In the 1920s shorts were part of a boy’s dress look, but middle class adults rarely wore them. After the War things began to change. Women, more than men, wore shorts in warm weather and, with the introduction of the bikini in 1946, designs were shorter than in previous decades, during which they hugged the knee for length. By the time the 1950s rolled around it became permissible for men, women and children to wear shorts, but with two conditions: first, they had to be occasion-appropriate (they were never acceptable in church or in business-wear, for example), and second, they still had to fall within societal modesty standards.
Men’s shorts in the 1950s fell into a couple of categories: dress Bermuda-style shorts that were generally made of twill, khaki or seersucker, and swimsuit/boxer-style casual shorts, most likely made of cotton or cotton blends, that were often plaid or emblazoned with prints, including popular Hawaiian and tropical themes. Women’s shorts were usually solid colors, though that could include any color in the rainbow. Yellow, black, white, brown, navy blue and pink were among the most popular. Children’s shorts would be the same styles as adults in miniature versions.
As the mid-60s came along, shorts got shorter and sometimes tighter as people regularly took their fashion to be a form of self-expression. Into that mix of changing attitudes cut-off jeans shorts appeared and spread across the country like wildfire. No one knows exactly who came up with the first cut-off jeans shorts, but it seems appropriate to chalk it up to the rebellious spirit of the time. Jeans — called dungarees when they were adopted as casual teen-wear in the 1950s — became the ultimate garment of youthful rebellion. Jeans were associated with rock ‘n roll, so the many adult detractors of the music also opposed the wearing of jeans, especially in schools. Film characters such as Marlon Brando in The Wild One and James Dean in Giant reinforced the bad image jeans got in the minds of some adults, to the point that they were banned in many schools. So it seems a natural progression for rebellious teens used to customizing their looks in the 1960s, to take scissors to their denim in an effort to get some personal comfort while making a definitive statement that they were in control of what they would wear.
Cut-off jeans shorts was a unisex design in that both men and women wore them, though it was up to the individual to choose the length and how much of the fabric would then be unravelled to form a fringe along the bottom of each leg. Paired with t-shirts or peasant-style shirts, cut-offs were as definitive a style as long hair and beaded necklaces.
Mister Boomer’s earliest remembrances of shorts in his neighborhood and with his family date back to the 1950s. His suburban neighborhood, literally on the edge of what had been farmland decades earlier, was living the post-War Dream as couples became home owners and parents of Baby Boomers. Part of the Dream was a backyard where men could grill the American staples of hamburgers and hot dogs to their hearts’ content. Mister Boomer’s neighbors would take turns hosting backyard barbecues in the summer months, so shorts were the chosen mode of dress for kids and women, but not necessarily for men. The vast majority of men stuck with khakis and camp-style shirts or polo shirts, both worn over the belt, a concession to casual affairs that did not necessitate tucking into the pants.
Mister Boomer’s mother dressed her kids in the styles of the era, which in the case of Mister B and his siblings came in the form of complete sets of matching shirts and pants. Mister B especially recalls a set both he and Brother Boomer were dressed in that consisted of brown shorts matched with off-white shirts trimmed in the same brown and adorned with green fish.
It wasn’t until the end of the 1960s that Mister B made his own cut-off jeans shorts. One of the main reasons he didn’t succumb to the style as his neighborhood did was that he only had a couple of pairs of jeans at any given time, and tended to wear them until he either outgrew them or they became torn and ratty and his mother would make them disappear overnight. It seemed a shame to destroy jeans when they were still wearable as is, so he waited a while before designating a pair to become shorts. Mister B chose a typical length for boys and men at the time, which was a few inches above the knee. He carefully unravelled a row or two of the denim thread to produce the unique fringe signature of the homemade cut-off, but quickly learned that the strings bugged him as they brushed his leg, so he trimmed the longest strands.
Cut-offs all but disappeared in the 1980s and ’90s as store-bought varieties replaced the style (and became “hot pants”) but are reappearing now in some areas. Mister B still has the pair he made forty-plus years ago, sitting in the back of a dresser drawer. What are the chances they still might fit this aging boomer?
Did you make your own cut-off jeans shorts, boomers?