A History of Hotpants Just In Time For Summer

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Don’t get it twisted with Daisy Dukes, booty shorts, biker shorts, or Bermuda shorts, the hotpant is its own breed of culture-defining fashion straight out of the ’70s. The abbreviated pant was once one of those specific fashion fads that aligned itself with a movement of women (and some men) who broke out of the accepted forms of women’s dress embracing all their curves for the first time. From pop stars to porn stars, hotpants have had a strange past fluctuating between fashion and faux pas, but the vilified history behind the style proves its place as one of the most diverse and controversial trends that still exists today.

The first true embrace of hotpants budded in the 1950s under their original title–“short shorts.“ Remember the tune? „Who wears short shorts? We wear short shorts!“ echoed on just about every radio in the famous 1958 song by The Royal Teens aptly titled „Short Shorts.“ The style emerged when glamorous Hollywood actresses would wear them on the beach and in pin-up photos to accentuate their curvaceous bodies. The short short typically came to a leg-flattering six inches above the knee and modeled a classic ’50s high-waisted cut with a zipper on the side.

As women began to integrate the short short onto the streets as a part of their everyday dress, the style soon received immense backlash due to their disregard for accepted dress codes. Shorts were typical in athletic wear, but never before had they taken to the streets in a range of new fabrics such as yarn and silk. It was often frowned upon when fashion didn’t adhere to traditional ideas of women’s dress, most commonly composed of a long skirt, blouse, heeled shoes, and stockings. Between having been adapted from athletic wear and showing off some serious skin, short shorts stirred up quite the controversy breaking all the rules of women’s everyday dress at the time.

In the wake of spring 1952, Fort Worth Texas City Council received a letter from a concerned citizen calling short shorts „an advertisement for adultery.“ The woman told the council she was a „decent lady“ who resented having to look at „ugly legs.“ Short shorts, she added, were a „disgrace to humanity.“ The council briefly considered banning the style from the Fort Worth community, leading to the story and style making national headlines.

Seen as an attempt to thwart dress codes, this sparked a longstanding cultural push-back against any short styles. Towards the end of the ’60s, the fashion industry began to promote midi-skirts as a replacement for shorter options to remain within dress code standards. Despite the endorsement from the fashion world, the response to the midi style was lukewarm. The zeitgeist of the time was freed and sexually liberated, and women yearned for styles to match that. One thing was for sure, shoppers were hooked on the trends of short styles but didn’t know exactly where to find them.

At the tail end of the swinging ’60s, Welsh fashion designer Mary Quant opened her boutique Bazaar on King’s Road in London’s Chelsea neighborhood. As a force in mod and youth-driven fashions, Quant garnered a large fanbase of dedicated clientele at her boutique. It was there she designed modernized styles–such as the mini skirt–that challenged the status quo of women’s dress. Despite her advancements, her customers kept coming back asking to „…make it shorter, shorter, shorter.“

In an effort to give her clients what they asked for, Quant designed a style of shorts synonymous with the times that had a maximum inseam of about two inches. Better known as hotpants, the name for the style was coined by a fashion trade publication in 1970 when used as a generic term to refer to different styles and price points of the popular new trend.

The style spread like wildfire among the youth and became something of a movement in the wake of the ’70s. The Godfather of Soul, James Brown’s three-part anthology „Hot Pants (She Got to Use What She Got to Get What She Want)“ went number-one on the R&B charts in 1971 aligning with the cultural craze of the miniscule style. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis bought a pair while yachting along the Franco-Italian coast, and Elizabeth Taylor wore them to London’s Heathrow Airport as part of her jet-set look. While hotpants were generally marketed to women, men were no exception. The term was also considered unisex and could be used to describe very short men’s shorts. David Bowie, Liberace, and Elton John were some of the adventurous men who partook in the style.

New fabric technologies allowed hotpants to be made in more fluid fabrics like polyester–perfect for the dance floor during the dawn of disco. Beyond the club scene, hotpants became a workplace uniform for many. Professional cheerleading teams began utilizing the style as a way to stay on-trend and have free movement when performing. Hotpants were part of the basic uniform for stewardesses on Southwest Airlines who paired them with go-go boots. The airline selected interviewees based on the strength of their legs with the company’s motto being „sex sells seats.“

Though hotpants sartorially expressed a female’s newfound freedom coinciding with the women’s sexual liberation movement, hotpants became subject to the male gaze and the press regarded them as a method of drawing sexually provocative attention. As a result, the style was reverted back to its scorned beginnings and became associated with the sex work industry, appearing as a key detail in various pornographic film posters.

By the mid-’70s hotpants had become secondhand for prostitution. With sex work seen as taboo, it ultimately led to the downfall of the fad as an unattractive style. Exemplary of the shift in mood towards the style, in the 1976 neo-noir film Taxi Driver, Academy Award-winner Jodie Foster’s child-prostitute character is dressed throughout the film in various examples of hotpants. Additionally, Marc Jacobs‘ Spring/Summer 2011 collection was inspired by the styling of Foster’s character in the film with various looks including a nod to the hotpant style.

Hotpants didn’t step back onto the scene until the ’90s when an increasing number of stars began wearing them as a part of their distinctive image. This came under scrutiny as many believed hotpants were a way to sexualize youth-driven icons. Pop sensations from Jennifer Lopez to Christina Aguilera all wore the style as a costume that is non-restrictive for dancing. Britney Spears is most noted for wearing hotpants in several of her most iconic looks, including the tiny metallic hot pants she wore singing „I’m a Slave 4 U“ at the 2001 MTV Video Music Awards with a boa constrictor dangled around her neck.

Unencumbered by the weighted fabric of trousers, hotpants were a symbol of liberation in a time when the sartorial standards for women were drastically changing for the future of fashion. Though it’s not likely one will find hotpants at local clothing stores today, similar styles of ultra-short shorts still exist as a representation of the hotpant fad that swept the fashion world during the colorful period of the ‘70s.

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