Jeans are the ultimate masculine, casual garment, and most men own them and wear them. They have a rich history, but navigating today’s world of ripped, faded and embellished jeans to find a pair that suits classic yet modern tastes can be tough. In this guide, we will discuss the history of this iconic garment, the options available in today’s vast denim market, and how to find a pair that suits your style.
While denim was exceptionally popular for many articles of clothing on both men and women back in the 1980s and ‘90s, today the most common apparel found utilizing the cotton warp-faced twill textile is the standard blue jean. One of the most versatile and diversely popular trousers available on the market, it’s worn by everyone from Hollywood’s leading men to small town farmers in Montana. From designer brands sold for hundreds of dollars in posh department stores to the bargain bin brands sold in supply stores, it’s one item of clothing that is popular with just about every demographic.
What Is Denim?
Denim, as most people know, is a textile. Made from a sturdy cotton warp-faced twill, it is made by passing the weft under two or more warp threads which produces a diagonal weave of ribbing that gives it it’s appearance. With denim, only the warp threads are dyed which leaves the weft thread white. Due to the method of weaving, this is what causes denim to be blue on the outside of the trouser whereas the lining of the pant generally remains white. The process is referred to as the ‘Indigo Dyeing Process’ and is the core contributor to the fading capabilities that distinguishes denim from other textiles.
The History of Denim Jeans
Despite America laying claim to the denim jean craze, the actual fabric is believed to have first been conceived at some point in the 16th century in Genoa, Italy and Nimes, France, which is where the name ‘denim’ stems from.
Initially designed by a Swiss banker named Jean-Gabriel Eynard, by the dawn of the 1800s, Massena’s troops began to arrive in Genoa and Eynard was given the task of outfitting them with uniforms. Using his unique indigo cloth, he created trousers called ‘Bleu de Genes’ which was the first type of blue jean.
Initially known as ‘jeans’ in Genoa, the weavers in Nimes attempted to replicate it but instead created a very similar product that they coined as ‘denim’. The original jean fabric was closer to cotton corduroy which was what the weavers in Genoa were well known for. While it was ideal for working environments, the far coarser and higher quality denim produced in France proved to be more appropriate as a coverall for a slightly more distinguished clientele. Both garments were staple textiles used by the working class people of Italy and France.
In 1851, a young man named Levi Strauss left his home in Germany to join his brothers in New York where they operated a general store. Two years later, Strauss opted to move to San Francisco in favor of the warmer climate and opened his own dry goods store called Levi Strauss & Co. Wholesale House that became known for selling fine textiles to local tailors. One of his more prominent customers was a bespoke tailor, Jacob Davis, who interested Strauss in patenting and selling clothing that could be reinforced with copper rivets at stress points for hardworking men creating the San Francisco skyline. Strauss accepted this offer to join his customer in a new venture and on May 20, 1873 they received a patent for their newfound idea. Following their patent, the partners began to craft trousers using every fabric Strauss carried in his shop and anything else they could manage to acquire. Eventually, denim was used and both men agreed that it served as the best available option for riveted work pants.
They began to market these work pants to miners and contractors using rivets at all stress points. It was a hit and the first Levi Jeans were born. However, until the 1960s, Levi’s called the trousers ‘Waist Overalls’ rather than jeans. Fitting rather loosely, they were mostly popular with factory workers until the early 1950s when they went from a practical item to a more fashionable item thanks to Hollywood star James Dean who wore a pair of blue jeans in his hit film Rebel Without a Cause.
Initially popular as a fashion item by youths wanting to channel James Dean’s rebellion, jeans were subsequently banned in many public areas including schools, diners and other public establishments. As the ’60s flower-power movements began to flourish, the blue jean trousers became popular and were soon socially acceptable to wear in casual dress environments.
As their popularity continued to grow, more and more manufacturers began designing their own versions of blue jeans and by the 1980s they were commonplace in almost every first world country. Even runway models started wearing them on the catwalks and advertisements began popping up in metropolitan cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles where the trousers were marketed not only as work pants, but also for the weekend dad camping with his son or enjoying a backyard barbecue with friends.
