Denim Wardrobe Guide


The first thing anyone should do when they want to look good is build a solid foundation. If you don’t know where to start, start with the basics. Once that is done, branch into fashion-as-a-hobby in whatever way you want. Denim just happens to be my favorite, and the one I’m most comfortable talking about. Faded jeans don’t go with everything, they don’t make a bad outfit good, and $300 jeans don’t necessarily look better than $40 jeans. That said, I think they can be a cool accent piece that’re fun to personalize.


This guide is meant for men who’ve worn jeans before, but want to maybe look a little better in them. As such I’m not gonna write a long introduction. Instead we’re gonna jump right into some super awesome vocabulary to get everyone excited and/or informed about denim.

  • Raw/Dry: These mean the same thing. The denim has never been washed, and has likely received a little bit of special treatment. The dye is generally dark and even, so that you can fade them yourself. The jeans probably contain some amount of starch that will rinse off in the wash. This is to keep it rigid until you wash it so that creases set in and make cool fades.
  • Selvedge: This means that the denim was made on an old-style shuttle loom unlike cheap mass-produced denim. It has a stronger outseam that will resist fraying much more than a stitched outseam and looks pretty spiffy with a cuff.
  • Wash: This refers to the amount of dye in pre-washed jeans. Darker jeans are currently in vogue, but trend is subject to change.
  • Pre-distressed: This means your jeans were distressed and faded in a factory. 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.
  • Honeycombs: These are the creases behind your knees. They can get some great contrast with raw denim.
  • Whiskers: These are the creases the form on your lap. They’re a bit tougher to get contrast in, but give jeans good character if you do.
  • Chain Stitching: Different style of stitching used in premium denim’s that creates a more obvious roping effect on the hem than the standard lock stitch.
  • More for those who are interested

Sizing and Fit

The first thing you need to consider when buying jeans, or any pants for that matter, is how they fit. The easiest way to do this is to put them on and look in a mirror. If they look like they fit, great. If not, take note.

If you want to buy your jeans online, or want a better idea of what you’re looking for before going into the store I have some advice.

