Like many fashion fads, the skimpy shorts (maximum inseam of two inches) were not destined to become a mainstay, despite how on-trend they were initially. Looking back in its December 31, 1971 issue, LIFE Magazine summed up the year, sartorially speaking, this way: "Hot Pants: A short but happy career." But the pants, which were hot until they were not, made a long, lasting impression.
There are many reasons why 1971 was the perfect moment for a hot pants explosion. New fabric technology, like polyester, allowed for tiny, stretchy shorts ideal for the dance-floor. The form fitting garments fed into and came out of new dieting trends, as women were increasingly obsessed with "watching their figures." And the sexual revolution opened the door for more revealing clothing, and, more skin.
But like so many fashion trends, hot pants didn't originate in the United States. The British fashion designer who takes credit for launching the legs of millions is Mary Quant -- known widely for pioneering the mod look in the 1960s with fitted shirts for men and mini skirts for women. And, it was overseas during his 1970 European tour where James Brown saw hot pants for the first time. He decided he'd bring them back home, musically speaking.
"He wrote a song called 'The Spank,' which was his word for the female anatomy," Smith says. "An album called Goodness Sakes Take Look at Those Cakes… A half a dozen songs with the title 'Popcorn.' He just liked tuchus. He liked it so much he kept singing about it."
According to LIFE, hot pants were hottest in the winter, flourishing "during the iciest, most shivery months." And by summer they "ceased to be the height of chic." But, clearly not where James Brown was concerned: His song "Hot Pants" was a number-one R&B hit in the summer of '71, and made it to number 15 on the pop charts.
(listen to the songs below by clicking on the YouTube players)
In the spirit of the era, one answer song led to another, and another, all in rapid succession. A song called "Girl in the Hot Pants," from the Houston group Soul Brothers Inc. (sent to me by the NY DJ Jonathan Toubin) shouts out James Brown in a hilarious skit that opens the song: "Hello Ruby honey? What you gonna wear to the James Brown show tonight? I don't know about you, but I'm gonna wear my hot pants."
Then there was a folksy-funky track from the little-known band Salvage, a gem that apparently reached number 64 on the Cash Box/jukebox singles chart. The song's lyrics detail the fashion history of the garment, explaining in great detail how hemlines went up and down and up again that year: "Remember the days of mini? That was good. / But then they switched to the maxi. Never should. / The midi came, the midi went, it didn't last too long. / And now the girls are getting smart and coming on real strong.”
There are plenty of songs from men appreciating the, uh, bottom emphasis of the pants. Stax recording artists The Dramatics are pretty clear on what they like, and when, in "Hot Pants In The Summertime." Wee Willie Mason can hardly contain himself on "Funky Funky Hot Pants," yelping, "What are you girls trying to do?!" And Syl Johnson is ever appreciative in "Annie Got Hot Pants Power."
But the trend in music (and the fashion itself) wasn’t just about men ogling booty. Like the growing feminist movement, hot pants presented a kind of freedom that women wanted, and embraced. Valerie Steele recalled, "In my high school in the 1970s I went on strike to wear pants." And my mom uttered the words "hot pants" and "Betty Friedan" in the same sentence when I asked if she wore them. (Yes, she did). We can find that sentiment echoed in the songs of the day.
New Orleans soul singer Hank Carbo takes a vaguely women's lib angle: "Best thing that happened in a long, long time / women decided to make up their minds. / Wouldn't let nobody tell them what to wear...Hey mama how do you feel? Lookin’ so good, what you’re doing is real."
And in the song "Hot Pants" from a group called The 20th Century, the female singer goes on a shopping spree, picks up a pair, puts them on her "big hips" and does her best full throat James Brown scream.
Country singer Leona Williams made sure it wasn’t only city girls who had all the fun in "Country Girl with Hot Pants On." And, over in Philly, Norma and the Heartaches love how they "fit so nice," but caution, with a wink, "Look out girl, you better watch yourself / Those hot pants gonna get you in trouble."
But trouble is what the shorts came to represent, only months after they were the height of fashion.
First, they were deemed passé. (Hot pants songs sure drop off after 1971, although the JB's tried again with 1972's "Hot Pants Road.") They paired up with the growing Disco culture -- which was a haven for social and sexual outliers. Then, hot pants became linked with sex workers. Exhibit A: Jodie Foster as a child prostitute in 1976's Taxi Driver. Exhibit B: Any movie scene with hookers thereafter. Later, they became a mainstay of hip-hop music videos, and Sir Mix-A-Lot. Australian pop star Kylie Minogue famously wore a gold lamé pair in the music video for “Spinning Around” (2000). And more recently, the skimpy shorts have collided with irony. They’re almost a required uniform for roller derby girls, and they're an American Apparel mainstay -- you can’t walk down Bedford Avenue in hipster Williamsburg, Brooklyn without running into a pair.
So, although hot pants were pronounced over at the end of 1971, they've lingered on. They’re part of the collection at FIT – in fur, and suede, though relegated to the status of one-hit wonder/part of “the decade that taste forgot." Today, they're certainly not mainstream, but they’re hardly forgotten. Who wears short shorts? We all wear short shorts.
Gretta joined Soundcheck in 2010, having spent several years as a freelance radio documentary producer. Her stories on birders, fishermen, nurses, performance artists and even the Yale Whiffenpoofs have aired on a variety of outlets, from WNYC's Studio 360 to APM's The Story. She holds a B.A. in American Studies from Brown University and studied radio production at The Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. She was a cellist in the rock band Cursive from 2001-2005.