They are produced by a vast number of designers and merchants in various shades and washes. Beginning with Limbo in the East Village of New York, they became the first merchant to wash all their new jeans in order to achieve a worn-in effect. The idea was a hit and soon companies around the world were beginning to use this tactic to market their jeans to a more hip and trendy demographic. Limbo furthered this appeal by sewing patches onto the jeans, fastening decals and even ripping holes in the knees and thighs and then selling the jeans for $200. Then, in the 1980s, a man in Edmonton, Canada developed the stone-washing method which further catapulted the popularity of the trousers.
As the casual rebellion of the 1990s advanced, the workforce began adopting jeans as a part of their casual office attire. Paired with a blazer and an Oxford button-down, jeans were now entering the previously traditional office buildings of Madison Avenue and Wall Street.
Today, blue jeans are a billion dollar industry grossing more than $15-billion in the United States alone, which only accounts for less than 40% of global purchases.
Still a popular work pant, they are now considered designer apparel with some of the haute fashion houses. Despite Levi Strauss remaining a key player in the blue jean industry, many other companies have retained a significant market share by focusing on very specific demographics. Work pants are now stronger than ever with accessories including cargo pockets, knee pads and reinforced belt loops. The average man owns at least seven pairs of blue jeans.
Jeans have also undergone a rather significant change in styles over the years including the bell bottom craze of the 1970s and now, the tapered skinny jean trend. Many fashion icons and designers such as Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein can regularly be seen wearing blue jeans and certain corporate tycoons like Richard Branson and the late Steve Jobs are known to thoroughly appreciate their casualness and comfort in the office. Not only is the comfort of the jean appealing to men like these but it allows them to be more relatable to the everyman who may not appreciate the standard business suit.
Characteristics of Denim Jeans
Let’s dive into what makes for a great pair of jeans.
Cut & Fit
The cut, or shape, of your jeans is one of the most visible characteristics of your denim. It’s also very trend driven – think high-waisted bell bottoms in the 70’s and baggy wide leg jeans in the 90’s. The key to finding a good cut is to balance the style you are comfortable with, the best fit for your frame, and the current trends. For example, if you have a thin frame and like the look of skinny jeans, then a super-slim pair will suit you. In the case of GG editor Sven Raphael Schneider, he has thick thighs and prefers classic, dressy denim. For him, a straight-leg dark wash style is better for his needs.
The waist position of your denim refers to the rise, or where the waistband sits around the midsection. Low rise jeans will sit lower on the abdomen, and so on. Most jeans these days are made with a mid-rise, since high-rise jeans are a 70’s trend and low-rise jeans are both harder to find and to wear. A mid-rise jean falls at the natural waistline, and it offers the most flattering fit across a range of body types. As a result, we will focus on mid-rise jeans in this guide.
Aside from color, the cut of the leg is often used to describe jeans in product descriptions, as in “dark wash straight leg jeans”. There are a few main categories of cuts, and when you exclude the wide and flared varieties that are no longer en vogue, they include:
- Skinny. The skinny jeans is pretty self-explanatory; they fit close to the leg from top to bottom and they often feature an ankle-length hem. This style is great for men who want to wear the most now-looking denim or for men with medium to slim legs who like the look.
- Slim Cut. The slim cut is the slightly looser version of the skinny jean. The width of the leg tapers from the thigh to the ankle. This style is perfect for men who don’t want a skin-tight skinny jean, but like the slim and trim look. Better for slim-to-medium legs.
- Tapered. This may remind you of jeans from the 80’s, but in fact, the tapered cut can be very flattering for certain body types. It’s a little bit looser cut than the slim cut, but it still features a tapered leg that mirrors the modern skinny cut. This style is suited to men with bigger legs or thighs and who like the narrow ankle opening.
- Straight. This jean features the same width from the top to the bottom of the leg. It is great for men who like a classic look, or don’t want to change the cut of their jeans as the trends change. Suited for men with bigger legs but may be too baggy for thinner legs.
- Boot cut. Boot cut jeans are straight through the thigh and slightly flared at the ankle. Originally they were wide enough to pair with boots, hence the name, but these days boots are paired with nearly every cut of jean. If you have muscular calves, then this cut might be for you.