  • Know Your Measurements: The first thing you need to do is go find a measuring tape, take off your pants, and start measuring your legs. Measure the circumference of your waist (or hips) where you want your jeans to sit. Measure the circumference of your thigh just below your crotch. Measure the circumference of your knee. If you think you’ll need it, measure from just below your crotch to your ankle. These are your waist, thigh, knee, and inseam measurements respectively. Cut your thigh/knee measurements in half. Keep these in mind. Leg opening and rise measurements can’t be gained from your body, and are a matter of personal preference anyway. More on those later. Alternatively, measure your best jeans if you have a pair of jeans that fit you well already. I’d outline how, but the wonderful people at Blue in Green have done it for me.
  • Know the Jeans You’re Buying: If you’re buying expensive jeans, some reputable sites will have measurements of their jeans. Self Edge will give you info on how much the jeans will shrink/stretch. Blue in Green has one-wash versions of most of their raws, you can use these as a second reference since these are the measurements they’ll be after you wash them. If you’re not buying expensive jeans your best bet is to either google it and hope for the best, or find a place with a nice return policy and try something out. Most of these are easily accessible though for anyone near a city. If you’re buying in the sub-$100 price range I strongly urge you to just hit up a store and try them on for yourself, as it can be hard to find good info on them.
  • Watch out for vanity sizing! Some companies (APC, N&F Weird Guy, etc) use vanity sizing, where the size of the jean is actually 2 sizes larger than what it’s tagged. The only way to avoid it is by either getting the measurements of the jeans, or finding the information online.
  • Some jeans stretch more than others. APC stretch 2 sizes, Naked and Famous Elephant IIs will hardly stretch at all and will be rough as you’re breaking them in. ALL denim will stretch some amount though. Better to lean toward a smaller jean if you’re looking for a slim cut. Superfuture has a thread with a bit of quick sizing advice for higher-end denim.
  • Know if the jeans you want are sanforized. Sanforized jeans (most jeans) will not shrink a crazy amount in the wash. They’ll lose maybe 1″ or 1.5″ in the waist and inseam. Unsanforized denim like Levi’s 501 Shrink-to-Fits will shrink on the order of 3″ in the inseam and waist. Always soak unsanforized jeans for 40 minutes or so in warm to hot water, then air dry before wearing. Otherwise your creases will move drastically when you get them wet.
  • For tight fits, buy jeans as close to your measurements as possible. For looser fits, add up to 1″. Be CAREFUL when doing this in the thighs. If the thighs of your jeans are more than a little loose, you start to get thigh flare. This is where the extra fabric on the thighs folds out to the sides, and makes your thighs look much bigger than they actually are.
  • Leg opening sizes and rise sizes can greatly affect the look of jeans. Lower rises rest on your hips, and can make your legs appear shorter if the top of your jeans are visible. Very high rises make them look like mom-jeans. I’d recommend a mid or low rise. Most leg openings vary between about 7″ and 8.5″. It’s generally a bad idea to go over 8″, as they’ll either be way big through out the leg or flare like bellbottoms. Neither of those are good.
  • If you’re uncomfortable trying to size raws, buy one-wash. They don’t have quite the potential for high-contrast fades that raws do, but they’re easy enough for beginners who aren’t willing to take chances or talk to customer service reps to return their jeans.
  • Know the types of cuts you’re buying. In general, there are 3 basic cuts that come in varying levels of slimness. Straight leg is straight from the knee down. This is a classic look that’s essentially been the standard for jeans as a versatile workwear piece since they were invented. Tapered jeans have a smaller leg opening than knee, and generally come with a somewhat larger thigh measurement. These are great for guys with big thighs when bought around true to size, or people that want a more fashion forward look (though depending your body you may need to size down until the thighs fit if this is the case). Boot cut jeans have a larger leg opening than knee. These tend to have a negative 70s connotation. Unless you’re wearing huge boots you likely don’t need any more room than a straight cut.
  • Some manufacturers like Levi’s give you general styles rather than actual measurements. Here are the basics for Levi’s. 501s are an “anti-fit” straight leg jean. They’re great for relatively big dudes and those that deliberately want something loose. 514s are straight legged as well, but slightly slimmer and with a low rise. 513s are slimmer yet, with a mid rise. Next are the 511 “skinny” straight and 510 “super skinny” straight. Don’t be scared off by the use of the word skinny. This doesn’t necessarily mean they’re ball crushing girl jeans. Just that they’re straight leg jeans for skinny people. For those who want tight stacks or who have proportionally larger thighs there are the 520 and 521, the 521 being the slimmer of the two.

Inseam Length

Most good jeans come in a single inseam length (somewhere between 34″ and 38″). There are three ways to deal with this.

  • Hem Them: Get a tailor to hem the jeans to the height you desire, either with a small break, no break, or whatever you like. Good for short dudes as it doesn’t break up the silhouette of your legs. Denim shops like Self Edge and BlueinGreen can do a chainstitch hem (free if you bought your jeans from them). Any regular tailor or person with a sewing machine can do a standard lockstitch hem. REMEMBER that they will shrink about 1″ in the inseam after their first wash before you ask to get them hemmed!
  • Cuff Them: Roll the bottom hem 

    of your jeans up once or twice. Anything more than 1.5″-2″ starts to look kinda silly. 

  • Stack Them: Let the jeans fall on the top of your shoes and kinda stack up. 

    Good stacks are usually most easily done with a tapered jean. Push the excess fabric down after you get your shoes on. If you start doing this when they’re still rigid, they should settle down and fall that way naturally later.

Brand Recommendations

Here are some of my recommendations within a few price ranges with some quick descriptions to give you an idea what makes them good/different.

