Denim Dreams

Marya E. Gates declares that it’s time for the return of eroticism in cinema via that sexiest of all symbols, the denim butt.

According to fashion’s gatekeepers, skinny jeans are “out”. We’re also seeing a long decline of sex in (American) cinema. Now, this could be a coincidence, or it could be symptoms of the same trend—that is to say, films are far less erotic than they used to be. Mainstream films, anyways.

Like Dolly Parton, I have always been a fan of a nice ass in a pair of tight jeans. There is something inarguably sexy about a denim fit. I very much need to acknowledge that denim is not the only fabric that does right by a derrière—latex, leather, pleather and the like all have their time, place and lovers. And there’s no doubt that denim is a versatile costuming medium. Sandy Powell’s Oscar-nominated deconstruction of the fabric for The Favourite is innovative, for sure, but it misses the point: butts.

Several pairs of jeans were deconstructed for Abigail Hill (Emma Stone)’s kitchen costume in The Favourite (2018).
Several pairs of jeans were deconstructed for Abigail Hill (Emma Stone)’s kitchen costume in The Favourite (2018).

I am a country girl at heart, so for me it’s always going to be jeans. I invite you now on an investigation into the sexiest denim jeans in cinema, to make a case that we desperately need the Wrangler butts back. Before I dive in, a little bit of history for you nerds. Prior to the 1930s jeans were mostly worn as workwear, but with the rise of Western films they worked their way into everyday wardrobes. Most notably, John Wayne sported Levi’s 501s in John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939).

The Ringo Kid (John Wayne) in denim in Stagecoach (1939).
The Ringo Kid (John Wayne) in denim in Stagecoach (1939).

Jeans fever peaked in the 1950s, coinciding with the rise of the American teenager (worth a watch: Matt Wolf’s 2013 documentary Teenage—excellent soundtrack, superb archive). Marlon Brando’s Johnny Strabler wore 501s in The Wild One (1953), while James Dean’s Jim Stark wore Lee’s 101s in Rebel Without A Cause (1955).

When jeans faced a backlash—thanks in part to cinema’s glorification of the pant—the industry formed the Denim Council, which directly advertised jeans through the fifties and sixties as “right for school!”. Thankfully, nobody paid much attention to this brazen marketing attempt to make jeans less dangerous (and less working-class)—denim got shorter, tighter and friskier over the following decades, with Daisy Duke’s small-screen smalls the friskiest of them all.

Brando: no caption necessary.
Brando: no caption necessary.

But, while jeans are still commonplace in real life, there has been a stark deficit of truly iconic, supremely sexy, cinematic denim over the past few decades. So, I now present to you some of my favorite shots of hot butts in denim, in the hopes that any costume designers reading this will consider the rugged fabric in future character breakdowns—because if you don’t ask, you don’t get.

River of No Return (1954)

Butt: Marilyn Monroe; Costumes: Travilla

For me, the real beginning of jeans as a sex symbol came when the sexiest star of all wore them. Marilyn Monroe was more than her sex appeal—way more—but she was the epitome of cinematic sex at the time, and costume designer Travilla, who dressed Marilyn in eight films, knew what he was doing with jeans, especially in Otto Preminger’s River of No Return, in which Monroe plays a heart-of-gold saloon singer to Robert Mitchum’s farmer.

Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

Butt: James Dean; Costumes: Moss Mabry

In Rebel Without a Cause, James Dean became a symbol of new age: the dawn of the American teenager against a wave of generational post-war angst. Not only did Nicholas Ray and his costumier Moss Mabry have Dean wear jeans for the bulk of the film, but in a world where mid-shots lose us vital minutes of jeans appreciation, cinematographer Ernest Haller framed much of the movie so that Dean’s entire lean body filled the screen.

The Misfits (1961)

Butts: Montgomery Clift, Marilyn Monroe (pictured), Clark Gable, Eli Wallach; Costumes: Jean Louis

As cinema moved into the ’60s, so too did Westerns, bringing a contemporary twist to the genre. For costumiers, this translated into a more modern, self-aware use of denim. The Misfits, with its love rectangle involving Marilyn Monroe and a trio of ageing chaps in chaps, was an opportunity to show off denim’s hard-wearing longevity. Old Hollywood costuming great Jean Louis knew that jeans look good on any butt, at any age.

