If public opinion influences trends, then TikTok is the best trendsetter. It started with a TikTok video from user @sabrinaxrod that went viral in late July, when she convinced her boyfriend to wear a pair of five-inch inseam shorts. For context, the inseam is the length between the crotch seam and the bottom of the pants.
Recorded to the lyrics of the popular sound “He has no lips! How will he get a kiss kiss,” the video features audio that is often used on the platform to compare something that’s unappealing with something that is. In the case of the #5inchseam movement, which has 23.7 million views to date, TikTok users are comparing five-inch inseams to seven and nine-inch inseams.
Lemme put you on my man’s favorite shorts?? #5inchseam
Women on the app are voicing their preferences, and the consensus is clear. Men should not be wearing baggy, long shorts; instead, men should be showing more leg because it carries infinitely more sex appeal.
If the popularity of this trend wasn’t an indicator of the support for shorter inseams, then a quick look at celebrities also shows that this summer, short shorts are mainstream. From Hype House influencers to Harry Styles, and even Paul Mescal, shorter shorts are gaining prominence.
However, just a few years ago, wearing five-inch inseams was not met with the same popularity that it receives now, especially among men. Short shorts have historically been viewed as extremely infantilizing and even feminine. Shorter inseams lie on the opposite end of the masculine archetype, which makes this movement even more unprecedented. However, in order to examine the consequences of this movement, it’s important to first look at the history behind shorts.
A brief history of pants
Shorts pop up at various moments in history. In the 18th and 19th centuries, and even today, it was customary for boys to wear shorts. As boys grew out of adolescence and transitioned into adulthood, it was expected that they’d start wearing pants. As such, there’s a longstanding association between wearing pants and being a man.
Just as shorts give boys a greater range of motion, the origin of modern shorts also comes from a place of necessity instead of aesthetics. Shorts were popular attire in the military, especially in the 1900s. During World War I, British men on the island of Bermuda started cutting trousers above the knee to cope with the hot, humid climate of the Caribbean. Rightfully dubbed “Bermuda shorts,” such attire became widespread among civilians on the island, and the trend quickly spread abroad as well. The British military popularized shorts, which would eventually become common in various outdoor activities, like tennis, and in the Boy Scouts.
The 1970s saw shorts explode in popularity even more, especially among the counterculture and the sexual liberation movement. However, while shorts have become mainstream casual wear today, short shorts have not gained universal acceptance.
Looking at athletic shorts today, one can see that they rarely go above the seven or nine-inch inseam. Basketball is owed a lot of credit for publicizing longer, baggy shorts; during the beginning of his professional career in the ’80s, Michael Jordan preferred longer basketball shorts to not only wear the uniform of his alma mater — the University of North Carolina — underneath, but also to give him more leverage when grabbing his shorts to catch his breath.
Baggier shorts became the norm among athletic menswear from that point on, and have therefore become the target of light-hearted criticism among so many TikTok users.
But why is it controversial?
Although we have progressed beyond the days when shorts were scandalous for men, short shorts have yet to break that barrier. One of the most obvious reasons for its unpopularity is that many see shorter inseams as unmanly.
In a society where the norm is shorts that end just above the knees, choosing a shorter inseam is a deliberate choice. Five-inch shorts are a bold fashion statement because they indicate that the wearer is making an effort in how they dress. You’re not wearing short shorts because they’re a necessity, as is the case for the British in Bermuda, but because you like them. That can be polarizing, because even something as innocuous as choosing to wear a new piece of clothing can go against male gender norms. Joe Stone, commissioning editor for The Guardian, explains that “it used to be embarrassing for men to take an interest in their appearance.” However, Stone also acknowledges that nowadays, “it’s embarrassing for them not to.”
So, taking pride in your appearance can’t be the only reason for the divisiveness of five-inch shorts, like Stone says. Another factor to consider is the sexualization associated with shorter shorts. Many #5inchseam videos carry a humorous and thirsty undertone. Men are rarely the target of sexual advances, so to be on the receiving end is something that’s never happened for many. Wearing shorter inseams shows more skin, and this sexualization of the male body is a reversal of gender norms that can make some uncomfortable. Drawing attention to one’s body can also amplify body confidence issues among men.
The impact of five-inch inseams makes even more sense when situated around the concept of toxic masculinity. The New York Times defines toxic masculinity as the following: “suppressing emotions or masking distress,” “maintaining an appearance of hardness” and “violence as an indicator of power.”
In a society where pants are associated with mature, professional and assertive behavior, wearing short shorts is antithetical to power and hardness. In the professional world, men have considerable leeway with attire — business casual and formal wear bring up different clothing options to mind — but wearing pants is non-negotiable.
It’s interesting to think about the paradoxes of masculine norms. While men are expected to display tough-guy behavior, they’re modest and reserved when it comes to clothing expectations. For all the machismo and confidence that men have, they can be very sensitive to even the slightest change in clothing — like shorter inseams, for example.
Shorter inseams can also be a sensitive topic because of their association with the queer community. The act of sexualizing oneself is in part an act in being more vulnerable, and that’s not masculine by most traditional standards.
Despite the contentions around shorter inseams, men and women alike are starting to normalize five-inch shorts. And with the adoption of short shorts comes a change in traditional gender norms among today’s generation. But the consensus is clear: First, five-inch inseams have made a comeback, and second, that showing skin and taking pride in one’s appearance no longer has to come at the expense of masculinity.