In April the US actor Milo Ventimiglia, star of This Is Us, was photographed leaving the gym in a sleeveless vest and a pair of shorts so short you could barely tell they were there: two thumb-sized rims of black material gave way to legs so round and meaty they could be shoved in the oven for three hours at 180C.
It was one innocuous paparazzi photo that broke a dam of desire. The image was reshared on social media tens of thousands of times, users claiming: “Every thought in my head has been replaced with these images.”
That was just the beginning. After Paul Mescal wore similarly revealing O’Neill Gaelic football shorts last year, Gucci released an almost identical pair, much to Mescal’s delight. Harry Styles has been wearing a pair of denim Daisy Dukes, the seams fraying where they could no longer contain his flanks. Half the NBA, a league famed for its long, wafty basketball shorts, have started hiking up their kit to let their quads breathe.
It’s gone far beyond celebrities. On TikTok hundreds of videos have been posted at #inseam and #5inseam. Most of the videos are posted by women, claiming that they would never date the perfect man if he wore shorts longer than 5.5in. Others take a more direct approach: one girlfriend quietly hems all of her boyfriend’s shorts to make them shorter.
Fashion journalists have clambered over one another to coin the name for this trend. Vox declared it to be “thigh-guy summer” – their calm, measured writer arguing that “Ancient Greeks sailed to fight for a woman; Americans would let Milo’s thighs pulverise their skulls.” Wall Street Journal style editor Jacob Gallagher suggested this will be a “one-inch inseam summer”, blurring the line between short shorts and Christmas cracker hats. The Times claimed: “Legs are the new abs.”
As trends go, short shorts are hardly new. Tom Selleck and John Travolta were wearing budgie smugglers decades before the TikTok hem-raisers. But they do represent a bulwark against the normification of men’s fashion over the past 30 years. While a few men in the public eye – Styles, Tyler, the Creator and Lil Nas X – become ever more daring in their fashion choices, the average high street has become ever more conformist.
So the rise of the thigh is a tiny bit remarkable, because it suggests an idea that has been out of the public imagination for a long time – that men might want to dress in a way that is unapologetically sexy. This trend for showing more skin has come at a time when Britain feels at its most sexually charged since the free love summers of the 1960s. The government has given a national directive to go forth and bonk – how else can one describe the recent announcement from Barry Whitehall himself, Michael Gove, that overnight stays and “intimate contact between friends” would now be allowed?
Social media had been frothing at the idea of a “hot vax summer”. After a year stewing in our own sweatpants and endless lonely hours WFH, the thought of human contact feels overwhelming. There has been a reported “double-digit” increase in Durex sales in the first quarter of 2021, compared with a year ago.
Yet we are a long way from the naive days of 1960s sexual freedom. The pandemic has not changed the fact that when we hear about straight men’s sexuality it is often in terms of unwanted advances. Covid has dominated the news for the past year, but in the brief spells it has disappeared from front pages it has tended to be replaced by grim stories of sexual predators. It seems almost impossible to talk about a summer of free love when men continue to attack the freedoms of women. It feels morally unacceptable to discuss men being provocative in a positive way. Is it even OK for men to dress more sexually?
“I find it impossible to say,” says Vogue’s sex columnist Annie Lord. “I think men and women are trying to negotiate that space and it’s difficult. I speak to a lot of people about sexuality and almost everyone is starved of touch – but there’s still that fear of not knowing how to approach each other, not in a creepy way.”
I ask whether she thinks women are excited by the sight of a hamstring. She agrees there was something about Milo’s thighs that was hot, but says it’s not so much about women ogling thighs as what a shorter pair of shorts represents. “I think what people really want at the moment is a kind of soft masculinity, a soft lad. Connell from Normal People was definitely that: sporty, calm. He was masculine, but he made you feel safe.”
An exposed thigh projects the qualities of a soft lad. They are sporty, useful, athletic, deeply revealing, lightly erogenous, ultimately unthreatening. They are often covered in softer hair and blemishes, and displaying them has a strange vulnerability – a state of nature rather than one of undress.
