An American Boy in the 1960s: Bruce Tours Europe

The strongest memories that I have about the clothes I wore as a boy was the short pants I wore as a little boy. After an embarassing experience as a younger boy in Colorado, I was a little shy about wearing short pants. While I still wore shorts for play and casual wear, I never thought as a 12 year-old ready to begin 7th grade that I would ever dress up in short pants and knee socks. That was, however. before my dad got a job in Paris and I found myself in Europe.

After the school year finished in June 1964, we left Hawaii and took off for Europe. We spent the entire summer of 1964 touring Scandinavia, the Low Countries, and the British Isles before settling down in Paris. Every where we went, I saw European boys in short pants--often strikingly short and sometimes with knee socks, neckties and jackets.

Preparing for the Trip

When we left Hawaii for Europe, I worried about a number of things--missing my favorite TV programs, going to a strange school in a strange country where I didn't speak the language. One thing I didn't expect, however, was the revival of earlier childhood battles with my parents over wearing short pants. The issue had sort of died out by 5th grade. The annual spring struggle over the precise timing of the shift to shorts had been going more and more my way; by 5th grade the rule of thumb would be shorts in the summer, which I really didn't mind, in fact, I actually liked wearing shorts more than I let on to my parents. There were no more embarrassing requirements that I wear shorts on any occasion when I would stick out among my jeans-and-cord clad friends. The victory had been cemented when we moved to Hawaii for 6th grade and I dressed just like everybody else--long pants for school, shorts after school and on the weekends.

I should have seen it coming. I knew, of couse, in a sort of abstract, intellectual way that European boys mostly wore shorts. There were the articles in National Geographic with Swiss and German boys in lederhosen and knee socks; the occasional glimpses in textbooks and other reading. (I was a bit of a bookworm and still am.) I had noted pictures of English schoolboys in uniformed short trousers and kneesocks. But you know how boys are. I just didn't put two and two together.

Country Trends

Our European venture started off in Copenhagen first, followed by Bergen, Oslo, Gotteburg, Amsterdam, Brussels (with day trip to Bruges), then several weeks in the British Isles before going on to France. The following spring we visited Germany.

I recall that short pants were being worn every where--even by boys older than me. There were, however, some substantial differences between the shorts worn in the various countries we visited.


My introduction to Europe began in Copenhagen. The first inkling came within an hour of arrival. Even today, flying from Honolulu to Copenhagen would be long and arduous, but back in 1964, it was a grueling ordeal. First the 4-5 hour flight to Los Angeles. The several hour wait in the L.A. airport. Getting on the SAS 727 (I think that's what it was) confronting row after cramped row of seats and knowing we'd be trapped there for the next 20 hours or so. The long flight to Greenland. The three hour layover for fuel. (Seeing Greenland was admittedly cool.). The final six hours into Copenhagen. So like everyone else in the family, I was exhausted when we finally stumbled off the plane and into a taxi.

I was very excited though about actuallh being in a foreign country and wanted to take in all the sites, the different cars, buildings, and of course--people. I was especially curious about children my own age. I was also all eyes

My recollection is of seeing a Danish boy my age on the way in from the airport. A boy about my age (11 going on 12) was natty short pants suit, necktie, and knee socks--that was the first encounter with the notion that European boys my age and older would dress up in short pants. I had an intimation that this boy spelled trouble. My parents were both looking at him too. I was still wearing shorts in the summer time for every day wear and had a couple of pairs of casual or play shorts with me, but no dress shorts. My mother noticed all the boys wearing shorts right away and pointed it out to me.

Over the next few days in Copenhagen, pretty much all the boys we saw were in short pants; when the occasional boy in longs opened his mouth, you heard American English. So far, there had been no comment. Of course, I had some pairs of shorts with me, but given the coolish weather (it was June, but particularly after Hawaii it seemed cool), I was in long pants.


The situation eased a bit when we flew to Bergen and then to Oslo, where the handfull of boys we saw seemed more in longs than in shorts.


The Netherlands

At the next stop--Amsterdam--the first comments came. " Don't these Dutch boys look nice in their short pants", I heard my mother say to my father. Sure enough, I was told to wear shorts. Since the weather had warmed up, I didn't complain.


Brussels saw the situation turn critical; like Napoleon, my long pants met their Waterloo in Belgium. t was seeing quite a number of Belgian boys my age and older all in very short, trim shorts that precipitated the decision. I think mother had decided earlier that I should only wear short pants like all the European boys we had seen. We were doing the usual sightseeing in downtown Brussels when we encountered a group of Belgian boys my age and older. Of course, we had seen quite a number of boys in the other cities in shorts, but it reached critical mass, as it were, in Brussels. This group we passed consisted of several boys my age--11 going on 12--and older in shorts. (I think it was a school group.) Every single one of them was in short pants -- they were all obviously dressed for school, carrying briefcases and the like. Some of them had on neckties. The shorts were to my mind impossibly neat, snug and short and most of the boys were wearing white kneesocks.