Hud (1963)

Butt: Paul Newman; Costumes: Edith Head

Contemporary westerns really drove home the lack of boundaries of a man raised in wide open spaces, bringing a cast of lusty, amoral, unhinged cowboys to our screens. As Remobo writes of Paul Newman as the heartless and broken Hud: “He had the ability to make you wary of how easy it would have been to take a bite of that original, forbidden fruit; if the fruit looked that beautiful and ripe… how could it be bad?”

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965)

Butts: Tura Satana, Haji, Lori Williams; Costumes: Michael Finn

Russ Meyer is mostly known for filling his frames with buxom beauties, but bless him for being an ass man as well. These girls are hot and they torture men. You love to see it.

Junior Bonner (1972)

Butt: Steve McQueen; Costumes: Eddie Armand

I would be remiss in discussing contemporary set westerns if I ignored Sam Peckinpah’s Steve McQueen vehicle Junior Bonner, in which McQueen plays a rodeo star heading towards the end of his career. Like many McQueen films, it subverts a hardened archetype into someone with the soul of a poet. And a great ass in jeans, which gets handed to him on many occasions in this film.

The Big Bird Cage (1972)

Butt: Pam Grier; Costumes: Felisa Salcedo

Not everyone can pull off the hip-hugger look, but Pam Grier looks like she had her denim sprayed on in The Big Bird Cage, a wild film about jailbirds in a Filipino women’s prison, from exploitation great Jack Hill. One of the great WIP jungle films—and a chance to show off denim’s ability to withstand the elements.

Game of Death (1972)

Butt: Bruce Lee; Costumes: Chu Sheng-Shi

The yellow jumpsuit is, of course, iconic, but the idea of Bruce Lee’s graceful martial arts performed in a pair of skin-tight jeans is truly the stuff that dreams are made of. This absolutely fabulous shot of Lee in bell bottoms from a Game of Death out-take unfortunately is not in the finished film, which was completed after the star’s untimely death. Hollywood tried to downplay Lee (born Lee Jun-fan) as a sex symbol, but anyone with eyes can see what a folly that was.

The Brave Archer (1977)

Butt: Alexander Fu Sheng; Costumes: Chi-Yu Liu

This one is a bit of a cheat, since his films were set in pre-denim times, but I can’t mention Bruce Lee without also including another 1970s martial-arts great (who also died far too young), Alexander Fu Sheng, born Cheung Fu-sheng. On screen, in films such as The Brave Archer, Fu Sheng embodied the qualities of an empire-era warrior. Off-screen, the Shaw Brothers star loved him a lot of denim, as this promo image proudly shows.

Badlands (1973)

Butt: Martin Sheen; Costumes: Rosanna Norton

One of the earliest neo-denim films sees Martin Sheen styled to resemble James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, though Badlands costume designer Rosanna Norton also blessed us with some prime shots of Sheen in booty jorts. Like Meyer, but less in your face, Terrence Malick shows the way that sex and violence intertwine, with jeans the element that binds them together. Read more, much more, on this particular look at BAMF Style.

Shampoo (1975)

Butt: Warren Beatty; Costumes: Anthea Sylbert

Set in 1968, Hal Ashby’s sexual satire Shampoo sees hairdresser George Roundy (Warren Beatty) seducing pretty much everyone he comes across throughout one day in Los Angeles while wearing a tank top, a silver belt and one perfectly form-fitting pair of blue jeans.

Urban Cowboy (1980)

Butts: John Travolta, Debra Winger; Costumes: Gloria Gresham

In the 1980s, contemporary cowboys moved off the land and into the honky-tonks. Urban Cowboy explores gender roles, but denim lovers prefer to explore the jeans-clad contours of John Travolta and Debra Winger as they ride Gilley’s Bar’s mechanical bull. This is the first of many films on this list costumed by repeat jeans offender Gloria Gresham, who put Arnie in jeans for Last Action Hero, Jeff Bridges in a denim jacket for 8 Million Ways to Die, and Shelley Long in jeans for her “nine years of ballet, asshole” canyon leap in Outrageous Fortune. None of them are as hot as Urban Cowboy, for which Gresham undertook detailed research, according to this recent Texas Monthly oral history:

“We went through masses of jeans for John, everything from Lee to Levi’s and even Ralph Lauren. It wasn’t so much how they looked but how they felt. He’s a dancer, so he needed a certain tightness. We went with Gap jeans, then sanded them with a snuff can in the pocket to make them look aged.”

It’s not denim, but Gloria also wins points for the gift of Scott Glenn in a black fishnet t-shirt. As she reminisces in the Texas Monthly article, “I wanted that shirt to say, ‘I’m the odd man out, and I’m tough. Leave me alone’.”