Of course it helps if you have good legs. Gyms have been reporting a rise in lower-body workouts for men. The kinds of “legs, bums and tums” classes more usually marketed at women have become common at the blokiest of gyms. Training centre Roar has become renowned for its dramatic before and after photos, with everyone from Nick Grimshaw to Piers Morgan signing up to have their bodies transformed. But, says founder and trainer Sarah Lindsay, the type of body people want has changed.
“It actually goes back to the London Olympics. In the years that followed, people wanted much less of the model look, the kind of V-shaped body, and we started to hear the words ‘athletic’ and ‘strength’ a lot more. People’s goals changed – yes they wanted a better body, but mostly they wanted to feel strong.”
Lindsay says the focus on legs is less about the way they look and more about what they allow you to achieve. “I think people used to skip their legs at the gym, because they were just focused on trying to get a six pack. But legs are a big contributor to how strong you can be. If you don’t work on your core – which your quads and glutes are a part of – then your upper body will always be limited and you’re more prone to injury.”
So it’s good to craft your calves but beyond just exposing a bit more leg, are there other fashion choices that men can make to re-engage with their sexuality in a way that doesn’t feel creepy? Samuel Douek is a director, drag artist and entrepreneur with a particular interest in male expression. His most recent music video, for Little Mix, saw the three bandmates perform in full male drag. In the LGBTQ+ space there has always been room to express, confound and play with masculinity – but, he says, straight men struggle with even the most minor deviation from the norm.
“Often straight men say to me, ‘I love what you’re wearing, but I could never pull it off,’” he says. “And I look at what I’m wearing and it’s like… a pair of jeans with a stripe down them. What do you mean you could never pull that off? Whether it’s not wanting to be seen as gay, or just a fear of masculinity itself, I’m not sure.”
Douek feels that wasn’t always the case. In the 1970s there were “incredibly short shorts, big bulges – that’s actually how most of our dads dressed. Glam rock made men in makeup normal and there was a real exploration of sexuality. In the 1980s, the Aids crisis made it harder for queer artists to exist in the mainstream, Hollywood refused to engage with them. In its place came a hypermasculinisation of popular culture that has persisted to this day. So, if anything, we’re just slowly going back to where we were.”
Now when we think of provocative dress, it’s much more in line with gender stereotypes: even when we’re trying to transcend them we conform to them. “When we think about pejorative slang terms for men and women, all the female terms are about being promiscuous: slut, whore,” says Douek. “The worst thing you can be called as a man is a woman: sissy, wimp, puss. Those stereotypes are reflected when we describe provocative appearances. For women, to dress ‘provocatively’ is to be highly sexualised. For men, it’s to break gender boundaries.”
Douek is right – it’s really just a certain kind of heterosexual man that has problems with showing a bit of skin and may now just be getting over themselves. Any kind of fashion trend is inherently steeped in deep generalisations – and rarely holds true across every background or sexuality. As true as it is that the world is currently lusting over upper legs, you can be certain that in a year or two we’ll be reading that over-the-knee surfer shorts are the hot summer look.
But the thigh obsession does tell us something about how men might engage with a summer of sex in a way that embraces masculinity yet isn’t creepy. When lockdown started, I began to face up to a body that I had never been that keen on: bits of loose Play-Doh in unseemly places. I gave up snacks and started to run. The year that followed was far more emotionally testing than I could ever have imagined, but on the hardest days, when tears fell and my belly shrunk, my legs would grow like roots.
After we talk, Annie Lord messages me. She’s back with Milo. “I’ve been looking at the photo again and actually one of the things that is sexy about it is that he’s busy, he’s carrying stuff, getting into his car. He’s doing things and he happens to be on display doing them. I want men to look busy all the time.”
Ventimiglia finally addressed his legs on US daytime show The Talk last month. He tried to diffuse the lust by saying he’s “just a guy leaving the gym” and that his shorts weren’t actually that high-hemmed, but he likes to fold up the legs when he’s at the gym so he can “work a little harder”. In other words, he’s not being sexy, he’s just doing things.
For men to embrace their sexuality, they have to feel something about their own bodies. Sexuality through functionality is a way forward. Legs transport us, hold us, prevent us from injury, show a little more of who we are and, yes, make us look busy. If they happen to look nice, too, well we couldn’t possibly comment.