On the low end (<$100):

  • Levi’s 513s, 511s, 514s, 521, 520 and sometimes 501s are common flattering cuts. You can get them washed (avoid fake distressing) or raw. They are really quite cheap if you live in the US, and pretty good for chinese denim in a wide variety of american styles. If you’re outside the US you probably shouldn’t bother. They’re usually not worth the markup.
  • Unbranded are a side project of Naked and Famous. The cuts are the same as their mainline jeans, but the construction quality’s not as high and the hardware (buttons, rivets, etc…) is flimsier. My favorite under $100 though.
  • Uniqlo jeans are great for the price if you have access to a nearby Uniqlo. Be sure to look for their MiJ (Made in Japan) denim, it’s higher quality than the Chinese jeans. Smooth texture, dark indigo, and selvedge under $100 even when it’s not on sale. If you’re outside the US and they ship to your country these are much much better than paying out the nose for Levi’s.

For <$200:

  • APC has fantastic jeans in the New Standard, Petite Standard, and New Cure. At least one those cuts look great on nearly everybody, the denim is better quality than Levi’s mainline or Unbranded, and they fade fantastically after a year or so if you wear them hard. These are vanity sized, and will stretch a lot. Size down at least 2, no more than 4 from the tagged size.
  • Naked and Famous has some interesting variety if you like their weirdguy cut, and 2 other cuts with a bit less if you don’t. They also do frequent collaborations with japanese denim artisans that are generally of higher quality. Some would call N&F gimmicky, but as mid range jeans that are often on sale somewhere they’re a great value.
  • Nudies also have a LOT of different cuts, so there’s something for everyone. They fade quickly, but are less durable for it. If you’re just getting into denim nudie is a pretty good place to start.
  • 3Sixteens make clean, simple, but well constructed jeans using Kuroki Mill slubby japanese denim. They have a higher end ($300 or so) line called 3sixteen+ that uses uncalandered unsinged Okinawa denim. Note: Their price has recently been increased to around $210 retail for the indigo variations.
  • Rogue Territory are handmade, and have excellent quality and detailing at the price point. Great deal for the denim head on the cheap. Denim’s usually mid or lightweight.


This is where there are a LOT of options. Cost comes from a combination of craftsmanship, material grade, and specificity. At this point the devil’s in the details, so I won’t have room to recount the particulars of every brand. They’re all of top notch quality, but I urge you to learn about what makes a pair interesting before dropping $300 on it. Don’t buy expensive jeans you don’t actually care about just because they’re recommended to you.

  • Samurai makes a ton of different cuts, most more relaxed than other brands. The denim is top notch and fades great, but due to the anti-fit cuts and heavy weight the fades will not be sharp. Their denim trends toward heavy and slubby.
  • Pure Blue Japan is most popular for their xx-007 jean which has a very slubby texture and indigo weft. They fade to white, but with a blue cast and greater variance in blue shades. They’ve also branched out, especially recently, with 24oz variations and left hand twill.
  • Flatheads fade very fast and produce a vertical pattern, but are more durable than other fast faders like nudies or APCs.
  • Sugar Cane Co makes 501xx repro cuts, some of which (Okinawas, Hawaiis, etc) are 50% sugar cane fiber. They will start out a bright blue, and have an interesting texture when they fade.
  • Iron Heart specializes in very heavy denim (18oz. to 22oz.) meant for motorcycle enthusiasts. If durability is a deciding factor for you, Iron Heart is a great choice.
  • Roy jeans are a one man operation utilizing cone mills denim, and known for high attention to detail.
  • Levi’s Vintage Clothing (LVC) are a high end Levi’s line primarily known for vintage 501 reproductions from the 1800s to 1960s.
  • RRL are a workwear oriented branch of Ralph Lauren that makes great denim.
  • Dry Bones
  • Momotaro
  • Kicking Mule Workshop
  • Fullcount
  • Strike Gold
  • Imperial
  • Others I’m surely missing

All cater to slightly different tastes. Levi’s, APC, and 3Sixteen are all great for people who want simple good looking jeans. Naked and Famous, Rogue Territory, and all of those $300+ artisan brands are great for denim geeks.

