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This Spring and Summer, Short Shorts Are No Longer Just for Runners

Brooks Running

Milo Ventimiglia was just trying to drive home after a workout when he started a trend. It wasn’t the This Is Us star’s Superior Defense t-shirt expertly distressed to look like Metallica merch or the beat-up Chuck Taylor shoes; no, it was what lay in-between: approximately 17 feet of bare leg. Ventimiglia, after all, was rocking short shorts.

Back in the 70s, 80s, and even early 90s, short shorts were just called shorts. The NBA issued them to its players in the 1970s (Google “Wilt Chamberlain” for about two miles of upper thigh), and former president Bill Clinton was still jogging in them en route to McDonald’s in the early 1990s. One company, Dolfin, effectively became synonymous with the style, and when the bro restaurant Hooters launched in the 1980s, Dolfin’s soon-to-be iconic orange short short was part of the restaurant’s official uniform. Even fitness guru and possible kidnapping victim Richard Simmons became indelibly associated with them, and in a 2012 Men’s Health interview, he claimed that he’d amassed more than 400 vintage pairs, some of which were sent by fans after being discovered while cleaning out garages. “They don’t make them anymore,” he said, “because the material is flammable.”

Whether because of the possibility of combustion or just the change of styles over time, the short short went out of vogue in favor of longer inseams across just about every category, including running, in the mid-90s, with some comical over-compensating, and by the early Aughts, official NBA shorts had lengthened to an 11-inch inseam, which dropped well beneath most players’ kneecaps. But like Tolkien’s ring, short shorts were biding their time and plotting a return.

After a pandemic-chilled 2020, in 2021, activewear makers are seeing increased interest in decreasing inseams. In response to this, Brooks Running and other companies are revamping seasonal lineups to include greater offerings based on this trend. Brooks itself has launched entirely new styles, including its Sherpa Split Short, which features a tiny three-inch inseam short packed with big features, including two hip pockets and a no-riding-up waistband. True, these workout shorts are designed for long miles and race-day conditions, but who’s going to bust you when you’re rocking them with a vintage tee?

“If there is one good thing that has come from the pandemic it’s that more people have discovered the benefits and joys of running,” Mike Orton, apparel product line manager at Brooks Running, told The Manual. “Now, more than ever, we’re seeing veteran and new runners alike seeking out purpose built gear that will get them out the door and in the zone.”

Tracksmith, another running apparel brand which has its own classically inspired Twilight Split Short, has also seen renewed interest in the shorter lengths. “It’s a look that runners like Ted Corbitt and Bill Rodgers made iconic, but at the end of the day its popularity is all about functionality,” says Matt Taylor, the company’s co-founder and CEO, in conversation with The Manual. “As running has boomed in the pandemic, I am not surprised to see more people return to a style that is associated with performance.”

Whether you’re a runner old enough to know the history, a Millennial with a healthy respect for the past, or a thirsty Ventimiglia fan, short shorts are back this summer and hopefully for years to come. Is it time for you to adopt a shorter inseam for the coming warmer months? To borrow a Dylan phrase, you don’t need a weatherman to know the way the wind blows. This season, it’s tickling the bare hairs on your mid- to upper thigh.

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