Jeans Shorts: Boomers Cut Them Down to Size

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?

Boomers Helped Usher in the Casual Culture

It’s no secret to anyone over 40 that the daily dress code of our society has experienced a casualization trend over the past few decades. A closer examination of this timeline points to its origins in the post-War, pre-boomer era. Some say it got its ultimate boost with actor James Dean, and the movie Rebel Without a Cause (1955).

Dean was born in 1931 — the earliest boomers would have been only 9 years old when the movie was released in 1955 — but his influence on boomer youth culture is unmistakable, as it was on the rock ‘n roll musicians who followed. Compare Dean’s quintessential straight-leg jeans and fitted white t-shirt with Robert Mitchum’s backwoods character in Thunder Road (1958). Mitchum’s wardrobe more embodied the mode of dress of the day, with button shirts and dress-style pants. Contrast Mitchum’s character with the preppie shirts and khakis of Dwayne Hickman’s Dobie Gillis character (1959-63) and you can begin to see how radical a t-shirt and jeans ensemble was in the 1950s.

The parents of boomers had what we now see as rigid ideas of what type of clothing was appropriate in any given situation. While TV commercials pictured women cleaning the house in flowing dresses, the reality is, while housecleaning may not have been a dress-appropriate situation, most women wore dresses to go shopping. While middle class men may have worn overalls to a factory job, they would don a suit for family holiday dinners, restaurant visits or even appointments with banking officials to acquire a mortgage. To them, wearing “better” clothing was a sign of respect.

Yet as boomers grew, so did their desire to wear jeans and casual clothing. Many school districts battled the rising tide by banning “dungarees,” as jeans were called by the adult set. Shirts with collars and buttons were required for both boys and girls. Undaunted, boys adopted polo-style and buttonless shirts and jeans whenever they could. Girls began wearing jeans more than skirts and dresses. By the 1960s, and certainly by the Summer of Love in 1967, the transformation was complete in that boomers basically wanted to live in casual clothes. Yet society wasn’t ready for the clash.

Mister Boomer spent his early years in parochial schools in the 1960s. As such, a strict dress code forbade him and his fellow students from wearing casual clothes to school. His neighborhood friends, however, attended public schools and had no such restrictions. Both boys and girls did indeed wear jeans and pullover, collarless and buttonless shirts.

Mister B also recalls the clash between a society used to specific attire for each circumstance, one of which was attending church. Fathers of boomers wore suits to church, while mothers wore dresses or skirts and blouses. Their boomer children were dressed in miniature versions of themselves, in suits and dresses. Mister Boomer recalls getting a trench coat at an early age, to wear only to church, funerals and weddings.

It was an initial church incident that Mister B remembers that illustrates the casualization trend colliding head on with the established mores. Somewhere around the mid-1960s, not one but three kids showed up at Sunday services wearing jeans. Tongues were wagging, and even Mister B’s mom commented in the car after the service that the kids’ chosen mode of dress was inappropriate. Implicit in her voice was that she was certain her children would never dress like that for church.

A few years later most churches embraced the casualization trend as an all-encompassing kumbaya effort to keep young people in the fold. You started seeing “come as you are” posted on church signs and bulletin boards. Once churches accepted the trend, it was only a matter of time until businesses and entertainment venues followed suit. Through it all, boomers wanted to be comfortable in clothes meant for them, not their parents.

In the 1970s even business attire took a casual approach with the leisure suit and the acceptance of dress bell-bottom pants. Preferred more by the fathers of boomers than boomers themselves, the suits — in man-made fabrics and colors — became an acceptable replacement in situations that had previously dictated a man wear a suit.

By the mid-1970s the earliest boomers had college-aged children of their own, and the strangest thing happened: parents once again wore the same style of clothing that their children did, only now, most clothing was casual.

Boomers were instrumental in making jeans and t-shirts fashion staples, and it appears the casualization trend continues to this day. “Casual Friday” became popular for many businesses in the 1980s, which in turn spawned the “business casual” style, which ironically, is not far from the khakis and polos one might see in the 1950s and early ’60s.

Today, boomers — as parents and grandparents — once again lament the “sloppy” manner of dress they see exhibited by young people in public. Is it a case of “what goes around comes around,” or rather “what have we wrought?”