The Outsiders (1983)

Butts: C. Thomas Howell, Matt Dillon, Ralph Macchio, Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, Tom Cruise; Costume Design: Marge Bowers

Q: What’s better than one hot jeans butt in a movie? A: Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders.

Footloose (1984)

Butts: Kevin Bacon, Chris Penn; Costumes: Gloria Gresham

Bomont may have banned dancing, but nothing says rebellion is brewing like a pair of tight jeans. Even a pair of overalls aren’t safe when Kevin Bacon’s Ren McCormack moves to town. Footloose, another Gloria Gresham delight, is stacked with denim—Lori Singer’s high-waisted pant with baby pink tank is another look.

My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)

Butt: Daniel Day-Lewis; Costumes: Lindy Hemming

Gordon Warnecke as Omar certainly cuts a hot shape in a suit, but it’s Daniel Day-Lewis as Johnny who is the denim dreamboat in south-London love story My Beautiful Laundrette, directed by Stephen Frears from an Oscar-nominated script by Hanif Kureishi. Johnny’s punkish jeans carry him through the social, political and cultural milieu towards this final, playful, shirtless scene.

Desert Hearts (1985)

Butt: Patricia Charbonneau; Costumes: Linda M. Bass

Not sure anyone wore jean shorts quite as effectively as Patricia Charbonneau in Donna Deitch’s trailblazing lesbian romance Desert Hearts. Cay is quite literally my dream girl, so it’s no wonder she helped awaken not only Helen Shaver’s Vivian, but an entire generation as well.

Fool For Love (1985)

Butt: Sam Shepard; Costumes: Kristine Flones

Legally, you cannot discuss the contemporary Western and the deconstruction of the cowboy myth without discussing Sam Shepard. Not only did Shepard redefine the American West through his writing, but he also lived the life about which he wrote. I’m pretty sure he was born in denim. I’m a Fool for Love for Sam.

The Big Easy (1986)

Butt: Dennis Quaid; Costumes: Rudy Dillon

I know this is the middle of the piece, but this shot here is the root for me. I saw The Big Easy a lot as a kid because it was a favorite of my mom’s, and well, it left an impact on my developing mind. When Ellen Barkin gazes at Dennis Quaid’s ass first thing in the morning and then has to do a double take? I felt that. This came out around the same time as Springsteen’s iconic Born In The USA album, and certainly defined the platonic ideal of how a pair of jeans should fit.

Dirty Dancing (1987)

Butt: Jennifer Grey; Costumes: Hilary Rosenfeld

Although Dirty Dancing is set in the 1960s, Jennifer Grey’s jean shorts are simply timeless. Perfect for awkwardly learning dance moves on your own, or practicing, um, a more dirty style of dancing with your beau. Swayze’s black-denim pants are not too shabby either.

Road House (1989)

Butt: Patrick Swayze; Costumes: Marilyn Vance

There’s already lot of Swayze on this list, so I debated including Road House because, frankly, I’m not sure the jeans were the best fit for the man with the wonderful dancer’s body. But I love that the jeans were so prominent in the marketing. (Costume designer Marilyn Vance, a friend of denim, also brought us Ferris Bueller and The Breakfast Club’s Andrew Clark—played by Emilio Estevez—in jeans.)

When Harry Met Sally… (1989)

Butt: Billy Crystal; Costumes: Gloria Gresham

Welcome back, Gloria Gresham! Billy Crystal’s Harry is a total ass when he first meets Meg Ryan’s Sally in Nora Ephron’s classic rom-com, but also he’s got a hot ass in those jeans, so what can you do? The minute director Rob Reiner showed us that ass, we knew Sally’s fate was sealed.

Wild At Heart (1990)

Butt: Nicolas Cage; Costumes: Amy Stofsky, Cheri Reed

I declare the 1990s to be the decade of cinematic jeans. It started with Nicolas Cage in skin-tight black jeans doing a backflip out of a convertible in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart, and just kept going. First of all, how did he do this? How did they not rip? Further, in one seamless cut he then begins to dance, flail and kick his legs every which way but loose. What are these magic pants?!

Thelma & Louise (1991)

Butts: Geena Davis, Susan Sarandon, Brad Pitt; Costumes: Elizabeth McBride

Few films sold the dream of the modern West as a hot, sweaty, sexy place like the feminist fever-dream, Thelma & Louise. Pitt, Davis and Sarandon are practically painted into their denim. Nothing ends well for anyone, the jeans leading them to certain doom.

