The flannel shirt is a staple piece of modern fashion and should be found within any trendsetter’s closet. In protecting 17th C Welsh shepherds from the cold and rain to becoming emblematic in the world of grunge, this piece has proven its durability, ruggedness, and stylishness in spades. It looks good with nearly any casual fit and combo, layered over a sweater or on its own, with boots or sneakers, with jeans or chinos: the flannel is adaptive and an absolute must-have.
For those of us wanting to dress the flannel ‘down’, maybe even with shorts, we should look to the rockstars for some inspo. Layering – to me – is thus key to the multifunctionality of the flannel.
How to wear a flannel with shorts? Layers, Layers, Layers.
Personally, I’m a big fan of layering to the nines. It’s not just practical, giving me the option to regulate my temperature wherever I am, but it adds a number of dimensions to my outfits, allowing me to tread the line between comfy and casual in whatever context. With shorts and flannels, properly layering is the difference between crafting the perfect casual slacker look or looking like you’re caught between two trends. In my humble opinion, the flannel should always be paired with an undershirt. The flannel doesn’t have to be open and flowy nor buttoned all the way to the top, but the contrast of the tartan pattern against a solid color really serves to add a huge amount of depth to the look. This also gives you the opportunity to show off some of your graphic tees and let a more relaxed, fun side show.
With shorts, it’s safe to assume that you’re going for a relatively casual look. Maybe it’s a cooler summer evening and you don’t want to bring a jacket to the bar where you’re drinking with friends – jeans would be too warm, but just a tee shirt may leave you a little chilly (especially if it ends up being another late night). The flannel begins to call your name from deep within your closet: “I’m so comfy and warm Graham…. why don’t you take me out tonight? Why don’t you show me off?”
While maybe only my shirts say that, it is a good reminder of the right situation to wear a flannel with shorts: going for a casual vibe that is still utilitarian is the perfect place to incorporate tartan button ups into your look. The perfect fit begins to crystallize, one that beautifully treads the line between slacker-core and self-aware. You may not choose this combo on the first date at a nice restaurant, but by the third or fourth date – maybe an evening walk in the park eating ice cream – your flannel and shorts outfit says, “I’m fashionable and put-together, sure, but I also know how to relax”. You’ve shown your date you know how to dress up: show them you still know how to dress down. Throwing on a pair of sneakers is the best way to round this look out and can be further complemented with a ballcap or beanie.
Another great way to wear a flannel with shorts is by layering it with a monotone hoodie: having an oversized flannel for this is key, lest risk your shirt looking like it’s about to pop right off. The hoodie gives some size to your ‘top’ and gives the fit a very sporty feel alongside it’s casual-yet-purposeful look. I’m personally a huge fan of wearing long sleeves with shorts, and the hoodie-flannel-short combo is one I often find myself wearing in the later part of the summer months.
Pick the right shorts
Having the right shorts will be important in pairing well with a flannel. The tartan pattern is loud, usually made up of bright colors and is thus quite eye-catching. It’s one of the key perks of this piece: it’s usually the statement of your fit. It adds color, depth, and structure to your look, so let it shine.
In order to pair it well, use shorts that are a bit more lowkey. Leave the cargos in the closet: opt for minimal shorts in solid colors: brown, blue, grey, tan, and black are all safe bets that will serve to highlight your nice flannel. Try and stay away from bright colored shorts or patterns – in fashion, less is often more.
As you explore further, in trawling the internet for flannel style inspo, one starts to notice something particular: most flannel fits seem to exist in the world of winter and fall-time. A beanie, a light coat, some boots, and a pair of jeans are often the recipe for a classic flannel look among men. These fits hint at some of the origins of the textile among working class men, who depended on the flannel to keep them warm while sprayed with rain in the Welsh hills or chopping down wood in the cutting cold of the American Northwest. The flannel retains an inherently (and traditionally) ‘manly’ feel to it, one that can serve to elevate a fit to new levels of masculinity, sometimes even overboard (with flannel muscle shirts as we’ve seen before). But what of the rest of us that don’t have lumberjack or shepherd on our business cards, yet may still be hoping to wear a comfy and stylish shirt on a warmer day?
A question emerges: should you wear a flannel with shorts? What would the paragons of manliness that once wore this material say if they saw their ancestors wearing a flannel – god forbid – casually? Would flannel-loving rockstar Kurt Cobain scoff at our exposed calves? Or is this simply the continuation of the flannel’s long and proud history in style? My answer: flannels absolutely can go with shorts. Its long history and variation of use throughout the years makes it a chameleon piece, elevating a fit and keeping you warm however you wear it. Let’s explore.