The length of denim, much like the cut, is subject to the changing trends. While many men wear their skinny jeans at ankle length or even shorter, we think that like any pair of pants, the traditional approach is length is the best. For example, both overly long and overly short will disrupt the proportions of your pants to the rest of your body, and the result can look odd. Since you can buy denim based on a waist size as well as an inseam, it’s typically easier to get a pair of denim to fit off the rack. If they don’t fit off the rack, does that mean you should hem your jeans? The answer is yes. Aim for a no break to a half break on the shoe. Narrow cuts can be worn shorter, but no shorter than the ankle to preserve the proportions of the leg to the body.
Color, Wash & Fading
Denim comes in a mind-boggling array of colors, mostly blue shades, and not all jeans are blue. Even though every color under the sun is now available, if you are interested in a classic look, then we suggest you stick with a traditional shade of blue denim. The color of the denim can also be indicated by the wash, or the overall finished look of the colored denim.
Fading will occur naturally to denim over time, but many companies will offer pre-faded options. Though there are endless ways to fade jeans, there are four main styles of intentional fading:
- Whisker Fade: These are streaks of fading that usually surround the groin area.
- Train Track Fade: Located on the outset, these are a fade that promotes the selvage that creates the outer seams by creating two distinct fades that look similar to train tracks.
- Honeycomb Fade: These are the faded lines that occur naturally behind the knee cap over time. They can be added for a more broken-in look to new denim. These lines get more pronounced as the jeans age and will look better with less washing.
- Stack Fade: Stacks are created by hemming the inseam a few inches longer than the leg. This causes the jeans to stack up on the shoe and creates a fade throughout the lower leg. This fade isn’t recommended because the extra material around the shoe looks sloppy.
We recommend either letting your jeans fade naturally or choosing new denim with slight fading. Fading is a popular method of altering denim to create new trends, so highly faded denim will quickly go out of style. Any denim that has been faded more than a few shades from the original color will look harsh and is less likely to be wearable for the long term.
You’d think that denim is denim, but that’s no longer true anymore. In fact, the denim that our fathers and grandfathers wore is wholly different from what is in the stores now. In fact, denim doesn’t have an industry definition anymore, because so many variations on the fabric have rendered the once traditional all-cotton definition irrelevant. The weight, finishing, and composition of the denim can vary widely between brands and price ranges, so look closely at each pair to find what you want. Here are some things to look out for:
Denim blends: To enhance comfort (and reduce costs) many denim manufacturers have begun adding a small amount of synthetic material to their denim to create a denim blend. These blends, such as 2% elastane/98% cotton, add a bit of stretch to denim. Denim worn close to the skin, such as anything tight-fitting or skinny, may be more comfortable in a denim blend than 100% cotton. Unlike some pure cotton which will loosen up a bit with wear, a stretchy blend will help the denim bounce back a bit. Denim blends are also less hardy than thick, 100% cotton denim, so if you’re looking for a pair to keep for years, consider avoiding a blend.
Raw Denim: Raw denim has not gone through a pre-wash process. Pre-washing is used by manufacturers to soften the denim, reduce shrinkage, and help prevent the dye from rubbing off. Without this step, breaking in raw denim is up to the wearer and requires more commitment.
Selvedge Denim: “Selvedge” or self-edge refers to a finishing technique in which the edge of the denim fabric is woven to prevent unraveling, which helps increase the longevity of the material. This type of denim is woven on old looms, and therefore not many places in the world can still produce selvedge denim. Japanese denim is often selvedge woven on traditional looms.
Denim Weight: Most denim available comes in three standard weight ranges. Under 12oz which is lighter denim, 12-16oz which is considered medium weight and over 16oz which is the heaviest denim and requires the longest amount of time to break in. However, like many other fabrics, it is getting increasingly difficult to find original heavyweight denim; often brands will list 14oz denim as heavyweight these days due to a shift in preferences (and cost savings) for lighter materials.
How to Wear Denim Jeans
So, how exactly should jeans fit? That depends on your preferences, but in our opinion, the extremes (super skinny and super baggy) never look good unless you’re trying to achieve that very specific look. As a rule of thumb, if you can’t pinch any extra material by the thigh, they are too tight, and if you can grab a handful of material in the same place, they are too baggy.
