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Quads Are the New Biceps: Why Fashion Went Long on Short Shorts

 Men are sporting thigh-baring shorts at a rate not seen since the days of John F. Kennedy Jr. and Tom Selleck. But does the trend have legs?
(L-R) Burberry Cruise 2020, Tom Selleck from Magnum P.I., Prada Spring 2019, Dries van Noten Spring 2020, Donald Glover, Sean Connery as James Bond | Source: Indigital, Getty, Collage by Amy-Laure Richards
  • Cathaleen Chen,
  • Brian Baskin

NEW YORK, United States — Dan Greener was in college when he first encountered short shorts. He wasn't a fan: the khaki shorts sold by the brand Chubbies barely came down to mid-thigh, and sported garish prints.

Flash forward a few years and Greener, now a 27-year-old advertising copywriter in New York, said he’s warmed up to the idea of showing a little thigh. Now he exclusively wears 7-inch shorts from J.Crew.

“There is such a thing as too short I think. Or maybe there isn’t, I don’t know,” Greener said. “But I do think a shorter, more fitted inseam is more flattering than the shorts that hang over your knees” — which he admitted he wore throughout his teenage years.

Greener is among the growing legion of men who are rediscovering shorter shorts. Rare on the runway as recently as three years ago, today brands and retailers at every price point and style are dreaming up new styles of shorts that end well above the knee. Examples on sale today range from Prada's $900 belted logo shorts to Asos' $20 striped "skinny short shorts." Among retailers like Asos, Bloomingdale's and Nordstrom, the most popular length in men's shorts this summer is about 7 inches, which usually hits three-quarters down on the thigh.


It’s an unusually rapid shift in the typically slow-to-change world of men’s fashion. Women’s hemlines fluctuate all the time, with miniskirts giving way to maxi dresses and coming roaring back in the last decade alone. Men’s pants, suits and shorts evolve as well, but on a slower timetable. The last time short shorts were this popular, Magnum, P.I. was on TV and the compact disc player had just been unveiled.

Quads feel like the new biceps in a lot of ways.

Merchandisers attribute the return of short shorts to undercurrents bubbling up in fashion and the culture at large, from the retro and athletic wear trends to the rise of casual dressing, changing gender norms and even climate change (short shorts pair well with the sweltering summers experienced in fashion capitals like Paris and London in recent years). Lastly, young men in the booming health and fitness economy simply want to flaunt the fruits of their labour.

“Quads feel like the new biceps in a lot of ways,” said Justin Berkowitz, the men’s fashion director at Bloomingdale’s.

There is no patient zero for the short shorts trend. Rick Owens, Thom Browne and a handful of other mostly avant-garde designers have incorporated shorts into their collections for years, and Chubbies, which started online in 2011, helped introduce college-aged men to the garment.

But runway watchers cite the Spring/Summer 2019 season as a watershed moment. That season, major brands, from Fendi and Balmain to Alyx and Off-White, sent more than 300 male models in short shorts down the runway, nearly triple the previous year’s total, according to Tagwalk, a fashion search engine. Several menswear buyers cited Prada’s collection, featuring models dressed in tailored khaki shorts with 4-inch or shorter inseams, paired with polos, blazers and leather jackets, as particularly influential.

Around that time, short shorts were exploding in the wider culture. On Love Island, male contestants show off their tanned physiques in high-cut swimsuits while wooing their female counterparts. The men and boys of Stranger Things, the Netflix series set in the early 1980s at the high watermark of short shorts, rarely wear anything with longer than a 5-inch inseam.

“Short shorts have trickled from being just a trend to mass market this year," said James Lawrence, head of menswear at Asos.

Browns sharply increased its shorts offerings this year, with short shorts leading the way. The store even sells a white T-shirt bearing the words "short shorts" in all-caps, part of a collaboration with the magazine Fantastic Man.


“It was a statement,” said Dean Cook, the store’s head of menswear buying. “We have earmarked it as probably the biggest trend of the season. Every single designer had short shorts in their collection.”

The garment’s popularity has given rise to what was once considered unthinkable: the office short. Men in creative fields in particular now view smart, tailored shorts as part of their workplace wardrobe, said Damien Paul, head of menswear at MatchesFashion. Brands can charge more as a result — prices for many styles of shorts are on par with pants, which wasn’t the case when men mainly bought them to wear to the beach, he said.

“I think guys are buying into them now for that fashion image it’s less maybe something that is worn because it’s hot,” Paul said.

At Nordstrom, the 5-inch Patagonia Baggies, swim trunks that customers like to wear as casual shorts, is one of the best-selling menswear items, an example of athletic apparel driving wider fashion trends, according to Sam Lobban, vice president of men's fashion at Nordstrom.

The final piece to click into place was the rise of genderless — or at least, less overtly masculine — dressing. Though ubiquitous in the middle of the 20th century, short shorts came to be seen by many men as effeminate in the late 1990s and early 2000s, ushering in an era of long and unshapely shorts, including those of cargo variety — the most controversial genre of shorts.

The definition of masculinity is changing — it's not a coincidence that short shorts returned to the mainstream around the same time forward-thinking designers like Browne were experimenting with kilts and ballet flats.

"It used to be embarrassing for men to take an interest in their appearance and that has switched — now it's embarrassing for them not to," said Joe Stone, an editor for The Guardian who penned an essay about his love of short shorts in April.

One way to sell less-adventurous customers on short shorts is to remind them that, the 1990s and 2000s aside, bare thighs were a sign of masculinity.


“We’re going back to what shorts used to be — McQueen, JFK, old James Bond movies,” said Alejandro Rhett, Vice President of merchandising and marketing at Todd Snyder, a New York-based menswear brand. “The shorter the shorts, the manlier the man.”

Rhett said Todd Snyder rarely offered shorts with inseams above 9-inch until a few years ago, but it’s now a 7-inch inseam that is most popular, making up 65 percent of sales in the category.

He said hiking shorts up further to 5-inch would be “a little far for us.” But at least a few customers evidently disagree — the in-store tailor at Todd Snyder’s Manhattan flagship gets five to 10 request a week from men asking to shorten their shorts, Rhett said.

Danny Tippett, a 38-year-old events producer in Washington DC, said he wears shorts "all the time" starting each May. He said he grew up wearing short shorts when they were "dorky" in the 1980s, and today routinely sports a 5-inch inseam. Last year, he and his husband pushed the envelope even further, buying swimsuits with 4-inch inseams ahead of a trip to Greece. He said they dieted for months before the trip "so we could wear cute short shorts and swimsuits like they do in Europe," celebrating with a before-and-after photo on Instagram. 

"Being gay men we don’t really get much opportunity to show off, where women’s fashion is much more exciting," he said. "The shorter shorts are just kind of a little bit of extra flair."

Several buyers said the popularity of shorts this year is nothing compared to what’s in store in 2020. Browns increased its buying budget for shorts for 2020, and MatchesFashion roughly doubled its buy for next year, on top of a substantial increase in 2019.

“Next year you’re going to see a hell of a lot more people wearing them,” said Cook, the Browns buyer.

Related Articles:

What the Return of the Cargo Pant Reveals About Consumer PsychologyOpens in new window ]

Are Ballet Flats the New Dad Sneakers?Opens in new window ]

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