How many statements of style are referenced simply with the name of the wearer who infused them with fame? There is the Duke of Windsor’s “Windsor knot,” Jackie O’s “Jackie O-style sunglasses,” and most recently, Jennifer Aniston’s (qua Rachel Green) hairdo, “The Rachel.” The power to confer special cultural status to a style is normally reserved for style icons and those bathed in the most powerful pop cultural light. So, how did it come to pass that cut-off denim short-shorts came to be universally known as “daisy dukes”?
Daisy dukes are, of course, a reference to The Dukes of Hazzard, the hit series in which Bo and Luke Duke’s cousin Daisy could be frequently seen in denim cut-off short-shorts bending over fenders, turning on stereos, changing flat tires, climbing through car windows and pulling trays of fried chicken off the bottom shelves of refrigerators. The CBS series ran from 1979-85, but Daisy Duke became a fashion muse to a generation of starlets—from Lindsay Lohan to Brittney Spears to Fergie to Rihanna to Beyonce to Kim Kardashian.
“People forget that my character was a wholesome, All-American girl,” says Bach from her home in the San Fernando Valley. “But you can’t control how people remember you.”
The 58-year old actress, who now stars on the CBS soap, The Young and the Restless, remembers being given a blonde wig, a red and white checked poodle skirt, a tight white turtle neck and a pair of white go-go boots by the Dukes of Hazzard wardrobe department just prior to shooting its pilot episode. Having spent two years at the Betty Doyle School of Fashion Design and having made her own clothes for years, Bach decided to take matters into her own hands. “I made the daisy dukes myself. I unraveled and put in the original embroidery,” she recalls. “It was both an outgrowth of my feelings towards the character…as well as an effort to get out of wearing a poodle skirt.”
Bach, of course, didn’t “invent” the daisy dukes anymore than Benjamin Franklin invented lightning. Cut-off denim that barely covers up its wearer has been around as a sexually charged signifier for generations. The story perhaps owes its origins to the Li’l Abner comic strip of Al Capp, which at the height of its popularity, was read daily by 70 million Americans. Adult readers far outnumbering children, without a doubt partially due to Capp’s voluptuous Kentucky girl-next-door “Daisy Mae.” Perpetually appearing in polka-dot peasant shirt and cropped denim skirt and hopelessly in love with the titular protagonist, the success of the comic established indelible cultural links between sexuality, denim and country charm—not to mention, the daisy.
The mid-1960s were the heyday of the mini-skirt. Launched by fashion designer Mary Quant in Swinging London, the mini became regarded as a symbol of women’s liberation, and was worn by some of the early feminists, such as Germaine Greer and, in the following decade, Gloria Steinem. The then-unnamed daisy dukes became the wild and uncontrollable kid sister of the miniskirt: from the Grindhouse films of 1970s like The Hot Box (1972), The Single Girls (1974), Naughty School Girls (1975), The Great Texas Dynamite Chase (1976) to Gloria Guido in the 1975 Italian film Blue Jeans to Playboy’s impossibly curved, comic strip character Annie Fanny (created by Will Elder and Harvey Kurtzman) to Marilyn Chambers, who around the same time the Dukes of Hazzard was becoming a hit in 1980, was posing in shorts so short you could almost see her labia. Unlike bikini bottoms or lingerie, cut-off short-shorts could be worn on the street or at a dance club. While the fashion industry had decided by the mid-1970s that after the mini-skirt, there was nowhere to go but down and returned to long skirts, the cut-off short-shorts answered to the demographic who still wanted to go further up.
For Bach, the Daisy Dukes weren’t about danger and the illicit. She remembers wearing them even prior to her role on the show. “Even before the television show, I owned my own daisy dukes,” Bach remembers. “I always wanted my seams and little unraveled edges to be as even as possible—so they would keep getting shorter and shorter. You see, I’ve always been a bit of a perfectionist.”
Even though she didn’t intend to, Bach brought the cut-off denim short shorts from the gutter into the American mainstream, imbuing them with a wholesome, farmer’s daughter quality. “Obviously, they were sexual then too,” she acknowledges. “I mean, I was jumping in and out of cars with them while I was wearing high heels, but it was good clean fun.”
