A Washed Denim Guide


I understand why many people love raw denim. The quality, the way it feels, and the ability to truly personalize it are unique and can be very cool. But I feel like too often on MFA, it’s assumed to be the best – or only – option for denim. Daeus07 said, regarding pre-distressing, in his fantastic denim guide in the sidebar:

It is almost always far preferable to buy raw jeans and fade them yourself, as factory fading will not line up with the way the denim creases when you move.

While I agree you should be wary of most pre-distressing, I disagree that raw denim is preferable for almost everyone. I think it’s really more of a niche product. Most people, even those who care about their style, probably think raw denim is too much of a headache or just don’t see the appeal. My goal isn’t to bash raw denim, merely to provide information that isn’t as readily available on MFA.

Daeus07 focused primarily on raw denim, especially with brand recommendations. He did an excellent job discussing elements like construction, terminology, fit, and general tips, so I’m going to focus on recommendations for washed denim and trying to fill in any other gaps.


Besides fit, the wash is what defines a pair of jeans. Here are two basic “guides” just to give you an idea of the variety out there: Primer and Topman . A trip to the Levi’s website is also an easy way to see a variety of washes.

You may have heard some terms thrown around to describe certain washes or techniques – “stonewashed”, “acid-washed”, all the not-at-all descriptive names Levi’s uses, etc. – and while the first two describe real washing techniques, terminology is far less important than how a wash actually looks. One term you should keep in mind is “pre-distressed”, which refers to jeans being damaged/faded in the factory, usually to make them appear aged or weathered. Jeans that are not pre-distressed, but are washed, will have and usually maintain a fairly uniform color throughout. Depending on the color and shade, non-distressed jeans can – but not always – be dressed up to an extent, while distressed (in-factory or by you) jeans cannot.

Now, let’s talk about specific washes. I’ll use Levi’s for the examples, not because they’re the only option, but because they’re ubiquitous (in the US) and have a large variety.

This – Levi’s

– is a basic, dark indigo, non-distressed wash. It offers the clean, versatile, classic look of raw denim without the raw denim part. For anyone who doesn’t want to go down the raw denim road, jeans in this wash should probably make up the majority of the jeans they own.This – Levi’s

– is a medium to light wash, but it isn’t distressed. Jeans in this wash can very easily become “dad jeans”, a pejorative term that refers to ill-fitting, light-colored jeans that are the typical uniform of the suburban middle-aged. However, they can work, provided they fit well and the rest of your outfit is on point and harmonious. In Americana/workwear styles, I often prefer medium-wash jeans over dark-wash ones. I have similar feelings on this wash: Levi’s

These – Levi’s

– are examples of what I find to be bad distressing. It’s either overdone or just unattractive. Most jeans sold right now fall into this category. Well-fitting jeans in washes like these will still generally look better than ill-fitting jeans in more attractive washes, but I would avoid them unless you really feel they fit your aesthetic or you love how they look.These –

– are examples of the two types of pre-distressing that I like the best. The first type is minimal, non-invasive distressing on an otherwise dark wash. Wearing these casually, you’ll probably look like every other guy who looks “fine”. In some streetwear fits, I think this kind of distressing looks better than a uniformly dark wash. The second type is jeans that are so light that the distressing fits well and doesn’t draw as much attention. As a part of slouchy or grungy looks, – think /u/superhomme  and /u/milky_funk– these can look fantastic, especially after some real wear and tear.There are, of course, many other washes, including colors. Grey or black denim is fairly easy to incorporate for most people and can even look okay slightly distressed. For colors beyond those two, I would stick to non-distressed and only wear them casually. Check out all these 

Levi’s 501 Shrink-to-fit colors and the accompanying comments for inspiration.

Brand recommendations

I’m modelling this off the same section in Daeus07’s guide. The price ranges, for the most part, are much lower than for raw denim. I don’t generally suggest paying $10 for very low-quality jeans, but if it makes sense for you, the option is available . Also, it’s worth noting, unlike with raw denim, washed denim is available at basically every clothing store anywhere. $30 Kohl’s jeans can’t hold a candle to $30 (on sale) Levi’s, but they’re there. The brands I’m including here are all ones I consider good value at their respective price points.

Super low end tier (<$25)

  • Old Navy’s slim fit jeans fit surprisingly well. I’m 5’10” 145, and they fit a little more snugly above the knee than 511s with a bit less taper (both size 30). I don’t wear them often enough to really evaluate their durability, but quality seems good, a little better than typical Old Navy. Link. The “dark rigid” wash falls into the first category listed above and is a good choice (it’s what I own), while the distressing on the “medium wash” looks acceptably subtle. Link
  • Lee is good quality for the money, in my opinion. I know Shujin’s brand caution list and general MFA opinion disagrees, but with every pair of Lees I’ve had, I’ve been impressed by the quality of the denim and construction. Their downfall is their generally terrible fits and washes. If you’re a bigger guy, their regular fit is a bit snugger than the Levi’s 501 I’ve found and would be a solid option. It comes in a huge variety of washes, some of which aren’t bad at all. They have some slim fits, closer to a 513 or 514 than 511, but the washes are usually pretty bad. If you find one you like and are more of a 514 guy in terms of fit, I think it’s great value. Link

