If you randomly ask anyone around the world what comes to mind when mentioning the word “Bermuda,” you typically will get one of two answers—the Bermuda Triangle or Bermuda shorts. I’ll save the mystery topic for another writer and will focus instead on the subject of shorts.
The fashion icon known as the Bermuda short had practical beginnings dating back to the first half of the twentieth century when British officers stationed in Bermuda found the weather too warm for their traditional long uniform trousers. It was not uncommon for the British military to adapt their uniform based on the climate, but little did anyone realise that an enduring worldwide fashion statement would emerge from our tiny little island. Prior to this, short pants were usually reserved for boys’ wear. Even Winston Churchill commented after a visit here in the ’40s: “The short-pant is a terrible fashion choice, unless it is from Bermuda.”
Some say a wartime shortage of fabric in Bermuda was the spark to ignite the civilian adaption and acceptance of the short, which by design needed to be appropriate for even the most formal local occasion. Thanks to fashion-minded suppliers of this newly trending item, the cut-down military trouser evolved into a tailored garment made from quality wool, linen, cotton or a combination.
While men’s bodies differ, the important aspect is of course the inseam length which is supposed to end up about two inches above the knee. A proper hem greater than two inches was also essential to create a drape and crispness worthy of formal business wear. The accompanying kneesock was also borrowed from the military uniform but was made in a lighter wool blend. The navy blazer became the wardrobe staple that it still is today due to the fact that it could complement almost any brightly coloured short. Combined with a primary-hued kneesock the look is complete. This is all still true today.
The comfortable new attire also resonated with Bermuda’s growing number of tourists who often stayed for extended periods of time. Visitors seeking a comfortable, more casual but smart-looking alternative found what they needed. The short, sold in local businesses lining Front Street, was versatile! Newly minted fashion icons such as John and Jackie Kennedy photographed relaxing in Hyannisport in Bermudas helped make our shorts a “must-have” in the wardrobes of men and women all over North America.
Since I was born in the ’60s, I can really only comment on the evolution of the Bermuda short business locally since the ’70s through today. Back in the ’70s and ’80s a majority of the shorts were either a wool or linen blend. Moygashel of Ireland produced a hearty linen blend used by many retailers. The island’s shopkeepers would have the fabric dyed by the suppliers in their choice of bright colours for the Bermuda market. Fabric was then shipped to Hong Kong or London or remained in Ireland to be stitched into shorts, trousers and jackets, all of which were popular then.
To me these were the glory days of the Bermuda short. Every man had to have at least a half dozen pair, adding a few new ones each year into the rotation as others were retired due to wear (or tear). Tourists with fat wallets were plentiful and they were eager to take home our quaint little shorts to the US, Canada or Europe. Large selections were always available at Trimingham’s, Smith’s, English Sports Shop, A.S. Cooper’s and Gibbons Company. Some had pleats, some didn’t. Some had belt loops; some had adjustable “Sansabelt” style waists with adjustable buttons on the side. Bermuda shorts, kneesocks, blazer and tie were essential and acceptable at work, out at dinner, even at weddings.
During the ’90s and into the new millennium there was a boom in international business in Bermuda. At first, many friends from offshore adopted the local attire and custom of wearing Bermuda shorts to work. That was until the dreaded American fad of “casual Friday” was imported to the island like a virus to our new Bermuda-based companies. It took a few years but eventually it became “casual every day” at many international companies, especially as many employees were not facing customers every day and the young guns enjoyed the comfort. Khakis and polo shirts became the norm with most gents keeping a dress shirt, blazer and tie behind the door for the occasional visiting boss, client or associate. In an effort to lure more customers, many restaurants and clubs no longer required jacket and tie at dinner. A whole new casual attitude was emerging in Bermuda.
The Bermuda short business was becoming more difficult. Fewer shorts were being purchased by customers, which meant that Bermudian retailers were ordering fewer. As we ordered fewer shorts, prices started to increase on both fabric and manufacturing—plus we couldn’t afford to offer as many colours due to manufacturing minimums. Everyone did their best to maintain this staple in their stores but return on investment was diminishing. Meanwhile, sales of casual shorts from the likes of Polo Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger and Nautica where increasing at a rapid pace. Many of us got out of the dress Bermuda short business completely, apart from the English Sports Shop which really was the only game in town, the last refuge for Bermuda short stalwarts.
Funnily enough while the Bermuda short experienced a commercial downturn locally it grew as an iconic Bermudian image overseas. Tourism and government officials still donned shorts at official overseas and local events. They even incorporated a pink short image in their “Feel the Love” campaign, which ran for a number of years. The Bermuda Summer Olympic teams always wore shorts for the opening and closing ceremonies as their national dress, but it wasn’t until Patrick Singelton braved sub-zero temperatures and appeared at the opening ceremony of the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, wearing sporty red Bermudas did the world really sit up and take notice. Broadcasters and millions of viewers thought that Patrick looked fantastic! The International Olympic Committee asked for the shorts to be given to the Olympic Museum where they are still on display. This fashionable event even made it to US national syndicated TV as a question on the hit television game show Jeopardy! Modern media had made the Bermuda short a household name once again. Patrick did it again in 2002 and 2006, as did subsequent Bermudian winter Olympian Tucker Murphy in 2010 and 2014.
International acclaim and the recognition of this on a European fashion runway started a renewed interest in the Bermuda short around 2012, primarily in the ladies’ market. Positive trend reports from the fashion intelligentsia and media made it official. Men’s clothing manufacturers recently retooled their short offerings, offering longer, more tapered models in various brightly coloured fabrics, reminiscent of our traditional short.
You might want to use the familiar expression “what is old is new again” but today there is a difference. Nobody has recognised this better that Rebecca Hanson, founder and designer of TABS (an acronym for the authentic Bermuda short). Rebecca has put a modern twist on her shorts, offering a very high-quality short in fantastic bright colours. Her cotton twill shorts have a slightly more casual look than a traditional dress short due to the fabric, but that’s part of the fun and also is what gives them versatility. They are designed to take you from the golf course to the board room. E
ach TABS short features a Bermuda Triangle motif (the other icon!) and a triangular belt loop. Hanson told the Royal Gazette earlier this year: “The triangle runs throughout. There’s a whole lot of Bermuda inside every pair.”
The TABS short has been tremendously successful in a very short time. A. S. Cooper Man is the “bricks and mortar” supplier of this short and I can tell you that the reaction has been unprecedented. Demand has outstripped supply to the point where there was a shortage of sizes and colours for a short period this summer as Rebecca scrambled to have more of her shorts made. Without knowing it, Rebecca has created another quintessential Bermudian brand that could be as strong as Goslings Black Seal Rum, Outerbridge’s Sherry Pepper Sauce or Lili Bermuda perfumes. Bill Hanbury, head of the Bermuda Tourism Authority, sports bright, beautiful TABS shorts almost daily. If that isn’t the seal of approval I don’t know what is.
The Bermuda short is alive and well in 2014 and the future looks bright. The glory days may be upon us again!