Representing Bermuda at the Olympics last year in Athens, Greece, cabinet minister Dale Butler bowed to tradition and dressed formally. Like many other men, he wore a shirt, a tie and a jacket. Unlike other men, he also wore knee socks and short pants.
The ensemble was a hit with the ladies, Butler said, but as he was leaving a reception there, he encountered a Saudi prince in the elevator. The robed royal looked askance at him, then offered to provide him with the fabric needed to complete his clothing, Butler recalled with amusement.
"Later I received an invitation from him to an event they were hosting," he said. "He'd written on it, 'Long pants required.' "
Persian Gulf princes aren't the only ones questioning the advisability of grown men baring their knees. Bermuda shorts, a bequest of Britain's military and still deemed suitable for meeting the queen, are headed the way of the erstwhile British empire, a victim of time and taste.
Increasingly, the national dress of this British colony is worn only by a diminishing circle of elderly white gentlemen and workers in the hospitality industry, who put them on solely for the paycheck.
Bermuda's residents still drive on the left and play cricket, but a tectonic cultural shift has occurred since the industrial barons of Boston, New York and Baltimore began turning to this temperate island of about 65,000 people to escape icy winters and stifling summer heat. Now a haven for U.S. banking and insurance companies seeking tax breaks, Bermuda's ties to Britain and its traditions have been unraveling under the friction of North American influences, including hip-hop and affirmative action.
"I would say it has been changing more than diminishing, going from dress attire to a more casual look," said Laurence Trimingham, whose 120-year-old Front Street shop was the premier purveyor of the classic shorts-and-socks outfit before going out of business in late July.
"Originally, the shorts came to us from the British military summer uniform," the clothier said. "As that influence in the colonies has gone away, so have the shorts."
The just-above-the-knee tailored shorts are considered formal attire only if worn with cuffed knee socks and slip-on leather shoes, preferably penny loafers. In the shorts' heyday, the white oligarchy that ruled the colony wore them to tennis matches, elegant dinners and showcase events like the annual Cup Match cricket games. Less than a decade ago, they were deemed appropriate wear for Parliament.
John Swan, a former prime minister who led a failed referendum on independence a decade ago, sees Bermuda's evolution out of colonial trappings as an induction into the global community. He is proud of his country -- most natives of Bermuda see themselves as having a distinct national identity despite their colonial status -- for achieving levels of prosperity, democracy and racial equality that the world's most powerful countries can only envy.
"The black community in Bermuda does better than just about any black community in the world," said Swan, who became the island's second black prime minister 23 years ago. "The United States couldn't even imagine a black president. It hasn't even had a female. All these things we take for granted."
Bermuda might be divesting itself of its colonial identity, he suggested, because it has arrived as a major international business destination under its own steam.
"In less than a generation, we've made a transition from servitude to service," he said of the economy. Bermuda, long dependent on the sailing and tennis sets for revenue, now has 13,000 international management, insurance and financial companies.
On the shorts issue, Swan takes the long view.
"I have always felt that I wanted to be a traditional, classically dressed Bermudian, as a public figure," he said, arguing that a suit and tie project a more serious and accomplished image than do shorts and knee socks.
"In the context of Bermuda, they are seen as business attire, but in the context of the international community, they are not," he said. Swan noted that other former colonies abandoned the shorts when they became independent. "In Barbados, for example, they don't like you wearing shorts to work. They see it as a throwback to the colonial days."
The risk of being perceived as slightly comic has played a significant role in driving today's movers and shakers away from short pants.
"Bermuda shorts denote the old, traditional Bermuda," said Scott Simmons, an importer of European tile and spokesman for the ruling Progressive Labor Party. "They evoke the image of a gentlemen's club, a brandy-and-cigar-room society inclusive of the few and exclusive of the rest."
Simmons, who is black, said he eschewed the shorts because they had "a tendency to appear too relaxed."
Other young black businessmen and politicians regard the attire as a vestige of a less egalitarian age.
"They're identified with a certain lifestyle, mostly older men in the business community," said Desmond Richardson, a 37-year-old building contractor who said he hasn't worn the shorts since elementary school, when they were part of the uniform.
Fashion might be fleeting, but some people mourn the demise of a style of dress with which the island has long been equated.
"You won't find any young men in Bermuda shorts, although I wish they would wear them instead of these baggy pants hanging on them nowadays," said Ruth Thomas, the island's former cultural affairs official. "Bermuda shorts have a certain dignity, but they must be worn in a special way, and Americans have turned them into casual attire now."