In Claiborne Swanson Frank’s portraits, collected in her two books, American Beauty and Young Hollywood (Assouline), the photographer and stylist turns her lens on exceptional women, capturing optimistic, girl-next-door beauty and ease in each with absolute clarity. In her own style, Claiborne is true to timeless, tomboy staples: jeans and t-shirts; cool jackets and clean leather accessories. Less is more than more – it’s all she needs to look totally polished. The sexiness and romance of a woman in a great pair of jeans is something Claiborne wears – and shoots – perfectly.
Lucky us, we got to work with Claiborne this summer when she took our portrait for the September issue of Vanity Fair. What we loved, aside from her poise and soothing attitude, was her understanding of how personal jeans can be, and how beautiful they should make you (read: us, in that moment in front of her camera) feel. She shot us in our own favorite pairs. She had us take our heels off. We wrapped and asked Claiborne for her jean story immediately!
Claiborne photographed herself at her family’s vineyard in Napa Valley, CA in her favorite pair of Current/Elliott cut-offs and a jean jacket from J.Crew. “I have to be honest, I love a denim-on-denim look,” she told us. “There is nothing more beautiful than an American girl in a beat-up, blue jean jacket.” Except, maybe, a young mother in cut-offs in a red Land Cruiser kissing her son (see below), we thought. Of the location, where she grew up and was married, Claiborne says, “there is no place more special to me.” Of cut-offs, she says she’s always loved them. “I’ve been wearing cut-offs for as long as I remember. My sister Veronica [Swanson Beard] and I would chop our jeans to make our own.” Those DIY days might be over, but, you’ll see, the story of Claiborne’s Current/Elliotts is just as sweet.
Describe your Current/Elliott cut-offs for us in one word.
How long have you had them?
About five years.
Do you remember where you got them?
I actually don’t.
What’s the most memorable place your shorts have been?
On my honeymoon in Europe. They are really the only pair I’ve lived in as a married woman, so I guess you can say they have been on this journey with me as a wife, and now a mother.
If you were to give them a theme song, what would it be?
Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon.”
If you could go anywhere in the world in your shorts tomorrow, where would it be?
Is there something you always wear with them?
I love a white t-shirt, or stripes. I am pretty classic, all-American. Less is more when it comes to cut-offs.
Is there something you never wear with them?
Yes, lots of things.
If you and your shorts could give us a word of advice, what would it be?
Find a pair that fits your body well and that you feel comfortable in. I think the most important thing is to love jeans and feel better in them than not. The most important thing is to LOVE the clothes we live in.
What do your shorts know about you that no one else knows?
Growing up, I was a tomboy, and I loved cut-offs so much I used to wear them to play tennis. Cut-offs and Converse to tennis clinic! And I would wear them horseback riding when I was 12 and 13, too. I went through weeks as a teenager where I wouldn’t take them off, whether they were functional or not.
What do your jean shorts reveal about the way that you live on a daily basis now?
I think at my core I am still a tomboy and a free spirit. I love a more imperfect, natural look, like Lauren Hutton in the 70s. I love clothes that empower you but at the same time make you feel free.
On what occasion will only your jean shorts do?
Summer days at home.
Fill in the blank: Without my shorts, I am __________.
Looking for another pair!
In my jean shorts _____________.
I am reminded myself of who I am and who I was.
What’s the best possible thing you could be doing in them right now?
Walk in the vineyards with my husband, our son Hunter and dog Blue.
Click to get closer…
What do you need your denim to be, always?
Comfortable, yet flattering. I think denim should have some poetry to it in the color, texture, or wash. Something beautiful.
Is there a pair you still own from a previous life that you keep for sentimental reasons only?
I have had a hard time parting with my jeans. I probably own about 20 pairs that I’ve had for 15 years or so. Some new, some very old. These cut-offs I had before I had my son Hunter, and I think it was a amazing day for me after having Hunter to fit back into them. There is nothing like that feeling!
So, you’re sentimental about your jeans?
I am very sentimental. Not for every pair, but for my very favorites.
Is there someone whose denim style you admire?
Hannah Henderson, who owns the General store in Venice Beach, CA. She is a real inspiration when it comes to the celebration of the art and the life of denim. She wears jeans so beautifully. I follow her on Instagram.
Is there a denim moment in your new book? If so, tell us about it – who’s wearing it, what’s the situation, and why did denim feel like the right thing for that actress to wear?
Yes, on the back cover of Young Hollywood Leven Rambin is in black jeans and a motorcycle jacket on a motorcycle in the mountains of Malibu. I love this portrait. It felt perfect for Leven to wear jeans, because she is a tomboy and has a natural edge to her. She loved the motorcycle and was most comfortable in the jeans – they were authentic to her, and in turn, carried the shot.
Has wearing jeans changed for you since you became a mom? How so?
Yes! I love high-waisted jeans now. I only wear high-waisted jeans now. I find them so comfortable and flattering. My low-rise jean days are over. That’s for sure!