Last month, a piece on the cargo shorts-wearing male provoked serious internet self-reflection. The nation was forced to grapple with whether the aggressively pocketed, silhouette-ruining item of clothing was a crime not just against fashion, but against romance itself.
The piece, by Nicole Hong for the Wall Street Journal, explored the way that shorts test relationships. In it, we heard from husbands who lamented their cargo shorts’ mysteriously disappearing from their wardrobes over the course of a marriage, and wives who used tactics to get rid of them ranging from “strong mocking” to secretly packing them off to thrift stores. Some men had a secret stash of cargo shorts they could only wear when their wives weren’t around; one described the act of putting them on alone as “disobedient.”
The reaction was swift and loud. It was cause for celebration for some: Ding-dong, cargo shorts are dead. But to others, those were fightin’ words: Cargo shorts are a God-given right. A few days later, Hong apologized for “igniting the Cargo Shorts Wars of 2016,” detailing the range of messages she’d received from readers — from wives who couldn’t forward it to their husbands fast enough, to men who weren’t particularly grateful for being made to feel so self-conscious.
It’s not hard to see why the debate went viral. It’s a battle of the sexes as old as time: Men want to remain their 25-year-old sartorial selves forever; women want to spruce those men up like any other room in the house. Such issues stir some of our most fundamental, retrograde notions about how power manifests itself in the home, keying into the stereotype of the hapless husband whose decorative input is relegated to one old chair, a man cave, a garage or some other designated space wherein they get to exist free from the ever-watchful female eye.
But in the midst of such broad gendered debates are just regular people trying to make regular relationships work — people who want to look good for one another, and who may be far more okay with giving up bad habits, whatever they may be, in the service of domestic harmony. We spoke to one such man, Dean, a 41-year-old actor from Australia who lives in Nashville with his wife Rita. They’ve been hitched since 2012, and he told us about what it was like to be slowly reformed in the name of love.
You described yourself in an email as having been an aficionado of flip-flops and cargo shorts before you met your wife.
Yeah, when I met Rita, I couldn’t give two shits about my wardrobe; it was all about practicality. I had four pairs of beige cargo shorts and four v-necks, and they were all either white or red. I had the same color palette for everything I owned. Eight pairs of dark jeans, no variation, all the exact same color and cut. And because I grew up in Australia, I was used to bare feet, so flip-flops. There was no messing around.
Did you wear this stuff on dates with Rita?
When we were dating, I wanted to make an effort, so I asked a female friend of mine what I should wear. She helped me find this gray corduroy shirt that I wore a T-shirt under. The first few times we went out, I wore that exact same thing.
How soon into meeting Rita did she comment about how you looked?
She was pretty polite about it for the first month. We started dating around winter, and I always thought she was so fashionable and always looked so well-put-together. I thought, Now I’ve got an outfit; everything is perfect.
Come spring, I had a bit of a meltdown because I had this one great outfit, but now, it was too warm. I started asking her opinion. I’d never cared before, but this was a woman I wanted to impress.
What would she say?
I would say, “What do you think of this? Does this look all right?” And she would go, “It’s fine.” I can usually tell when someone is bluffing. I was like, “Why don’t you tell me what you really think?” She was like, “Well, the flip-flops are a bit weird.”
How did that go over?
I immediately got self-conscious about it. I started thinking, It’s spring and it’s not okay to wear flip flops? Over the next six months, I became incredibly self-conscious about my wardrobe. Summer was a fiasco.
She came out to meet me in Puerto Rico. I picked her up from the airport in cargo shorts and flip-flops. That was it, she didn’t hold back. She goes, “Wow, bright blue flip-flops, that’s lovely!” Just sort of having fun at my expense. I imploded. I was like, “What the hell am I going to wear? It’s so hot.”
