Smart or slothful choice? Either way, bike shorts work

By Eliza Brooke

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.

So maybe bike shorts were always destined to have a moment in the summer of 2020. But as with 1,000-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, Ogunnaike, 34, prefers bike shorts with an inseam of 7 to 9 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,” Ogunnaike 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 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,” 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.”

The princess of Wales 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,” 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. Pochat was also having trouble coming to terms with how her body had changed after her unplanned cesarean 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,” Pochat said. “My main goals are to be comfortable and to keep up with my child and be happy. This is it.”

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.” Pochat posted it on Twitter and distributed it to a Facebook group for moms that she’s in, and said she has seen friends and acquaintances take the plunge and buy them — especially during quarantine. She said she thinks the intimidating nature of ultratight shorts (or other fashion risks, for that matter) has diminished compared with 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,” Pochat said. “There is no ‘dressed appropriately’ anymore. The only ‘dressed appropriately’ is wearing a mask.”

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