it’s best to look beyond brands for inspiration. Something personal and simple – your dad’s old band T-shirt, the swimmers you picked up on holiday a decade ago – can become the perfect go-to. Summer is a time when it’s all about conviction: in Guava Island, Rihanna and Donald Glover’s recent short film, a simple pair of red shorts and an open floral shirt look heroic thanks to exactly that.
So once you’ve put your winter coats away in Ikea storage solutions for another year, instead of being fearful, see summer as an opportunity. “Expand your shorts repertoire, experiment with sock length,” says Haworth. “It’s summer: embody a character, wear a skirt, enjoy yourself.”
Summer style tips, by menswear editor Helen Seamons
1. From a trend standpoint, hems are short this season. But as we’ve mentioned before, just because it’s a trend, it doesn’t mean you have to wear it. Some high-street shorts can be too fitted in the leg. Often the denim is ripped, giving an Incredible Hulk effect to the average thigh. Arket’s denim shorts are more roomy, and for well-proportioned, well-made shorts, don’t forget those more wintry workwear brands such as Carhartt and Albam. Look for multipurpose pieces. All Saints’ Warden swim shorts double as regular shorts on holiday.
2. For trousers, look for cooler fabrics such as seersucker, and versatile colours such as navy that will work with lots of different top-halves. It’s worth a trawl of H&M and Zara; Asos White does a good wider-fit tapered leg cut; and there are great things to be had at Arket and Reiss. Community Clothing, a social enterprise set up to provide jobs and restore pride in Britain’s ailing textile industry, makes great-quality affordable basics. Their well-cut chinos should last long after the last summer barbecue.
If you’re on the shorter side look at cropped trouser styles – they may fit you as full length without any altering. If you do require something taking up or down, your local dry cleaner should be able to do it relatively cheaply.
3. Retailers are always pushing a loud Hawaiian shirt at this time of year. Tackle the trend in a dialled-down way by going monochrome and wearing open over a white crew-neck T-shirt or vest. All Saints has a subtle ecru version, or consider a secondhand purchase – vintage shops are full of them. Otherwise, opt for a paisley or small floral print, a la Donald Glover in Guava Island. Side note: When you find your perfect white T-shirt buy a few. As a coffee-spiller, I hesitate with a spenny T-shirt, so I like Hanes (they now ship to the UK), as well as the more sustainably made organic cotton ones from brotherswestand.com.
4. For a failsafe smart(ish) summer look, restyle that blue stripe or white shirt at the back of your wardrobe by rolling up the sleeves and wearing it over a vest or white T-shirt with shorts. This works for a utility shirt you might wear in winter, too. Most of your wardrobe can be reappropiated with a few styling tweaks or the addition of some shorts, a hat (bucket hats are big this season) and summer footwear.
5. Finally, if you do only one thing, ditch the flip-flops and opt for either trainers or sandals. Wear socks with your trainers. I would also team socks with sandals, but whatever feels right for you. Grenson has great leather sandals that will see you through many summers to come. If you’re splashing cash, Suicoke walking sandals are top notch, as are the more wallet-friendly Teva sandals.