Mid-tier ($25-$50)

  • Uniqlo – Denim is Japanese . Like Levi’s, higher quality than almost every other “basic” brand of jeans. Cuts and washes are among the best. (There are also their Made in Japan raw jeans.) Link
  • H&M – Along with their outerwear, denim is one of the few things at H&M that’s pretty good quality. Like Uniqlo, the cuts and washes are excellent (for those of average to well below-average size) but the quality is worse. I would only take H&M denim over Uniqlo if it was a) more convenient or b) Uniqlo’s slimmest cut wasn’t slim enough for me, which is a somewhat common complaint. If you have that complaint at H&M, I don’t know how your body is still alive. Link
  • Zara and value/quality rarely go together, but some people swear by their jeans. Some of the washes and cuts look great to me. Link

Levi’s tier (mostly $35-$60)

  • You knew it was coming. Levi’s is the name of the game in washed denim. You will find a cut that flatters you – 511 for slim people, 513/514 for average people, and 508/501 for people with big legs covers 90%, in my opinion – and you will find a wash that you like. One issue with Levi’s is possible quality variance, discussed hereand here 

    It’s cliched at this point, but Levi’s is probably the best value in denim (raw notwithstanding) as long as you’re not limited to the super low-end or interested in exceptional quality. Link :3699943)

I don’t like Levi’s for some reason (or I’m European and they’re super expensive; sorry!) tier ($60-$100)

  • I’ve had good experiences with Gap denim ($60-$80). A variety of fits and washes, some of which are quite good (the skinny and slim fit). I imagine the denim is Levi’s quality at best, probably a bit worse, but if you prefer the fit and available washes and you catch it on sale, it’s a good option. I know it might pain denim enthusiasts to see people spending as much as they would on a pair of Unbranded jeans on a pair of average-quality washed jeans, though. Link]
  • Twitchshooter put in a good word for J. Crew denim. Variety of good cuts, good quality. Link

I care a lot about denim but apparently not raw denim tier (>$100)

At this point, we’re well back to niche product status. The average person doesn’t care about these jeans any more than they do raw jeans, which is to say, not at all. Unlike with raw denim, it’s tough to determine whether you’re paying more for better quality. It’s usually not that you’re just paying for the name, but I would have to really be in love with a fit, wash, or certain details to shell out this kind of money for washed denim.

  • Levi’s Vintage Clothing has a lot of unique reproductions that are great quality. Some raw, some washed. Absolutely worth the money. Link
  • Acne is more on the high-fashion side of things. It’s debatable whether their quality justifies their price, but they have a great skinny fit, minimalist detailing, and some unique wash options, some terrible, some not. Link
  • RRL, a high-end Ralph Lauren brand, has some great jeans, raw and washed. They’re one of the only brands I’ve seen that has made good-looking jeans with over-the-top distressing. Link
  • Simon Miller is a designer whose jeans I’ve only seen at Barney’s. Made in the US, high quality, and some distressing that I actually really like. These are out of stock right now but I love them. Link
  • Nudie (suggested by Cameronrgr) is best known on MFA for its raw denim, but it has many washed options (some selvedge, some distressed) and just as many fits as Levi’s. Its raw denim is known to be less durable than many of its competitors but I don’t know how its washed denim stacks up. Link
  • J Brand
  • Givenchy
  • Rag & Bone
  • Burberry (primarily Brit and London lines; thanks Iampresto)
  • Neighborhood (suggested by Cameronrgr)
  • Visvim (suggested by Cameronrgr)
  • Dior (suggested by Cameronrgr)
  • Evisu (courtesy of Nasi_lemak)
  • G-Star (courtesy of Nasi_lemak)
  • Robert Geller (courtesy of Superhomme)
  • Japanese brands (courtesy of Superhomme): Nonnative, Hysteric Glamour, Uniform Experiment, Sophnet, Wtaps.
  • Other brands known for pre-washed denim (varying quality) (big thanks to Iampresto): Hudson, 3×1, The Rising Sun, AG, Earnest Sewn, Dolce and Gabbana, DSQUARED2, Citizens of Humanity, John Varvatos, 7 for all Mankind, True Religion, Deisel, PRPS, Fidelity, Joe’s, 34 Heritage, Paige, Lucky, Cult of Individuality, Buffalo, Mavi

I could continue to list brands, but there are so many that all have different appeal (many more have been added by request). I recommend looking through the high end brands listed in Daeus07’s guide and checking out the washed options of the ones that have them.

Final note

Think of this as a small supplement to Daeus07’s guide . He covered nearly everything about denim, while this just looks at one sliver of it. If you’re not interested in raw jeans, I would still re-read his guide, especially for his thoughts on fit, all the links to resources, and other general tips. I hope this guide can be helpful and I appreciate any feedback. I know it’s rather long, so I can shorten it if need be.

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