I think this is what convinced dad. My father turned to my mother. "I'd think Bruce would look very smart dressed like that."

Of course mother enthusiastically picked up on dad's suggestion. "Well, he certainly needs some nice new clothes while we are here. He's just about outgrown that suit of his. He'll need something nice for the meetings in London. (we were going on to London where my father was attending some highpowered academic meetings.) Let's see if we can't find a store where we could get him some clothes like these. European clothes is so much better stiled than American clothes."

The following conversation ensued.

Mother: Those boys look so nice and comfortable in their short pants Bruce.
Father: They certainly do. I think we should get some for Bruce. They would be very comfortable for the trip.
Me: Aw, comeon dad, I don't want to wear those. I'm not a little boy anymore, and I'm not Belgian, I'm American.
Mother: No, but Europen mothers know how to dress boys properly. You'd look so nice in them.
Me: I don't want to wear shorts.
Father: Don't you talk back to your Mother young man. As of tomorrow, you're going into short pants. As long as you're a boy, you're going to dress like a boy, and I don't want to hear anything more about it.
Me: (Sulk. Actually sulk, burn, sulk!)

I pretended that I didn't hear their further conversation on the topic. I didn't want to fight just then. And I had genuinely mixed reactions. On the one hand, there was no denying that the boys we had seen looked really good and that I was curious to see how I would look in those clothes. My shorts were longish and casual; I wondered what it would feel like to wear those smart, short shorts. and of course, since I didn't know anybody, I didn't have to worry about being hooted at by friends. On the other hand, like most 12-yearolds, I was beginning the fight for independence; I wanted to make my own decisions about clothes and things. I hoped they would forget about it. Of course, they didn't.

My mother asked the hotel manager about a good store selling boys clothes, and the next morning I found myself standing in front of a haughty matron gazing imperiously at me.

"We want to get Bruce here some nice clothes. He'll have to be well-dressed for London, and then he's going to school in Paris." Communication was no problem, both by parents were rather rusty in French, but the sales lady spoke quite adequate--if heavily accented--English.

"You know, Madam, that well-bred European boys wear short pants. We consider the American custom of putting young boys in long trousers to be, if I may be pardoned saying so, rather vulgar."

"Well, we do too. We've always insisted that Bruce wear shorts." (This wasn't strictly true, but they certainly did try their best.)

I was making a face and whispering to my mother that I didn't want to wear shorts. I had not fought going to the store, hoping I could maneuvre my parents into a longpants suit. I got a black look from my dad of the don't-you-dare-make-a-scene variety.

"He's rather tall for his age," the haughty saleslady opined, stating the obvious. "Tall boys tend to look better in shorts that are much shorter than what he's got on, paired with knee-length socks. Let me see what we've got in stock that might fit him.

As she went off to get some samples, I really started to put up a fuss. My father said, "Don't you talk to your mother that way. As long as you're a boy you're going to dress like a boy. Any more backtalk out of you, and you're going to have a sore bottom." My father was rather an easy going person. I knew from experience that he only made threats like that when he really meant them, so I shut up, and returned to sulking.

She came back with several pairs of short pants, a couple suit jackets and a pair of knee socks. "Have him put on the socks first, and then we'll try these on."

Oh, the next half hour! I went into the dressing room, muttering under my breath, throwing off the short socks I had on and putting on the kneehighs. Then off came the baggy old things I was wearing, and I pulled on a exceptionally snug pair of fine, soft gray flannel shorts. Of course, they felt wonderful and looked great in the mirror; but I hated the reaction I knew would ensue the coos of pleasure from my mother, the nods of approval from the saleslady and my dad. I felt like I was turning into some kind of doll on display. And it was worse when the saleslady insisted I put on a tie and jacket.

As I was being fussed over, I saw a couple of other boys with their families --one stared openly at me. I tried to look nonchalant. I was pretty sure from the way he was dressed that the kid was American; I wished my parents would shut up so he wouldn't realize we were. But no, all the oohing and aahing kept right on going. I got a big evil smirk from the kid -- he knew exactly what was going on. At least I never had to see him again. Mothers don't understand such expressions, but believe me boys do.

So there I was, decked out in a grey suit with a nice short jacket, shorts far shorter than I had worn since I was three, knee socks. That was to be my suit for the meetings in London! And I foresaw with a sure sense of dread that I would be meeting other Ameircan kids, other kids that I KNEW!

In addition to the suit, I got a navy blazer, two or three sweaters, a couple of dressy shirts, eight pairs of knee socks -- white, gray, navy -- and SIX PAIRS OF SHORT PANTS everyone of them far shorter and far more snug than I had worn in years. The final insult--in order to create room in the suitcase for the hated shorts, I was actually made to throw away a ratty pair of existing baggy shorts plus the two pairs of admittedly rather worn long pants I had brought with me. I was growing very fast; I was in fact outgrowing them. I was told that "when the weather turned cold" I would be bought "a pair" that would "fit you then". I prayed for the onset of cold for until that happened, I was trapped. I had nothing to wear but short pants.

