Commentary

Appealing or appalling? The allure of cutoff shorts

Washington PostJuly 24, 2013 

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Singer Taylor Swift performs onstage during the 2013 Billboard Music Awards at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on May 19, 2013 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Cutoffs 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.

ETHAN MILLER — Getty Images

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 are simply classic cutoffs in washed denim with a perfectly frayed hem.

They are the eternal trend.

Some 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 the allure. They suggest a sweet life of beachcombing, lazy Saturdays and barefoot walks; they are also a bit raunchy. Cutoffs are 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 into abundance this summer?

Cutoffs entered the public consciousness as the uniform of the tease and the temptress in the late 1950s. 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 possessed different kinds of beauty. But they shared teeny-tiny shorts. Their brevity and informality made these women seem real and touchable – homey, even.

On-stage messages

Celebrities such as Rihanna are especially fond of cutoffs. Miley Cyrus, on a 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.

Think before wearing

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 Milan-based label DSquared2 or turn to the Internet for directions on how to make a pair 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.”

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 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.

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