Bike shorts were making their comeback as a fashion item well before “social distancing” entered our everyday vocabulary.
In recent years, skintight, stretchy shorts have appeared in collections by designer brands including Off-White, Yeezy, Maryam Nassir Zadeh and Jacquemus. Celebrities like Kim Kardashian, Bella Hadid and Hailey Bieber have also helped propel the trend into the contemporary mainstream by wearing them — though Princess Diana’s gym outfits have remained a continuous source of bike shorts styling inspiration since the 1990s, as well.
So maybe bike shorts were always destined to have a moment in the summer of 2020. But as with 1000-piece puzzles and sourdough bread, quarantine has given them new appeal: Bike shorts are a comfortable, practical item of clothing that can seamlessly transition through the vague shifts between work, exercise, worry and rest that characterize a life spent mostly at home.
Writers at Vox, BuzzFeed and InStyle have declared their love for bike shorts as quarantine fashion. In somewhat self-dragging tweets, other devotees have confessed their allegiance to the lifestyle. Depending on whom you ask, bike shorts are an enlightened choice for the times or a tumble into a life of permanent sartorial laziness. Either way, they work.
Nikki Ogunnaike, the deputy fashion director of GQ and an avid runner, got into bike shorts three years ago, after discovering that they didn’t ride up when she was moving around and working out. In quarantine they’ve become a daily staple, thanks to their breathability in her hot New York City apartment. “It’s pretty much all I wear,” she said.
For working from home, Ms. Ogunnaike, 34, prefers bike shorts with an inseam of seven to nine inches, which strikes her as more deliberate looking than a shorter cut. She also takes a considered approach to what she wears on top — usually a tank top and a collared camp shirt, which she previously would have worn to the office. “It looks like I put together an outfit, rather than the shorts I rolled out of bed in,” Ms. Ogunnaike said.
Justina Sharp, a 22-year-old influencer and creative strategist, usually pairs her high-waisted bike shorts with oversized vintage T-shirts or button-downs. She was in her final semester of college when stay-at-home orders went into effect in Los Angeles, where she lives, and decided to embrace what seemed like a short-term lockdown by wearing pajamas all day.
“After a week of that, you feel gross,” Ms. Sharp said. “I have anxiety. Not getting dressed for that long, I was like, ‘I’m going to die here. I need to get dressed.’”
Bike shorts, on the other hand, walk that careful line between loungewear and actual clothing. Plus, hers have pockets. The fact that they are comfortable and form-fitting makes her feel tucked in and dressed, she said.
Tess Gattuso, a 27-year-old writer and comedian in Los Angeles, took it a step further. “I think they’re super sexy,” she said. “I need that excitement in quarantine.”
While bike shorts have in many ways been popularized by very thin celebrities and influencers, enthusiasts dismiss the idea that they can or should only be worn by people with a certain body type.
“I think when they first came out, you were used to seeing them in vintage Princess Diana photos, or you saw them on Hailey Bieber or Kendall Jenner,” Ms. Ogunnaike said. “But with brands like Girlfriend Collective, they’re cutting them for all body types, so many people can get in on the trend.”
Several activewear companies, includingGirlfriend Collective, can’t seem to keep their bike shorts in stock. “They last maybe two days on the site,” said Claire Weldon Smith, head of design at the brand, whose bike shorts run from size XXS to 6XL.
She added that it’s difficult to determine whether that sales growth has more to do with the pandemic, the season, or the fact that the bike shorts trend simply reached a maturation point where more customers are ready to try it out. (The brand’s leggings remain its best seller by volume, but the bike shorts, available since in 2017, recently surpassed them in terms of sell-through rate.)
But the brand often uses customer photos on its website, and Ms. Smith noted that whereas customers predominantly used to wear their bike shorts with a matching bra top, they’re now styling them in a wide range of ways, with oversized sweatshirts or more refined blouses.
When Ms. Sharp first bought a pair of bike shorts in 2019, she was inspired by those who had gotten on the bandwagon before her: VSCO girls on TikTok, teenagers she knows from the summer camp she works at, and Princess Diana, who was also name-checked by Ms. Ogunnaike and Ms. Gattuso.
Diana regularly wore bike shorts with graphic sweatshirts, tube socks and sneakers when going to the gym at the Chelsea Harbour Club in the mid-1990s — a period of time when she was shedding some of the rules of royal fashion, said Elizabeth Holmes, the author of the forthcoming book “HRH: So Many Thoughts on Royal Style.”
“Given the fact that bike shorts have now come back around, this is the look of Diana’s that feels, in some way, the most timeless,” Ms. Holmes said. “She looks like she could be walking to the gym today.”
Which is to say, bike shorts have long been a practical and functional option for daily life. Melanie Pochat, a 35-year-old stay-at-home mother in San Francisco, started wearing them in 2019 after giving birth to her first child. They ticked a lot of boxes: they didn’t cause thigh chafe, they didn’t budge when she bent over to pick up her kid, and they were perfect for 30-second bathroom breaks. Ms. Pochat was also having trouble coming to terms with how her body had changed after her unplanned C-section, and bike shorts, tight as they are, served as “a gateway to body acceptance.”
“They sort of show off my stomach. But also I want them to in a way, because it’s like, all right, this is me, this is what it is,” Ms. Pochat said. “My main goals are to be comfortable and to keep up with my child and be happy. This is it.”
Ms. Pochat got so hooked on bike shorts that she created an Excel spreadsheet ranking different models according to metrics such as “thigh squish,” “stays up,” “pocket size” and “camel toe.” Ms. Pochat posted it on Twitter and distributed it to a Facebook group for moms that she’s in, and said that she’s seen friends and acquaintances take the plunge and buy them — especially during quarantine. She believes that the intimidating nature of ultratight shorts (or other fashion risks, for that matter) has diminished compared to people’s fears of getting sick.
“I think it’s this shedding of the idea of what other people think of us. It’s no longer as much of a priority as it was,” Ms. Pochat said. “There is no ‘dressed appropriately’ anymore. The only ‘dressed appropriately’ is wearing a mask.”