Has America's low-rise obsession gone too far?
America is in the throes of a crack epidemic. Sitting in a booth with a friend at an excruciatingly hip restaurant in downtown Manhattan a few weeks ago, I glanced up to see a fleshy forest of crevices and multiple folds of skin and G-strings that three women in their late 20s were displaying for the world. It was then that I knew: This low-rider style has gone too far.
On the street, on television, even in the office, women of all ages and sizes are wearing tight, low-slung, butt-hugging jeans and pants that hit at, or often far below, the hip. The trend isn't new—it began around '95 or so—but what is new are the unlovely depths to which the pants have now, as it were, sunk. The crotch-to-waist measurement, or rise, on a standard pair of jeans (the sort we haven't seen much of since the early '90s) is somewhere between 10 and 12 inches. Early low-riders had a rise of about 7 inches. Over the past couple of years, the rise has dipped as low as 3 or 4 inches. Low-rise, it seems, has become synonymous with no-rise. Gasoline, a Brazilian company, has even created Down2There jeans, which feature a bungee cord that allows the wearer to lower her pants as she sees fit, as though adjusting a set of Venetian blinds.
Usually paired with midriff-baring shirts—even tops that aren't cropped can't cover the exposed expanse of abdominal flesh—the jeans have redefined our collective understanding of cleavage. Then there's the oft-visible G-string that, like a bra strap, creates strange fleshy bulges as it strains against the body. But there are worse bulges yet. These are the love handles that materialize on even the thinnest women—models and anorexics excepted—because the jeans hit a woman's body at its fleshiest point, below the hips, just above the buttocks. Of course, the feminist in me wants to applaud the insouciance with which women of all shapes now flaunt their imperfections, but the aesthete in me objects. This is a style that suits only 12-year-olds and celebrities who have the luxury of devoting entire afternoons to sculpting their obliques. For the rest of us, wearing these jeans is like putting our hips and buttocks in some humiliating reality show.
Yet the real problem with extremely low-riding pants is that they're impractical. Sitting is difficult: If you can't find a chair with a closed back, you have to tie a shirt around your waist—always highly attractive—or risk scandalizing the room. If you drop something, or need to tie your shoe, abandon all hope; bending over with dignity is next to impossible. You must perfect the art of squatting, back straight, head up, as though preparing to curtsy. Low-riders also tend to slide down, requiring the wearer to hitch them up repeatedly. In their way, low-rider jeans bear a creepy similarity to Chinese foot-binding—they constrict a woman's action, rendering her ornamental. And like foot-binding, the jeans can have deleterious medical consequences. In 2001, the Canadian Medical Association Journal published a doctor's report stating that low-rise jeans can cause a condition called meralgia paresthetica, characterized by numbness or tingling in the thighs, by pinching a nerve located at the hip. Left untreated, the numbness can become permanent. Forget the question of style: This is a human rights issue.
So, how did we go so low? In America, the first low-rise jeans, called hip-huggers, became popular during the late '60s, with the ascendance of the hippie counterculture and rock 'n' roll. Icons of rock like Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison helped to popularize the style. In the '70s, the pants went mainstream and became a staple of disco culture—people danced "The Hustle" in their Wrangler hip-huggers. In the late '70s and early '80s, waistlines moved higher as the culture, and fashion, grew increasingly conservative. Throughout the '80s and into the '90s, as more women entered the corporate workforce, the high waist continued to reign. Even Madonna, who arguably is responsible for today's exposed abdomens, didn't wear low-rise. In pictures of her from that decade, her hip bones are always covered by the waistband of her pants.
Then, around 1992, Alexander McQueen sent models down the runway in his shockingly low-slung "Bumsters." In 1995, Tom Ford's first (and wildly popular) collection for Gucci included his now-famous velvet hip-hugger suit, worn by Madonna, among other celebrities. By the mid-'90s, hip-huggers had infiltrated popular culture: Juliette Lewis wore a red pair in Natural Born Killers and Mark Wahlberg memorably peeled his off in Boogie Nights. But it took Britney, Christina, and Jennifer Lopez to bring the style, riding lower than ever, back into the mainstream over the past five years.
By the time a trend hits malls across America, high fashion is already calling it déclassé. Vogue declared low-rise pants over in May 2002, and that spring Tom Ford himself showed a trouser with a higher waist, wider legs, and dropped crotch. In spring 2003, several other designers showed high-waisted pants for fall. And in August 2003, Sarah Jessica Parker, an arbiter of style, told Vogue that she doesn't consider low-rise pants to be age-appropriate for a woman like herself.
It usually takes only a couple of months for a trend to go from the fashion magazines to the streets, and yet somehow, like the G-strings it popularized, this trend clings tenaciously on. It could be that the pants are a feminist statement, demanding as they do an ecumenical embrace of body type by wearer and viewer alike, and as such, women are loath to abandon them. It could be that the dark fissures and peek-a-boo undies they reveal are physical emblems of our confessional culture, the sartorial equivalent of the tell-all memoir. It could simply be that letting your belly hang free is comfortable. Or that women, buying these pants for lack of choice, have unwittingly created a false sense of demand. But the strongest argument for the persistence of the trend might simply be that we want to dress like the '70s because we feel like we're starring in a reprise of that decade: Our economy is bad; we're entrenched in an occupation abroad; we mistrust our government at home.
I'm not advocating that we abandon this style in favor of Katharine Hepburn-type trousers belted just below the rib cage. As a fashionable friend recently said, low-slung trousers, with their rock 'n' roll connotations, simply look "groovier." But moderately low-rise pants can be worn with style and class. There's a famous photograph of Jackie Kennedy Onassis, taken by the celebrity photographer Ron Galella in the early '70s. In it, Jackie walks along a Manhattan street, holding only her keys. The wind musses her hair, and she looks over her shoulder at the camera. Perhaps surprisingly, she is wearing hip-huggers with a slim-fitting ribbed knit sweater. Not surprisingly, she bares no midriff. And a G-string is nowhere in sight.
Amanda Fortini is a Slate contributor.
Illustrations by Nina Frenkel.