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Summer business

The look screamed ‘business in the middle and party on the edge’.

From the 1960s to 1980s, Wairarapa men wore walk-shorts with aplomb, rocking the 100 percent polyester garment through summer months.

They dutifully covered lower legs with knee-high ‘walk-socks’, leaving knees exposed to the breeze.

This sensible outfit, favoured by office workers, school principals and many a tidy man in between, was topped with a short-sleeved business shirt and often a slash of formality – a tie.

At ground level, lace-up brogues kept toes covered and ready for a day’s work. Only the very daring slid their socks into breezy sandals.

Midweek decided to revisit the long-gone trend with the help of Masterton’s fashion experts.

Richard McLeod of clothing store Bullock Blackmore said walk-shorts and long socks were a very popular trend in decades past.

“The New Zealand male embraced it wholeheartedly. It probably suited our lifestyle with our extreme summers,” he said. “Regional clothing stores like ours would stock 200-300 pairs of walk-shorts a season, as there was no online shopping then.”

Fabrics used at the time made cleaning easy.

“A lot of walk-shorts were machine washable and quick to dry. They were 100 per cent polyester, or a rayon blend. They often had a ‘self-belt’ attached, with a small metal clasp,” McLeod said.

Popular colours began with plain soft greys, soft blues and fawn, graduating to textured stripes and checks by the 1980s.

“In the 80s, they would be matched with short-sleeved business shirts in colours such as avocado green, burnt orange and canary yellow.” The lace-up brogue was the shoe of choice, with sandals a distant second.

“Roman sandals were very basic, or there were dress sandals available. Garters were another attachment, to keep the socks up.”

Accentuated by men wearing long sideburns [facial hair], the look endured until the late 1980s, with a sharp decline in popularity in the early 1990s.

“I’d say that by the late-1990s, the look was illegal,” McLeod quipped.

“Polyester doesn’t breathe and there are so many other more environmentally friendly fabrics to choose from today. Most shorts today are cotton.

“You could almost bury a pair of the old polyester walk-shorts in the ground, leave them for 100 years and they’d still be good to go.”

Some of today’s young men wear long-ish socks with slides, “so the look is reinventing itself with the young ones”.

Another Queen St men’s fashion expert, who preferred to use his first name Tony, said the summer business outfit brought back many memories.

“I worked in Napier in the early 1970s and that city really was the walk-shorts capital of New Zealand,” he said.

“It was the standard outfit for working in retail or government offices, because it was cooler and more comfortable to wear in the summer.

“Older men, say over the age of 45, would sometimes pair a sports jacket with the walk-shorts, but that was not popular with young men.”

Tony works in a busy department store and said he still gets older gentlemen occasionally asking for walk socks “but we haven’t stocked them for a long time”.

However, the store still carries cotton handkerchiefs, flat cloth caps and braces for holding up trousers.

Walk-shorts are believed to be a legacy of wartime soldiers wearing khaki drill shorts with socks and boots. In the 1950s, New Zealand’s public service workers gained special permission to wear shorts to offices, leading to the evolved summer business outfit spotted during the Wellington lunch rush but really taking off in the provinces.

Walk-Short Wednesday was a short-lived attempt in 2022 by the Public Service Association and other organisations to revive the trend.

The Wellington Museum last year appealed for authentic examples of the iconic walk-short to hold in its collection, while a group of junior doctors at Taranaki Base Hospital began wearing the garment on the wards.

News reports at the time said the walk-short ensemble had been popular with New Zealand men in “the 1960 and 1970s”, neglecting to mention the look endured in Wairarapa until a mere 30 years ago.

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