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The Great Leg Show!

Hot pants served as a sartorial riposte to the fashion industry’s relentless campaign for the midi.

By 1971, the midi skirt craze—if ever there really was one— had cooled. Now it was on to hot pants. No one was quite sure where they came from, but hot pants were reportedly “a-bustin’ out all over” in Europe that winter and then on the runways come spring. Later, they trickled into nearly every corner of American life, to such a degree that my own mother was casually wearing them to work.

What exactly were they? In reality, hot pants were nothing new, just “shorts revisited—all revved up for casual and city wear in the 1970s.” Short-shorts that came in a variety of materials (polyester, knit, velvet, etc.), hot pants could be dressed up or down and represented an alternative to the mini skirt. They also, crucially, served as a sartorial riposte to the fashion industry’s relentless campaign for the midi.

While the Duke of Windsor, the former King Edward VIII, may have sallied forth from his exile to declare hot pants “ridiculous,” most men were on board. The phrase “girl watchers” appears in news coverage, along with repeated acknowledgment of the appeal this garment for women held for men. A poll taken in an unnamed “conservative eastern [US] city” determined that 84% of women under the age of 25 approved of hot pants, 56% of women over 25, and 75% of men (age unspecified) “approved warmly.”

In April 1971, an especially giddy advertisement directly addressed the “girls” who were its audience, while focusing the argument for purchasing hot pants entirely on the pleasure they brought men: “Men in the audience applaud! The curtain’s going up on The Great Leg Show! It’s legs, legs, legs for summer ’71. Long legs, beautiful legs, devastating legs! If you’ve got ‘em, girls, flaunt ‘em.”

Opinions swirled about whether or not hot pants were appropriate for workplaces and schools, and also about who should wear them. Popular opinion held that the garments came with a host of complications, largely due to their shortness. For one thing, they “aren’t as simple as shorts of the past,” one columnist warned her readers, highlighting, as they did, so much more of the upper thigh. If legs were less than perfect, she warned, then panty hose or body stockings were a must to give the illusion of a suntan.