Jeans are typically sold with waist/inseam measurements. Note that each brand measures waist sizes differently, even though “34 inches” should be standard across the board. Vanity sizing is the new reality, so you may have to size up or down depending on how true-to-size a brand is.
How to Style Them
Denim is a decidedly casual garment. The darker the (blue) denim, the dressier it is. The less distressed or faded the denim, the dressier it is.
For a classic look to pair with sweaters or a blazer, look for mid-rise jeans in a dark wash with no fading in a slim or straight cut with a half-break at the hem at the most. Pair this look with Chukka boots or brown shoes. Never pair denim with black shoes, belts, jackets or sweaters, since the color is far too formal for denim.
For a classic casual look with polos, choose the same cut with some slight fading, a mid-blue wash or darker and either no break or an ankle/pinrolled length to pair with boat shoes or boots. Find examples of both types of these jeans in the Recommended Pairs section below.
Wearing Denim DO’sand DON’Ts
- DO hem denim to the correct length.
- DO pinroll jeans to wear them with boots or in warm weather
- DO consider when denim is appropriate to wear. If you feel like a little polish is good for the occasion, then err on the side of dressier pants such as chinos.
- DON’T feel you need to have many different cuts and washes of denim. Find a good style that suits your body type, buy two washes, and enjoy them.
- DON’T buy or wear ripped, torn, overly faded or otherwise wildly embellished jeans – these are short-lived trends that guarantee you will have to replace them soon
- DON’T keep and wear jeans forever. Since styles change, a deeply faded, broken in pair of jeans in an old cut will make you look dated. Wear newer pairs out and about and save your trusty old jeans for painting and yard work.
Breaking Denim In
Just like a new baseball glove, denim jeans do require a breaking in period. Many manufacturers will run their jeans through a wash process to soften them, but depending on the grade and weight of the denim, they may require significant use before you consider them a ‘perfect’ pair of jeans.
Due to the explosion of denim brands in the last 10 years, shopping for jeans can be a complex and often bewildering task. Very few brands have proved their longevity in this new market, so below are a few recommendations from brands who have been producing denim for decades, use high-quality materials and favor classic styles.
Made & Crafted Tack Slim Selvedge Jean by Levi’s, $218
With the recent trends towards high-end denim, Levi’s has created a separate line of denim that captures the essence of the new high-quality denim movement. Their Made & Crafted line takes a closer look at materials and production techniques to give you a pair of jeans worthy of the high asking price. This slim-cut, vintage style jean is constructed of 100% cotton heavyweight, Japanese selvedge denim for a premium result. Check out Levi’s Made & Crafted Tack Slim Selvedge Jeans.
Levi’s 501 Original Fit Jean – Straight Cut, $69.50
The original 501 jean from Levi’s has been around for more than 140 years, and for good reason. This mid-rise, straight leg jean in 100% cotton is the epitome of the classic jean. In their “clean rigid” wash, this pair is the perfect denim for your casual wardrobe. Check out Levi’s 501 Original Fit Jean.
484 Jean in Leroy Wash – J. Crew, $125
This slim-cut (but not too tight) jean is flattering on many figures. Created from Japanese cotton denim, this pair is perfectly hand-distressed for a very natural, broken-in look that is not contrived or overdone. J Crew even goes so far as to say that this pair looks like they have been worn for two years, creating a comfortable, authentic weekend denim look for very casual occasions. Check out the 484 Jean in Leroy Wash by J Crew.
Caring for Denim Jeans: To Wash or Not To Wash?
Recently, the CEO of Levi’s claimed that you don’t need to wash your jeans…ever. Despite his claim, this is a very personal decision. If you are a denim enthusiast that prefers to start with raw denim and break them in naturally, then not washing your denim may make sense for you. However, you can wash your jeans as often as you deem necessary for your own comfort. They may age a little faster, but that is a reasonable trade-off for many men. Like any trouser, you want to rotate between pairs, but the truth is that the only way to achieve what experts call a ‘perfect’ pair of jeans is by regular wear. Of course, this means keeping work-pants separate from your fashionable jeans.
Jeans are possibly the most popular trouser in the world. Jeans are the perfect pair of pants for the outdoors, running errands, casual get-togethers and very casual office settings. Do you wear denim jeans? What’s your favorite brand?