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Bike shorts are the official uniform of pandemic summer

The infamously unflattering garment is cool again. Here’s how the impossible happened.

See? So cute!
Courtesy of Girlfriend Collective
Rebecca Jennings is a senior correspondent covering social platforms and the creator economy. Since joining Vox in 2018, her work has explored the rise of TikTok, internet aesthetics, and the pursuit of money and fame online. You can sign up for her biweekly Vox Culture newsletter here.

Welcome to Noticed, The Goods’ design trend column. You know that thing you’ve been seeing all over the place? Allow us to explain it.

What are they: Stretchy, form-fitting, and usually high-waisted shorts that hit above the knee. Like leggings, but y’know, shorter. As their name suggests, bike shorts are best known for being worn by cyclists, but over the past few years they’ve been given a stylish “camp-counselor chic” upgrade.

Where are they: On the bodies of seemingly everyone in quarantine, even though you wouldn’t know it from their floating heads on Zoom. And, of course, Instagram influencers are wearing them — a lot.

Why you’re seeing them everywhere right now: Believe it or not, the infamously unflattering garment was having a fashion moment long before everybody got stuck at home. The story begins with Kanye West, who was exploring bike short silhouettes in his then-nascent brand Yeezy as early as 2015. It was his wife and muse Kim Kardashian West, though, who really put them on the map when she began regularly pairing bike shorts with oversized jackets or skin-tight bra tops for the paparazzi, much to the shock of the fashion and celebrity press at the time (sample headline: “Kim Kardashian Is Hell-Bent On Making Bike Shorts a Thing Again”).

Despite his distaste for sweatpants, the late Chanel creative director Karl Lagerfeld was putting bike shorts on the runway around spring 2016, which meant that by summer, Vogue was already publishing “how to style bike shorts” blogs. By 2018, bike shorts were a street-style staple at fashion week shows, adding a sporty touch to delicate blouses or preppy blazers. It’s a look best exemplified in Virgil Abloh’s Princess Diana-inspired 2018 runway show, which Naomi Campbell closed in a white double-breasted jacket and matching spandex shorts.

Bike shorts may have just been another one of the billions of ’90s nostalgia trends that “work” only on supermodels (see also: tiny sunglasses) if it hadn’t been for a pandemic forcing almost everyone inside for several months. I knew something was amiss when the bike shorts I wanted from American Eagle were sold out: Although I’d spent the first few months in my apartment wearing exclusively high-waisted leggings, it took me until May to realize there was a summertime solution to being too hot and wanting to wear something that felt like nothing at all.

Street style at Paris Fashion Week in June 2019.
Edward Berthelot/Getty Images

The answer presented itself, of course, on Instagram, where housebound influencers were showing off their expensive matching athleisure sets. Although the tie-dye sweatsuit may have been the quarantine uniform back in March and April, when summer weather started to hit larger swaths of the country, so too did their shorter, thinner counterparts. Bloggers like Danielle Bernstein and models like Emily Ratajkowski were posting their capital-f Fashion bike shorts, while the ads on my feed were coming from Outdoor Voices and other cool-girl athleisure labels.

Not only were bike shorts everywhere I looked online, but they were selling out IRL too, at brands such as Girlfriend Collective, Aerie, and Fashion Brand Company, just as Google searches for bike shorts were skyrocketing higher than they had in more than a decade. Erin Collins Rittling, senior manager of Aerie Styling, says, “They are the perfect mix of leggings and shorts — two summer faves.” She says that bike shorts have been a top seller for the company in recent weeks and continue to “crush expectations.” But unlike the versions on Instagram models and in ’90s mood boards, they’ve taken on new meaning during the pandemic — and found a new audience in the process.

Anna Lindy, a 25-year-old in Oklahoma City who works in retail, noticed their company was selling way more bike shorts this year than normal. “As a plus-sized person, I just saw bike shorts as another item that might not flatter my body type,” they told Vox. Lindy eventually bought a pair of Old Navy compression shorts and realized the style wasn’t just for “tall, thin bodies.”

“Quarantine has a lot more people spending more time with themselves, which for me encouraged me to spend more time listening to what my body needs and loving myself in more ways than I had before,” they said. “I’ve been more active, and as I’ve grown to love my body over the years, if I’m comfortable and confident in something, it really doesn’t matter what other people think of it.”

Although influencers tout products and workouts meant to stave off the “quarantine 15,” others are finding bike shorts the perfect garment to stay comfortable even when their old clothes don’t fit. The second, and arguably more important, function of bike shorts, of course, is that they prevent painful summertime thigh chafing (or the delightfully named “chub rub.”) At BuzzFeed, Shannon Keating wrote that after gaining a few pounds this spring, bike shorts were “the perfect middle ground. They’re ridiculously comfortable, definitely more so than jeans, but they still hold me in.”

Bike shorts are the epitome of what many professionally stylish people are dubbing the “camp-counselor aesthetic,” notable for tie-dye, homemade friendship bracelets, ugly sandals, and oversized tees. It’s like “VSCO girl” meets normcore, which, as Felix Petty described in i-D, “sit[s] under the same big trend umbrella as dad shoes, city merch, gorpcore, and bumbags. Which is to say, ironic ugliness remade into sarcastic-but-practical luxury ... Comfort only comes couched in something sardonic and knowing.”

Vogue’s Michelle Ruiz told Vox that she started feeling a “magnetic pull to tie-dye” a few weeks into quarantine. “I think it was the perfect storm of being stuck at home and wearing loungewear all the time, and the news getting increasingly dark, so wanting that loungewear to be incredibly colorful and happy,” she said. The fashion industry was leaning in, too: Ruiz noted that her social media feeds were soon filled with targeted ads for camp-counselor chic clothing.

The aesthetic might be a quarantine-inspired iteration of escapist dressing, much like gingham and the “sexy milkmaid” look have been in years previous. “If I had to psychoanalyze it, it’s about wanting to return to the simple, innocent time of being a camper,” Ruiz said.

I’m thrilled to say that I did, eventually, find several pairs of bike shorts that weren’t yet sold out, and even more thrilled to say that although they look absolutely terrible on me, it doesn’t even really matter. The soft, stretchy fabric is breathable enough to survive alone in sweaty apartments, and just dorky enough to provide a rare source of joy in pandemic summer. In fact, I’ve worn them so much that I even bought the next level up in the hierarchy of camp-counselor garments: a skort.

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