A Brief History of Bike Shorts

 

Perhaps you noticed it last summer or maybe you just realized it last week, but bike shorts have become almost as ubiquitous as basic black leggings. And not just among cyclists who are avid road racers. We’re talking everyone, everywhere, who leaned into the athleisure look for obvious reasons: These stretchy spandex shorts are comfortable, easy-to-wear, super cute and great for impromptu (or planned!) athletic activities but are also great for lounging on the couch.

Which mostly explains why bike shorts have been popular among cyclists for centuries. Yes, you read that right; this very particular style has actually been around since the 1890s. See, back then bikes were only just becoming readily available and people realized that their Victorian-era clothing (flowing dresses, constricting suits, etc.) wasn’t quite the best thing to wear while pedaling around town. So, many started wearing black wool shorts for jaunts on their two-wheelers. Often these styles were handmade and their dark color was preferred, as it hid any stains that could be picked up after hours of sitting on an oiled leather seat. 

Yeah, wool probably wasn’t the best material for this type of athletic wear but at the time it was preferred because at least it kept riders warm and did a decent job of wicking away sweat. However, it was also pretty scratchy, a bit uncomfortable and would often leave riders with chafed (and sometimes bleeding) thighs. Ouch. 

That painful design detail led to the creation of a chamois in the early 1900s. Though unlike the high-tech, softly padded versions you probably know today, the original chamois was just a piece of leather added to the crotch of wool shorts. (And BTW, it was named chamois after the type of goat the leather came from.) Unfortunately it took quite some time for innovation to shape the bike short into a piece that was actually comfortable. But the advent of Lycra in the 1950s helped push bike shorts into a style we’re more familiar with today. 

TI–Raleigh, a Dutch professional track cycling and road bicycle racing team, were among the first to rock the stretchy style in 1976 and a year later, a similar pair were created by Castelli that were finally available for purchase by all bikers—not just pros. However, the bike shorts of the ‘70s were one-size-fits-all and still served up in basic black.

It wasn’t until 1981 that colorful bike shorts entered the group chat, when Castelli debuted a turquoise Lycra fabric at the Giro d'Italia, a Grand Tour race. It was around this time that the same brand reworked the chamois from a leather crotch patch to a padded version that was far more technologically advanced. Which is to say, way more comfortable than the early iterations. At first, these new chamois were crafted out of cotton but as new fabrications were invented (specifically, with the advent of microfiber in Japan), the foam chamois we know today began taking shape. 

The ‘80s marked a pretty big moment for bike shorts, as they started making their way off the saddle and into mainstream fashion. In fact, the style has kind of become synonymous with that era, alongside teased and feathered coifs and legwarmers. They were spotted often on episodes of Saved by the Bell and worn by celebs of the moment, from Madonna to Sarah Jessica Parker and even Demi Moore (who controversially wore a pair to the Oscars in 1989). They even found their way onto the runways at Alaïa and Chanel, cementing their status as a fashion piece.

By the ‘90s, Princess Diana even made bike shorts part of her off-duty signature, as she was often photographed wearing them while heading to the gym. Paired with a casual crewneck sweatshirt, scrunched socks, oversized sunglasses and a smile, the People’s Princess showed that you could bring a royal pedigree to this stretchy number. But after a few years of saturation, bike shorts fell out of style...though they continued to be worn by racing cyclists for obvious reasons (they’re just so efficient and sweat-wicking).

As we now know, fashion is nothing if not cyclical. So, 20 years later, we’re facing a major bike shorts resurgence. When they were spotted on the famous hips of Kim Kardashian in 2016, the athletic gear swiftly returned to its standing as a statement piece worn by pop culture icons. It took some time for this style to trickle down to the masses (after being coined as a “controversial” style from the ‘80s). But once Hailey Beiber, Gigi Hadid and the rest of the supermodels of the moment started wearing theirs out—with heels, blazers, cute sweaters or even matching sports bras—the rest of us saw how easy it was to build a bike shorts outfit. 

And we’re happy to see that the bike short trend doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon. As a fabulous alternative to leggings on a hot summer day, they really are a brilliant invention whether you’re biking around for hours...or just want to look cute but not too dressy.