Long pants were banned for the rest of the summer. I was getting older, knew that this was not the way American boys my age dressed, and I fought back. But there were no arguments on my side. I was in no danger at all of getting teased. It was summertime, and while the weather could be cool in northern Europe, pleading the cold cut no ice--to pick a metaphor deliberately. While I wasn't made to wear the lederhosen or very short corduroy shorts that seemed all the rage, my parents were implacable: I was a boy and I was to dress like a boy, which meant short pants.


We spent a few days in England, mostly getting to know London. It was as bad as I had imagined. Of course, everywhere we went in London, we saw British boys in short trousers. Most of the boys we saw my age were wearing short pants. Many boys wore rather formal grey shorts which I now know are school shorts. There were also a lot of boys wearing cord shorts. Many were in kneesocks, but as it was warming up, a lot of the boys were wearing ankle socks. Many wore sandals, tennis shoes were not popular as in the states. I didn't see many younger boys wearing jeans, but some teenagers did wear them

Even though most boys were wearing shorts pants, they were different than the ones my parents had just purchased for me. I had had my new outfits bought in Brussels, where the styles were much shorter and much more snug than in England where baggy grey shorts with knee socks seemed the order of the day. So even though I was in a country where most of the boys wore short pants--I still managed to stick out! Lucky me.

And my fathers meetings were a real ordeal. My father was giving a paper at a big conference, and the whole family had been invited to a reception afterwards (I had a little sister many years younger). What I dreaded most was that other families were coming too, including those of American colleagues of my father's. I even knew a few of the kids, although not well. I thought about feigning illness, but I couldn't summon the necessary resolve. I knew it would mean my mother would have to stay back at the hotel with me, and she's miss the reception seeing my dad feted by all these people. Actually, we were a pretty close family; the only real bone of contention between me and my parents was this matter of dress. I couldn't sabotage a big moment in their lives; I figured I would just have to endure it.

Well, I put on the suit and tried to stay as inconspicuous as possible. A completely impossible task. I came up to my father's shoulder, and he was anxious to introduce me to his professional colleagues. I could tell he was proud of me, and I guess that made things a little easier. Also, I was not the only boy there in shorts--there were several British boys , most of them younger, but one or two my age, and they were in shortpants suits--albeit with longer, baggier shorts. And there were two boys dressed pretty much as I was--one of them turned out to be German. I didn't meet the other, I understanably wasn't to anxious to mix.

To my chagrin, not only were there several American kids, one of them I knew quite well and didn't like --in fact, he was something of a bully. All the American kids except me were dressed in long pants, some of them in suits, some in jacket and slacks. This kid was the only one without a jacket or tie. His father was one of my father's oldest colleagues; I had seen the kid every other year or so. We had stayed at their house, they stayed at ours. We did not get along; the only reason he didn't beat me up was because his father would have let him have it. He was no dummy though and always managed to find other ways to torment me. Of course, when I was separated from my parents at one point, he came over.

He knew I was trying to avoid him--and started smirking "Wow, you look really great. Perfect little sissy. Get a load of those knees."

I felt like hitting him and almost did. "Shut up, you big fat fool"or something like that. (I don't think I knew the word asshole). I probably wouldn't have been so bold if I hadn't known there was no real way he could retaliate--it wasn't as if we were going to be in school together or anything.

He muttered something about "killing me for that", but there was nothing he could do. (I knew, because my parents talked about it, that his father was an old-fashioned discplinarian and used the beat the kid all the time--that's probably why he was so vicious himself. His father was the only thing he was afraid of.)

Maybe because of that incident, the clothes kind of quit bothering me after that. I didn't put up any further resistance to wearing shorts until we got to Paris and I went into school.

School in France

We didn't spend much time in France that summer as that was where dad was going to work. By September, however, we were settled down in France and I was enrolled in a regular French public school.


The following spring we took a vacation to Germany. I especially remember one very smartly dressed boy in Germany. I saw a tall boy with an old woman leaning on his arm, obviously on the way to or from church. The boy who was at least my age and probably older (my guess would be 14 years old). He was wearing a navy blue suit, white shirt, and necktie. But the suit had short pants--cut quite short, although the hem was visible below his suit jacket. He had navy kneesocks, and black shoes.

England: Years Latter

Decades later as an adult, I visited London and went shopping at Harrods. It was the 1980s. I saw that there weren't many boys in the late 80s wearing shorts on the streets of London. I happened by the boyswear department and asked whether English boys still dressed up in short pants. The haughty Englishwoman I spoke with assured me that yes they still did. She said that proper English boys at good schools were still required to wear short trousers. She suggested that knee socks look better when matched with shorter shorts.

Author: Bruce McPherson

Note: Bruce returned to Europe again in 1999. For an update on boys' fashions see: 1999 Update.

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Last updated: October 14, 1998