THE BIG HITS of the early aughts just keep coming. Platform boots, hair clips, baguette bags, cargo pants—all have resurfaced in the last few years. And so, inevitably, low-rise jeans have joined this piquant mix, disseminated by influencers like Julia Fox, Bella Hadid, Dua Lipa, Paloma Elsesser and Kendall Jenner. Perhaps no one has dipped further than Ms. Fox, who, to accompany her lowest rise to date, reportedly posted an explanation of the personal grooming her Liza Keane pants had obliged her to undertake.
Teenagers crushing on this look often just buy oversize jeans and let them hang from their hips. And therein lies a key difference between today’s iteration of the low-rise and its early 2000s predecessor. Back then, the skinny-with-a-flared-leg fit dominated. Today, said Alexia Elkaim, the founder of the Los Angeles brand Miaou, a loose silhouette rules. “I love low and baggy. It’s sexy but the bagginess balances it out,” she said.
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Designers who have lowered their waistbands for spring include Simon Porte Jacquemus, a man who loves exaggeration;
who framed the model Bella Hadid’s exposed hip bones with diamanté cutouts; and Glenn Martens of Diesel, a brand whose low rises defined early aughts paparazzi photos. Perhaps most significantly, or ominously, in his fall 2023 collection for Celine, Hedi Slimane returned to the lean, low look he helped popularize in the aughts. Mr. Slimane’s rock ’n’ roll-forever aesthetic was much emulated then, so his re-embrace of narrow, hip-slung pants can’t be ignored.
But it was consumers, not designers, who created some of the first low-rise jeans in the early 1960s. “Jeans really became a canvas for self-expression at this time,” said Levi’s historian Tracey Panek. “We have some pairs in our archive with the waistband cut off to make them sit lower. To give our customer the fit they were looking for, we started offering the lower rise.”
“Alexander McQueen’s ’90s ‘bumster’ pants sat so low that they displayed what is commonly known as a ‘plumber crack.’ ”
The idea of showing a little midriff wasn’t novel—evening dresses and beachwear of the 1930s and ’40s played with the idea. But America had seldom seen bare midsections in street attire before. After waistbands descended, the fashion industry, and women themselves, struggled to keep up with the development. When Women’s Wear Daily interviewed teenage girls about their fashion preferences in 1966, they complained that girdles, still de rigueur for the well-brought-up miss, showed above what were then known as “hip huggers.”
This denim silhouette dominated in the ’60s and early ’70s, enshrined in the pantheon of cool thanks to its association with rock stars like Mick Jagger and Janis Joplin. That transgressive mystique came into play again in the ’90s, when a young Central Saint Martins graduate named Lee Alexander McQueen launched his “bumster” trousers, which sat so low that the wearer displayed what is commonly known as a “plumber crack.” With this move, McQueen, a contrarian who considered the base of the spine the body’s most erotic part, gave the fashion establishment, unused to such crude allusions, the middle finger. When Madonna wore McQueen’s pants in a 1994 ad for MTV, she introduced them to the mainstream.
From there, low-rise jeans proliferated, eventually signifying early-aughts style as unmistakably as spray tans and the lower-back tattoos known, in the offhand misogyny of the era, as “tramp stamps.” What differentiated those jeans from their ’70s predecessors: the high elastane-to-cotton ratio of the denim that made both lower and tighter cuts possible. Celebrities like Paris Hilton, Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears, who took the style to extremes, made it infamous, even if—reality check—almost every pair of jeans on the market sat at hip level or below.
That Ms. Spears has come to be viewed as a victim of a vicious celebrity culture puts those images of her alarmingly low-riding jeans in a different light. She now symbolizes the growing acknowledgment that the early ’00s were not an easy time to be a young woman. Which is why many millennials and Gen Xers cringe at the idea of a low-rise comeback; in the language of today, the cut is triggering.
No revival is an exact replica, of course. “What we’re seeing now is what we would have called mid-rises a few years ago,” said Jill Guenza, Levi’s vice president of women’s design. “They give you more coverage [than the low-rise jeans of the 2000s]. And there’s a much wider range of body types wearing them.” Well, yes and no. Levi’s offers low-rise styles in plus sizes up to 34, but the models who wore low-rises on the spring and fall runways were almost uniformly thin, in keeping with the standard of two decades past.
The intervening years have not changed everyone’s perspective. When Dua Lipa posted a photo to her Instagram account showing her New Year’s Eve look, a sparkly Ludovic de Saint Sernin mini dress with a back so low that her thong underwear was visible, Ms. Hilton commented, “That’s hot”—her Y2K catch phrase.
Hip, Hip, Hooray!
These low-but-not-too-low jeans hit the right spot
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