MANual of Style

Lesson 11: Jeans by Shreyas
2 February, 2010, 10:07 pm
Filed under: Casualwear | Tags: , , , ,

Though you can wear other pants casually, today we’re just going to talk about the cornerstone of casual buttwear: jeans. Jeans are America’s greatest contribution to fashion; they’re sturdy, versatile, and expressive. They have wildly different personalities: a man who wears Wranglers would have little to say to one who wears Rag & Bone. Today we’ll talk about why some jeans are so expensive, which jeans fit your personality, and choosing the right fit, wash, and length.

About Denim

Denim is a unique fabric because of the way indigo dye works. Rather than sinking into the thread and dyeing it evenly the whole way through, indigo bonds to the thread surface. That’s what allows denim to develop the shaded patterns of fading and wear that it does—the cores of denim threads are lighter-colored than the outsides, so as the cloth is subjected to abrasion, the contact surfaces become lighter. (Most denim sold today has been made with synthetic indigo dyes that act similarly, but not identically, to the real thing. Real indigo dye has more imperfections in it, which lead to more unpredictable and interesting fade patterns.)

A lot of jean manufacturers manipulate this fading process in various ways, like the infamous acid wash of the 80s or the more recent manipulations of fading and “whiskering”—artificial crease patterns in the crotch. You can learn how to do your own artificial jean-aging on your favorite DIY website, too, but I prefer to let jeans fade and wear naturally. The color variations of jeans also come from post-dyeing processes; indigo only comes in one color (a deep, cool blue), and any other color notes come from operations that manufacturers call “washes.”

High-end jeans are generally made with selvedge denim, which means that the fabric was woven on special looms that create a tighter, stronger fabric. These shuttle looms are slower and therefore more expensive to operate than mass-production projectile looms, so the jeans are more expensive. You can identify selvedge jeans by looking at the inside of the outer leg seam; regular denim will have a cut-and-stitched edge, while selvedge denim will have a woven edge that usually has a brightly-colored stripe running along it.


There are basically two points of fit for jeans: rise and leg. “Rise” is the distance between crotch and waistline. Low-rise jeans are for hipsters with hipbones and guys with pot bellies; low-rise means they cut directly across what is typically the widest part of your frame, so they’re good to show off flat stomachs or to avoid cutting across the belly. (If you’re one of the latter cases, make sure your shirts are long enough to cover your belly when you raise your arms, because your pants won’t do the job for you.) Medium-rise is what I recommend for most people. The waistband of these jeans should sit slightly below the waist, but safely high enough to cover your buttcrack. (Low-rise jeans wrap around the hip bones; medium-rise sit on them.) The medium rise is forgiving of less-than-perfect abs without looking too uptight.

Finally, the high-rise jean, whose waistband actually reaches the waist. Who should wear these? Well, a lot of vintage-style jeans have a high rise, so if you’re going for a Man Men casual look or a sort of old-fashioned workwear effect, go for it. It’s easier to wear high-waisted jeans with a tucked-in shirt, too. (The added bulk of the shirt would otherwise conceal your waist and make you look like you have a gut.) Either way, it takes a pretty intentionally-styled outfit to make high-rises work, and you must take care not to wear jeans that go above your waist, or you’ll look like Urkel.

The leg has a lot more variables; each brand styles their legs differently. They do fall into some basic categories, though: the skinny leg, boot cut, straight leg, and wide leg.

  • Skinny-leg jeans work best for slim dudes without a lot of muscle definition: the point of the skinny leg is to emphasize tall, lean lines.
  • Straight-leg jeans work for most builds, and if your thighs are much larger than your calves, it can provide good camouflage.  The idea with the straight leg is to emphasize height, but focus more on strong than lean. (So if you’re a skinny kid who’d rather look strong than lean, or a skinny kid who’s also a bike messenger, wear these instead of skinny jeans.)
  • Boot-cut jeans are wider at the bottom than straight-leg jeans, and are usually narrowest at the knees. It creates the look of muscle definition if you don’t have much, conceals extremely large calves, and is good for people who actually wear boots. If you already have strong legs, though, you might find the thighs uncomfortably tight. (These and the skinny jeans run the greatest risk of looking like women’s jeans if worn incorrectly.)
  • Wide-leg jeans are enlarged versions of the straight-leg jean. They lack any definition of silhouette, so they’re good for making a specific fashion statement (“I enjoy urban streetwear”), but not for making your butt or legs catch the eye.