What is flannel? What is tartan? Does it matter?
Before we dive in, we should make a couple of key distinctions about the textile at hand: flannel is just a word for this type of woven material, traditionally made from processed fabric like carded wool and yarn. It can be ‘brushed’ or ‘unbrushed’, creating the extremely soft ‘nap’ that makes your favorite wool blanket and flannel shirt your favorite. The original flannel clothing worn by lumberjacks and shepherds would look quite a bit different from the shirts we know, largely because they didn’t have the iconic pattern.
Tartan (or plaid) is the name of the pattern that we traditionally associate with flannel clothing. It is the iconic criss-cross pattern of horizontal and vertical multi-colored bands, which draws its origins and status from highland Scottish culture. The Scottish Register of Tartans, a council of tartan standards (yes, that’s right) defines the tartan “as a design which is capable of being woven consisting of two or more alternating-coloured stripes which combine vertically and horizontally to form a repeated chequered pattern. The tartan pattern is traditionally known as the sett”. While the tartan kilt isn’t as common in North America as in Scotland, the tartan pattern has become ubiquitous in clothing, housewares, and anywhere patterns tend to be found in the highlands and abroad. Some tartan patterns like Burberry’s – called Burberry (Genuine) – are so well-known that they are identified by the Scottish Register of Tartans as to document the extent of their iconic-ness, becoming “so much a part of the Burberry image that it has been trademarked and can now be regarded as a Corporate tartan”.
Does the difference matter? I guess. Don’t let the Scottish Register of Tartans hear me say this but – and while your fashionista friends may say otherwise – the word flannel has become interchangeable with tartan patterns. To textile normies like you and I, the flannel and tartan begin to occupy the same space. If you wanted to be a stickler about it, you could specify that you like wearing plaid/tartan flannel shirts, and nobody, neither Burberry nor Cobain (rest his soul), could correct you then.
Now that we have a bit of a background on the flannel, let’s talk about how it sits in the world of fashion and later, how it sits on shorts.
Flannels in Fashion
When I think of flannels in modern fashion, one of the first things that comes to mind is the mid-2010s era ‘hipster’, whose massive beard, thick plastic glasses, and infinite leather armbands seem to pay a certain homage to the earliest flannel-wearers that resided deep in the woods and highlands. The influence of this hipster-era figure, who sports traditional blackwork tattoos and a waxed moustache, has not disappeared completely from our shared fashion subconscious: the continued prominence of pairing a classic red flannel with some chinos and chukka boots seems to speak to the universality of this ‘old-school’ fit. The flannel retains its traditionalist feel, rooted in the image of a burly blue-collar man, but has long since transformed and found roots in youth culture, fast fashion, and music.
Among the more iconic places where flannels can be found influencing fashion is in Seattle’s world of 80s and 90s rock-n-roll. Seattle natives Nirvana and Pearl Jam, known mostly for their contributions to grunge and hard rock, are also very well known for having plaid-loving frontmen. Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, ever-sullen and mysterious, was often photographed wearing plaid shirts layered overtop graphic tees of his favorite artists like Daniel Johnston or The Stooges. It’s likely that he took influence from Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, who also has a history of layering a large, baggy flannel over graphic tees.
It’s safe to say that both Seattle bands, whether knowingly or not, would take inspiration from the deep cultural influence of lumberjacks in the Pacific Northwest. They would use this ‘traditionalism’ and turn it on its head, using baggy and worn-in flannels to create a new ‘slacker’ look overtop of jeans and well-loved band shirts. This look would become synonymous with the counter-culture movements associated with such groups and their fanbases, positioning tartan in a new world and branching out into different areas of popular fashion. In this way, Vedder and Cobain give us some key hints to the way the flannel can be paired with our fits. Given how the flannel has been aligned with the relaxed and comfortable looks of grunge’s biggest stars (contrasted against their heavy music), wearing such a piece with shorts becomes only a matter of picking the right flannel with the right layers.
The tartan flannel is a beautiful piece of clothing that every guy should own. You can find them everywhere at all price ranges, varying in their warmth, weight, and quality. The great thing about a flannel is its functionality, which is as important to me as the way it looks: it’s something you’ll able to use in deep midwinter to help keep you warm but equally can become a mainstay of your summer looks. It’s a reminder that the flannel has its roots in utilitarianism, meant to keep you at temp, comfortable, and workin’. Given its adaptability, it makes sense to get to know how to use it with shorts.
Thanks for reading.