I never thought I was a bro; I just had practical outfits. I understood a basic color palette of what goes together with khaki. Everything was block colors, no patterns, no nothing. Rita has bought me things with a pattern on it, and it scrambles my brain. I don’t know what to do, or how to wear it. I’m not shitting you. She bought me this pink short-sleeved shirt that has black stripe-y triangles all over it. I’m like, “What the fuck do I do with that?”
You can’t wear it with your cargo shorts?
When I have to think, “Do pink and beige go together?” I self-destruct.
So you really had no idea?
She’ll say, “Wear that,” and I’ll say, “I don’t understand.” I just don’t have that side of me.
Was there a moment when you finally started to get it?
The wedding was a huge thing. She asked me what I wanted to wear. I thought, I’ll wear jeans, a plaid shirt, brown boots, a tie and maybe a waistcoat. I’d seen that in an article once, and I thought it would be low-key and cool. I don’t like wearing suits and that level of dress-up anyway. She, however, didn’t agree.
What did you end up wearing?
A $1,000 Hugo Boss suit. Before, I would look at Jos. A. Bank and think, I can get two suits for the price of one. Score! But I got that tailored Hugo Boss suit on, and I started to realize it felt good when I listened to her about what I was wearing.
So you ditched all the cargo shorts?
They’re gone. They were gone that first summer.
And the flip-flops?
They’re gone, too. She said, “They’ve got to go.”
What do you think might’ve happened if you’d resisted her efforts?
She would’ve initially given up, but I would’ve probably come around anyway. Because she makes such a wonderful effort on everything, and I look like such a fucking jabroni. That’s the nature of relationships, though, right? It wasn’t me letting her do whatever she wanted to me. It was about me loving her and wanting to be a part of her life as well.
Do you feel like you have better impulses now when you’re shopping?
Usually, but one day I got sent a pair of five-finger Vibram shoes. Things were pretty good with Rita at that point. I tried them on and said, “Holy God, these feel weird and awkward.” But when I walked around more in them, they felt really good. The day I put them on, the look on Rita’s face… She was mortified. It was like I’d stabbed a puppy.
Does it go both ways? Are you able to intervene about other aspects of your lives where it’s your input?
Well, I’m the main cook. If she had her way, we’d eat salads every night for the rest of our lives. I get her to eat spicy food like curry, and try different meats she would never eat. She was a vegetarian before; I’ve taken her on a culinary journey in some ways. And she’s tried to destroy my culinary journey by eating a lot more vegetables. We met each other halfway I guess.
So you pick your battles, like everyone.
I have a saying: I don’t want to die on that hill. I don’t feel manipulated, it’s just, “Rita wants me to wear that? I don’t want to die on that hill.”
Does she ever take it too far?
She talked me into buying some chambray-type shirt that had squiggly lines that looked like worms all over it. And I just can’t. I can’t. There was another variation on that one — a navy shirt with little lightning bolts on it. It made me feel like a douche at a Vegas nightclub.
Did she relent?
I think that’s a battle where she goes, “I can’t win ’em all.” I know the whole time she just wants me to look good and feel good about what I wear. She understands, though, that I can’t go from Target to Versace overnight. That said, I did end up buying myself a second Hugo Boss suit, all on my own.
And you mostly buy your own stuff now?
I typically pick out my own stuff now, but I understand all the things that gross her out.
Flip-flops; cargo shorts; Birkenstocks with white socks — even around the house; polo shirts; plaid Madras; mock-neck sweaters with the zip-up front; boat shoes; red anything.
What’s her beef with red?
I don’t know, but she hates it. I have one red shirt I’m allowed to wear around the garden or when I’m sweating it out somewhere. I’ve gone to put on red things and she’ll go, “Oh no.” Immediately. I bought a red REI rain jacket on sale reduced from $150 to $30. It came in the mail, and I was stoked. I put it on and she gave me a serious look.
But I pushed back: “It’s practical. Fuck it, I’m keeping it. Close your eyes when you’re around me.” So sometimes I buck the system. But I love Rita. I understand what she’s doing. And I’ve got other battles I’d rather win. Like curry.