BOSTON -- By early September it was happening everywhere. American men were clustering anxiously around water coolers asking each other: What are you going to do about the minipants?
Would they buy them? Wear them? Could a man in minipants be taken seriously at the office? Would a man who bucked the trend be considered hopelessly out of date or perhaps even ashamed of his legs?
The fashion writers had been beating the drum relentlessly all summer. In July, GQ featured ''Ten Young Men Who Dared to Bare.'' They were arbitrageurs, admen and sports figures in suits with pin-striped minipants two to six inches above the knee. In August, Esquire suggested that hemlines be raised to the height of a hand-held briefcase. New York magazine had recently photographed three young publishers seated at The Four Seasons restaurant with only napkins covering their thighs. The story was called ''Power Gams.''
This, the designers insisted, was progress. ''Men,'' enthused one, ''are finally free to express themselves. They no longer feel hemmed in by corporate expectations, no longer have to fade into the background. They can make their own fashion statements!'' A second designer said that today's man, fitter than his dad, had nothing to hide. A third insisted that even men over 40 could wear minipants as long as they also bought his matching Ben Franklin hose. He called it The Constitutional Look.
Men united in anxiety were increasingly divided in opinion. Divided according to their physique and psyche. The airwaves were full of their opinions. Indeed, by the end of summer there was more talk of minipants than of missiles.
An older banker who hadn't worn knee pants since he was a child said he had no intention of exposing himself to ridicule this late in life. A 35-year-old who ran a multimillion-dollar herbal tea company added that the minislack had already allowed him to share more of himself with his workers. Younger men were generally enthusiastic, although one lawyer decided not to wear minipants in court while defending any major felon.
Among corporate executives there emerged a list of fashion do's and don'ts. Don't wear minipants while maneuvering a hostile takeover of a steel company. Do wear them at a pivotal sales meetings. In case of chilblains, you may discreetly fold the top of your printout sheet over your thighs for warmth.
Remarkably, none of the men interviewed by the national press said that his decision to mini or not was at all affected by the fear of being ogled at the office. Most roundly insisted that such blatant sexism was dead and simply didn't exist at their work place. ''Here at Beta Computer,'' said one personnel manager, ''there are no men and women. Just people.'' A more militant type said with a glare that any woman who stared at his legs, well, that was her problem.
Women themselves were audibly open-minded. Men should wear whatever made them comfortable. They'd all seen legs before. Though not, they would add privately, quite like the pair of knock-knees down in Accounting.
There was even a flutter of consternation among presidential candidates, whose only previous fashion adventure had been to wear a red tie. It was reported that Al Haig wanted to wear the minipant because it made him look like a British officer. Those in the Mike Dukakis team thought this fashion risk might give him a more trendy look, but it just didn't go with his wing tips. Ultimately, the press agreed that the only one who could carry it off was Al Gore.
Female producers kept churning out those long and wide-angle television updates on men and the minipant because, they insisted, of its newsworthiness. Economists spun theses about the relationship between a bull market and a bare leg.
But sometime just before the first frost, after men had been through their closets and their charge cards, they looked around at the women in their lives. How was it that the women were untroubled by such minimale matters? Golly, said one to another, sometimes don't you wish you weren't a man?