One of this summer’s notable fashion preoccupations are casual, thigh-high shorts that are sometimes neatly finished with a seam or a narrow cuff, but more often than not are simply classic cutoffs in washed denim with a perfectly frayed hem.
They are the eternal trend.
Some, such as Man Repeller fashion blogger Leandra Medine, call cutoffs chic. Others, such as commenters on Instagram, have cold-sweat flashbacks to Jessica Simpson in “The Dukes of Hazzard.” This duality is part of their allure. They suggest a sweet life of beachcombing, lazy Saturdays and barefoot walks; they are also a wee bit raunchy. Cutoffs are utterly without pretension, but they are also a measure of whether one’s personal swagger can overcome the invariable risks of DIY design.
Cutoffs are the fashion equivalent of fried dough. Awful, yet kinda good.
The latest iteration of the classic short sits high on the waist — settling in at belly-button level. They are just long enough to cover — only barely — that particularly erotic intersection of the derriere and the upper thigh.
Whence did these short shorts come? What force propelled them onto the landscape in abundance this summer? Let us go to popular culture, the runway, the mall.
Cutoffs entered the public consciousness as the uniform of the tease and the temptress in the late 1950s and '60s. Brigitte Bardot arrived on the international screen with her blond bed hair. Raquel Welch graced mankind with her brick house figure. And Annette Funicello, with her large, dark eyes and button nose, was prom-queen lovely.
The three icons possessed wholly different kinds of beauty. But they shared a penchant for teeny-tiny shorts. Their brevity and informality made these women seem real and touchable — homey, even. The image of a babe in cutoffs allowed flushed and over-eager schoolboys to imagine themselves in a hay-rolling tryst with these poster girls.
The fashion industry has always been keen on 1960s style, but the fascination came to a head several years ago when “Mad Men” landed on basic cable with such an explosion. Its influence on the frock trade was broad, from collections mimicking the show’s look at Banana Republic to collections inspired by it at Michael Kors. But once fashion had had its fill of references to Pierre Cardin’s futuristic minimalism and Norman Norell’s ladylike preciousness, to Jackie Kennedy and Joan Harris, it turned its attention to the hidden underpinnings that gave a woman her shape — that made a woman womanly.
The era influenced the fashion industry to throw its support behind the high-fashion panty. The bottoms are cut so high on the leg and fit so snugly that they resemble full-coverage briefs. These, however, are meant to be seen. Prada panties have the look of something that might have been worn by an early '60s bathing beauty. (Designer Miuccia Prada has even stitched them out of wool and paired them with waders.) The Dolce & Gabbana versions, with this season’s patterns drawn from Sicily, resemble the sort of fanciful coverage a dancer might wear as a stage costume. They are very Bob Fosse jazz hands.
The briefs go from dowdy to tarty with only a few nips, tucks and well-placed embellishments. This is part of their allure. They are both naughty and demure, sexy and sweet. Yet no matter how often a fashion designer sends a pair down the runway, they get little traction as commercial propositions. Imagine that.
Underscoring their outre appeal, Sarah Jessica Parker’s Carrie Bradshaw reluctantly wore an early version of them on “Sex and the City” when she was a celebrity model in a fashion show. Carrie wore jeweled Dolce & Gabbana briefs and famously took a tumble in them, landing facedown on the runway, as “fashion roadkill,” with her tiny sparkling tush turned skyward.
Today’s teeny-tiny cutoffs are akin to the conservative cousin of runway panties.
Celebrities such as Rihanna are especially fond of cutoffs. Miley Cyrus, on a stylistic tear to prove she is all grown up, wears them with staggeringly high heels. They are a perfect look for Taylor Swift — vaguely sexy and rebellious but not so dangerous or provocative that they’d nick her sweet-faced image.
And in the PG version of the video for the abundantly viewed, parsed and criticized Robin Thicke song “Blurred Lines,” the female dancers wear white cutoffs — as well as briefs. As they cavort with Thicke — along with producer Pharrell Williams and rapper T.I. — their red lacquered lips form a pout. The lyrics accompanying the hypnotic hit are provocative:
I hate these blurred lines.
I know you want it.
I hate them lines.
I know you want it.
But the costuming, with its sweet and sexy balance, takes the edge off the coercive lyrics. The political incorrectness in the song’s message of no-means-maybe goes down as smoothly as the groove.
There is no singular source fueling the affection for cutoffs this summer. It is fired by the collision of high-fashion influences, unspoken cultural references, nostalgic urges and the allure of a garment as easy and informal as a pair of flip-flops.
One can spend hundreds of dollars on a pair from the Milan-based designer label DSquared2 or turn to the Internet for directions on how to make a pair at home from old jeans. And in the middle, the mass-market influencers such as Urban Outfitters, American Apparel and Abercrombie & Fitch serve up inexpensive options. American Apparel promises customers that its classic, 100-percent-cotton denim shorts will, for $58, “suck you in and smooth you out.” Ah, isn’t it pretty to think so?
The ubiquity of cutoffs suggests they are the norm, that anyone can wear them. The brutal truth, however, is that they are as universally flattering as leggings, which is to say that they are not universally flattering at all.
Popular culture may have conspired to keep cutoffs in the fashion vernacular. But longevity has not made them more democratic.