General Tips

  • Selvedge generally and indicator of quality, but that doesn’t mean that all jeans with selvedge are better than jeans without. I guarantee you that non-selvedge 3Sixteens are better than selvedge jeans from Target.
  • In order of fade contrast: Double Ring Spun (Ring-Ring)>Ring Spun> Open-End Spun
  • Calendering and singing are processes that make denim smooth, as it naturally has a hairy texture right off the loom. Neither smooth nor hairy is inherently better, but rather it’s a personal preference. The exception is when low quality cotton with very short fibers are used, which may cause denim to get hairy with wear.
  • If you want sharp high contrast fades, try wearing raw denim for at least 3-6 months before you wash them. This allows creases to set in and create stress before you remove starch and dye. However, going a long time without washing your jeans will affect their durability. If they get gross, extremely smelly, visibly spotted, or sticky wash them. At least spot clean them with a wet washcloth. An early wash won’t ruin them.
  • Either hand wash if you want, or machine wash on a gentle setting if you don’t. Very frequently washing clothes that aren’t dirty or exposed to a lot of sweat is unnecessary, and significantly reduces their lifespan. To hand wash just fill a sink/tub/bucket with water, add some bleach-free dark colors detergent, and agitate them. Rub the denim against itself on the location of any stubborn stains or dirt. When finished, rinse them under a tap and hang dry.
  • If you want to preserve the dark color and contrast wash on gentle (or by hand), with woolite dark or a similar beach-free dark colors detergent, and hang dry. If you want a lightly colored jeans, unnatural creases, or no contrast in your fades don’t do those things.
  • If you soak sanforized jeans in a tub, they’ll shrink uniformly. If you wear them in the tub it can limit the shrink to just what it needs to fit your body. Don’t wear them while drying though, or you’ll get knee bags and they may bleed.
  • If your jeans are bleeding indigo dye on to your other clothes, soak them in warm water for 20-60 minutes depending on severity. Some jeans bleed all over everything, others don’t bleed at all. You’re not going to know until they do. Just be careful if you buy jeans that are labelled as overdyed or “deep indigo”.
  • If you have a slightly larger ass/thighs try a tapered jean. They taper below the knee, so they tend to have proportionally wide thighs and topblocks.
  • MFA often says to get the skinniest jean possible, which is true. That doesn’t mean everybody of every body type should wear jeans marked slim/skinny. It means don’t wear jeans with a ton of extra slack. Labels like skinny/slim/regular/relaxed are just euphemisms for what body type the jeans are designed for.
  • Look at the weight of the denim. a 12oz jean is lightweight, and will breathe in the summer. A 21oz jean is heavy, and will not be fun to wear in the summer if it gets hot where you live.
  • Try to avoid huge back pockets. They make your ass look huge.
  • Wefts come in different colors. Weft color influences what color the jeans will fade to. Dye transference will expose white cotton fibers, but breaks in the fibers can expose the color of the weft. Most will be white, but some are red, brown, blue, etc.
  • Non-cotton textiles are sometimes added to denim to change the texture. Sugarcane Co uses sugarcane in their jeans. Naked and Famous have used linen, cashmere, silk, kevlar, and even steel thread in their jeans
  • Some jeans are resin coated. This gives them a bit of a sheen, changed the texture, traps the dye so that they fade much slower, and makes them drape differently.
  • For anyone who wants to learn more about denim, I’d encourage you to visit Superfuture’s Superdenim forum.

Internet Vendors

Blue in Green

Self Edge

Context Clothing


Blue Owl

Urban Outfitters

Denim Geek (UK)


Styleforum Buy and Sell (Second Hand)

Superfuture Supermarket (Second Hand)

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