Gas, Food, Lodging (1992)

Butt: Chris Mulkey; Costumes: Susan L. Bertram

Another great deconstruction of the American West, showcasing how dreary it can be, Alison Anders’ Gas Food Lodging also features one of my favorite scenes highlighting female desire through the use of the camera’s gaze.

Passenger 57 (1992)

Butt: Wesley Snipes; Costumes: Brad R. Loman

These jeans are a bit too loose for my taste, but Wesley Snipes jumps over a fence like he’s on a pogo stick and then in one liquid movement roundhouse-kicks a cop in the face, so this Passenger 57 look definitely belongs in the canon of great cinematic jeans.

Poetic Justice (1993)

Butt: Janet Jackson; Costumes: Darryle Johnson

John Singleton’s magnetic ’90s road romance is notable for so many reasons: Tupac, Regina King, Janet Jackson speaking Maya Angelou’s verses, Angelou’s cameo at the family reunion… but Jackson’s stage-honed body in those relaxed-fit pants are what guarantees Poetic Justice a place in this list.

Natural Born Killers (1994)

Butts: Woody Harrelson, Juliette Lewis; Costumes: Richard Hornung

Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers mixes a decent amount of sex with violence, and so of course our killer couple are swathed in denim—the red twist for Mallory (Juliette Lewis) is a wild touch. (Designer Richard Hornung also put Nic Cage in jeans for Raising Arizona.)

Tremors 2: Aftershocks (1996)

Butt: Helen Shaver; Costumes: Rudy Dillon

The original Tremors features some great denim moments from both jeans-king Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward, but this Tremors 2: Aftershocks moment with Helen Shaver has stuck with me for 25 years. Shaver plays Kate ‘White’ Reilly, a geologist who put herself through school as a model. In an incredibly erotic scene, while they’re hiding from Graboids on a roof, Ward’s character realizes White is the Playboy centerfold he’s always felt was the ideal woman. She’s so damn sexy, their chemistry is so damn hot and they’re both over 40 here, which still feels revolutionary all these years later. With jeans by The Big Easy designer Rudy Dillon.

The Watermelon Woman (1996)

Butt: Guinevere Turner; Costumes: JoAnn Colameco

Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman is another great film in the lesbians-in-jeans canon, which also features flirting in a video store. These may not be the tightest-fitting jeans in cinema, but they ignite some of steamier sex scenes of the ’90s. Also features denim dungarees for extra lesbian points.

Love Jones (1997)

Butts: Larenz Tate, Nia Long; Costumes: Shawn Barton

Love Jones—the only film from director Theodore Witcher—features some scorching hot chemistry from its stars Larenz Tate and Nia Long, including one unbelievably hot seduction scene where both are sporting some fierce denim cuts.

Hope Floats (1998)

Butt: Harry Connick Jr.; Costumes: Susie DeSanto

Another root for me. Harry Connick, Jr. is just so sexy in Hope Floats, even rocking double denim at certain points. The soundtrack was a monster hit at the time, but I think the film has fallen off people’s radars. It was directed by Forest Whitaker—yes really!—with Susie DeSanto in charge of the jeans (earlier in the decade, she had clad Drew Barrymore and her fellow Bad Girls in denim).

This, it seems, would be the end of a sexual era. In her amazing piece on the decline of sex scenes in cinema, Kate Hagen notes:

“Only 1.21 percent of the 148,012 feature-length films released since 2010 contain depictions of sex. That percentage is the lowest since the 1960s. Sex in cinema peaked in the 1990s, the heyday of the erotic thriller, with 1.79 percent of all films featuring sex scenes. That half-point decline is massive in relative terms, considering almost four times as many films have been released in the 2010s as in the 1990s.”

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (2005)

Butts: America Ferrera, Amber Tamblyn, Blake Lively, Alexis Bledel; Costumes: Lisa Jensen

After jeans peaked in ’90s cinema, we saw a distinct lack of them in the new millennium. 2004 brought us the ironic denim of Napoleon Dynamite, which, if that’s your thing, all power to you, but in 2005, we had a true moment. The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants is a denim delight: the magical jeans that fit each of the four best friends’ body types represent self-esteem for each young woman, so we see what jeans have come to represent in terms of body positivity—I’m thinking about all the discourse around fat jeans, mom jeans, etc. Getting the right fit is powerful.

I’m grateful this film exists, and also that the teens and their jeans aren’t really sexualized. At the same time, I wonder why, in a decade where skinny jeans were all the rage, they were so scarce in cinema? Is it because the Scottish junkies of the 1990s had run the sensuality right out of them?