Or, to put things more bluntly, Bach’s daisy dukes barely “showed cheek.” Instead, they called more attention to her natural curves and legs, which Warner Brothers had insured for over $1 million. To be sure, the television show never referred to Bach’s form-fitting, denim bottoms as “daisy dukes,” which made it all the more strange when, 7 years after the Dukes of Hazzard went off the air, Bach got a phone call from her now ex-husband that she will always remember.
“I was in Africa doing a show called African Skies (1992) with Robert Mitchum [the first American show in South Africa after apartheid] and he called to tell me there were a couple of guys writing songs about ‘daisy dukes.’”
Those guys were Duice, a Miami-based duo whose single, “Dazzey Duks” became an instant smash, selling over two million copies and peaking at number 12 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. Bach would eventually meet with the duo (“They were very sweet young boys,” she recalls.) and appear in the song’s official video.
Daisy dukes became a thing in hip-hop. In 1994, De La Soul name-dropped them in “Fallin’” and in 1996, Too Live Crew reminded us of their power in their hosanna “Hoochie Mama.”
Even though Daisy Duke was no longer being seen on prime time, Catherine Bach’s posterior seemed to be entering a cultural posterity. Young women increasingly created their own daisy dukes, strategically cutting their jeans along the seat, below the crotch, revealing more and more. It became strange for Bach, who always thought the vibe was, well, more apple pie than cream pie. “It was more of a fun thing,” she explains. “The daisy dukes were so much fun, so All-American. Of course they were supposed to be sexy. I wore them with high heels, but it was more of a playful thing.”
The historical record seems to bear out Bach’s recollection of things. Take for instance her “girlie poster” in which Bach posed in a tied-up gingham shirt while embracing a bouquet of daisies that partially obscured her patented denim short-shorts. Bach says the poster was tame—even for its time. “In the 1980s, the posters were of oiled-up, blonde, bikini girls with these long talons.” Despite its modest sexual imagery, Bach’s poster sold over 5 million copies.
Between the 80s and 90s—the meaning of the daisy dukes changed and they became cultural shorthand for everything the Daisy Duke character was not. Those tears at their edges no longer meant playful pageantry, but a metaphysical battle between flesh and fabric. The shrinking blue denim and its frothing hem line increasingly got fetishized as a sex object. Think of Bridget Fonda in Jackie Brown (1997), Christina Ricci in Black Snake Moan (2006), or Jessica Simpson in her more contemporary take on Daisy in the Dukes of Hazzard re-make (2005). In the early 21st Century, when pop culture showed you a woman wearing a pair of daisy dukes you could be pretty sure that pretty soon someone would be taking off a pair of daisy dukes. The fact that they were called daisy dukes gave them some semblance of wholesomeness—the faint memory of Bach’s character somehow clinging to them like frayed edges.
The strange status that the daisy dukes occupied, signifying a respectability that had all but vanished—had to end. Pretty soon popular culture seemed to acknowledge that the daisy dukes had become ridiculous: On Family Guy, Brian quipped of Peter’s Daisy Duke phase, “he looks like a walrus flossing”; In You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, the Israeli titular hero is called a “Daisy Duke wearing…” before spinning records with his denim crotch; On Arrested Development, David Cross’ Tobias character started wearing daisy dukes as an undergarment as a way to cope with his “never-nude” syndrome. An object of desire increasingly turned into an object of ridicule.
Of course, not everybody got the joke. To this day, there are “Daisy Duke Car Washes,” featuring women performing their work while wearing revealing denim cut-off short-shorts. There are also “Daisy Duke Contests,” in which competitors modify their already revealing shorts before strutting their stuff on stage before an audience. The winner of the annual HyperFest at Summit Point Metrosports Park in West Virginia walks home with a $500 purse—which she presumably must fit in someplace other than her pockets.
With her name forever associated with denim, perhaps it comes as no surprise that Catherine Bach has decided to start her own denim line. “I’ve been making my own jeans forever and wanted to do something. The thing about denim is that if you have a good fit, there isn’t anything better. I look at my fashion line as a statement of who I am.” Her Catherine Bach line, called “CB,” are currently available for purchase on her website, CatherineBach.com. “I was wearing them at the mall the other day and a girl ran up to me to ask me where I got them and to ask what the ‘CB’ stood for. I told her it was ‘Cute Butt.’”