When you’re shopping for jeans, you have to look at your butt in the mirror. (If you’re not comfortable doing this, bring a friend to look at your butt for you.) Jeans that fit properly will show some definition. Some styles will wrap all the way around (Wranglers are infamous for looking painted-on in this region), while ones with roomier legs will contour to the roundest part and fall from there. Either way, you can tell your pants don’t fit if either there’s a horizontal crease at your seat, which means they’re too tight (there should be enough room for you to sit down), or if you can’t find your butt, which means they’re too loose. Also check where the rear pockets are. Unless you’re looking at specialty jeans of one kind or another, the rear pockets shouldn’t reach your thighs. They go on your butt.

Okay, enough of that. What about length? Test! You shouldn’t be able to see your socks when you sit down, and you probably (again, specific styles excepted) don’t want them pooling at the ankles very much. Pooling makes you look shorter, and creates a lot of wear-and-tear on the cuffs, which will make your jeans wear out faster. Wear the same (style of) shoes to the store that you plan to wear with your jeans so you can see how they work together. The shape of your shoes and the thickness of the soles affect how your pants hang, and you’ll want slightly longer pants to wear with, say, work boots, than you would with flip-flops.

Wash & Detailing

We’ve already talked about color. Just go out and pick a wash that you like and look good in, keeping in mind that your pants go next to your shoes. There aren’t a lot of washes like this that are popular now, but ones with a lot of texture or contrast count as patterns when laying out your outfit. I’d also treat complicated hardware or embroidery (adorned rear pockets, button flys, built-in chains, whatever) as accessories. Basically, just remember that interesting details make people look at things.

If you want to preserve the original color and contrast of your jeans, wash them after every few wears. Use cold water, the delicate cycle, and turn the pants inside-out before you wash. Turning them out keeps the dyed surface from rubbing up against your other clothes too much. To create a more contrasted wear pattern, wear them longer between washes, or if you think that’s gross put them in the dryer with some tennis balls on the no-heat cycle (that’ll create a different wear pattern than actually wearing them, though). Always button your jeans before washing them; it takes stress off the fly so it doesn’t wear out as fast.

Join us on Thursday for jackets and outerwear, and on Saturday I think we’ll do a rundown of some denim brands and the way they style their jeans.


6 Comments so far
Leave a comment

What can you do to keep the inner thigh area in jeans from wearing out? I have jeans that are great inevery respect except they wear out where my thitgs rub together. Any suggestions?

Comment by Kevin

Hey Kevin, I’m not sure! A friend of mine has a great bowlegged cowboy walk from riding a motorcycle, but it seems like changing your whole mode of motorized transport for the sake of pants is a little excessive. Maybe try jeans that fit a little more loosely in that area? Tight fabric tends to wear faster.

Comment by Shreyas

I bought jeans over the weekend and thought about this advise! A girl told me that she thought a cut that was closer to my thigh was more flattering and it was. Girl advice is way useful.

How do you feel about low rise jeans?

Comment by Bret

I love both girl advice and low-rise jeans.

Elizabeth thinks I should, like, steer away from them, though, so I suffer from a conflict of interest.

I do think that it’s super important to wear a belt with low-rise pants if they’re even a little too big, because if you’re showing buttcrack you don’t look very grownup.

Comment by Shreyas

I feel that my torso-to-leg ratio is relatively low, i.e. my legs are on the long side for my overall height. So a few years ago I started choosing low-rise jeans as a way to counteract that; medium-rise jeans looked a little high on my waist, to me.

I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on non-blue jeans, in particular black and grey: do you treat them the same as casual blue jeans, or as dressier pants?

Comment by Philip

That’s great thinking, Philip. Thanks for the tip.

As for non-blue jeans, the way I’d treat them depends on the texture; if they fade like jeans, I’d wear them like jeans. That said, as a rule of thumb it’s easier to dress up darker-colored jeans, so you might find that black and dark grey jeans have a little more versatility in that area.

Comment by Shreyas

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