Adventureland (2009)

Butt: Margarita Levieva; Costumes: Melissa Toth

Towards the end of the 2000s we had Greg Mottola’s semi-autobiographical Adventureland, an ode to the bummer summer job in which Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart work in a crappy theme park in the late 1980s. Enter Margarita Levieva as Lisa P, wearing the greatest pair of acid-wash jeans, or as Martin Starr’s character refers to them, the platonic ideal. Of course it would take a period piece to get a good pair of jeans up on the screen during this wasteland era, although costume designer Melissa Toth also brought the college jean to 2004’s A Perfect Score.

Drive (2011)

Butt: Ryan Gosling; Costumes: Erin Benach

One of the lone examples of the power of skinny jeans in the 2010s came from Ryan Gosling as the Driver, clad head to toe in tight denim so dark blue it almost reads as black. Still, despite these tight jeans, and some topless women, Drive opts for desire-tinged glances—and one really hot elevator smooch—over sex, though it is chock full of over-the-top violence. Gosling told New York Magazine that he wanted “Pretty in Pink with a head-smashing.” Do with that information what you will.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), The Wolverine (2013), Logan (2017)

Butt: Hugh Jackman; Costumes: Louise Mingenbach, Isis Mussenden, Daniel Orlandi

Over his near-decade as Wolverine, Hugh Jackman seemed to get more and more jacked, but the one constant is the character’s love of denim.

Tangerine (2015)

Butt: Mya Taylor. Costumes: Shih-Ching Tsou

God bless LA girls, guaranteed to always bring the skinny to the denim party, no matter the decade. In Tangerine, it’s Mya Taylor sporting the curves as Alexandra, on an odyssey with her BFF Sin-Dee across the city on Christmas Eve.

Carmen y Lola (2018)

Butts: Rosy Rodríguez, Zaira Romero; Costumes: Teresa Mora

Arantxa Echevarría blessed us with some killer tiny denim on her leads in Carmen y Lola, a Spanish romance about two women who find each other, and defy their families—while their butts defy gravity in short shorts.

A Star is Born (2018)

Butt: Bradley Cooper; Costumes: Erin Benach

“Why do you look so good in those jeans? Why do you come around here with an ass like that? You’re making all my thoughts obscene.” Why’d you do that to her, Jackson Maine?

Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood (2019)

Butt: Brad Pitt; Costumes: Arianne Phillips

Emulating the shirtless, denim-clad glory of his breakout role in Thelma & Louise, a 54-year-old Brad Pitt took his toolkit to the roof of Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood to show us the power of jeans to incite thirst—but not much else in that department (though I’m not sure I’d ever want to see a sex scene as directed by Tarantino).

In the Heights (2021)

Butt: Daphne Rubin-Vega; Costumes: Mitchell Travers

Sorry to all the other Washington Heights residents, but only the goddess Daphne Rubin-Vega gets the blue tick for her jean shorts in the movie version of In the Heights (courtesy of Mitchell Travers, who also clothed the glorious butts in Hustlers).

Slaxx (2021)

Butt: ???; Costumes: Eric Poirier

And so, we arrive at the most recent iteration of jeans cinema, in the form of Slaxx, a satirical horror coming to VOD in September. Slaxx takes the idea of a pair of jeans that can fit anyone, adds a critique of fast fashion, and makes the pants homicidal. The butt is the joke—but while it’s fun and smart and gory as hell, it is not in the least bit sexy, despite what the poster would have you believe.

So why take the thirstiest of all costuming items and make them horror? Putting the question to director Elza Kephart, she replied that she and co-writer Patricia Gomez Zlatar focused on denim “because we always saw Slaxx as having teen-slasher elements, and jeans are a natural fit (ha ha) with the teen slasher, instead of dad chinos”.

Kephart does, however, absolutely agree with me that hot denim butts still have a place in cinema—as long as they are equal-opportunity butts. “Patricia and I created a screamingly sexist poster for Slaxx, to put it in everyone’s face that jeans are usually sold by using female butts. In the film, the jeans are ‘gender inclusive’—and that’s how I like my hot denim butts.”

Where does all of this leave our screen dreams of denim derrières? Well, it’s hard to say at this point. Trends could change at any minute, and I for one would be happier than a newborn calf getting its first milk to see jeans—on every kind of body—make a comeback.

Slaxx’ is on Shudder now, and out on VOD, digital HD and DVD September 7.

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