When Levi Strauss first began making denim pants in late-19th-century San Francisco, they were known not as “jeans” but as “waist overalls.” Hardy, rip-resistant fabric had been used for centuries to make overalls for American laborers, but Strauss took this material into the modern era. With a patented new technique, he created a truly utilitarian trouser. And pants start at the waist, so: “waist overalls.”
A better branding decision: Strauss changed his own first name to “Levi,” after moving west to reinvent himself as a drygoods tycoon and abandoning his parents’ original choice, “Loeb.” We almost lived in a world in which people posted Instagram photos of their butts in vintage Loeb 501s and serenaded “Apple Bottom Waist Overalls.”
Denim cutoffs are the third generation of American denim-wear, the further diminution of the jean and ultimately the overall. The irony is that the deliberately chopped and frayed shorts worn by everyone from Daisy Duke to 90s metalheads to present-day actresses at Coachella are still sewn from fabric supposedly formulated in 18th-century France to be tear-proof.
But denim cutoffs are inherently irreverent. If jeans are John Wayne and country music, denim cutoffs are Patti Smith and punk. They’re deliberately distressed. They’re disruptive.
The most iconic wearer of denim shorts, Daisy Duke, played by Catherine Bach in the late-1970s to mid-1980s television series The Dukes of Hazzard, knowingly harnessed the power of her exceptionally toned legs with her cutoff hot pants. She used them to distract truck drivers and avoid tickets for reckless driving. Before production, network censors deemed the shorts too revealing, and they forced Bach to wear flesh-colored tights at all times, to avoid scandalizing American primetime viewers.
While, to some, Daisy Duke shorts connote peachy Southern sexuality, cutoffs were also swept up in the rise of punk. In almost every photo taken of Patti Smith in 1977, she wears the same pair of hacked-off indigo jeans, roughly cuffed and paired with a tweed men’s waistcoat. She played CBGB in them. The same year, legendary rock photographer Bob Gruen captured Debbie Harry skulking around Coney Island in ripped denim hotpants, attracting stares from local beachgoers. Shredding the iconic pants of American industry was a defiantly punk statement, and if that inspired unease, so much the better. Witness the aggressively short denim cutoffs championed a decade later by metal legend Lemmy Kilmister, bassist for Motörhead. “It was like a thong, dude,” former tour mate Scott Ian has said.
In November 1988, Anna Wintour put the first pair of jeans on the cover of American Vogue, effectively admitting denim into the canon of high fashion — or at least conceding the viability of a high-low mix. From this point on, the denim cutoff entered a new, more polished era. No longer symbols of the counterculture, cutoffs were subsumed into the glossy materialism of the late 80s and early 90s. In 1992, Herb Ritts shot Cindy Crawford for the November issue of Vogue cavorting on the beach in Malibu with then husband Richard Gere, her supermodel physique highlighted by a pair of frayed Levi shorts. And on the catwalks too, designers have returned to cutoffs again and again to inject something both provocative and all-American into their collections. Stella McCartney sent buttock-revealing cutoffs down the runway during one of her final collections for Chloé. More recently, Alexander Wang showed distressed versions when he wanted to channel the punky energy of New York’s St. Marks Place, and Hedi Slimane used high-waisted cutoffs to communicate his vision of 70s California groupie glamour during his tenure at Saint Laurent.
Today, denim cutoffs have all but lost their shock factor — both on the runways and in real life — but that’s a small price to pay for gaining a universally beloved (and socially acceptable) summer wardrobe staple.
Photography Roberta Bayley / Redferns