Denim has been used for making clothes for over 350 years but it has only been in the last 50 years that they have enjoyed widespread popularity. Blue jeans, as we know them today, were invented in 1871. Soon after, Jacob Davis and Levi Strauss would patent their rivet-reinforced work pants. It would be nearly 100 years before jeans found their way from workers’ wardrobes to pop culture and ubiquity. Today you can find people wearing blue jeans in nearly every country.
Part of the secret to their popularity lies in the particular way that denim is made. The indigo dye – whether synthetic or organic – is only applied to the warp threads of the twill weave. Further, the dye is only applied to the surface of the cotton threads, leaving an inner core of white cotton. As the jeans age and flex and stretch, some of that indigo dye is lost causing the blue of the jeans to fade. This fade is unique to each pair of jeans and is influenced by how they are worn and what we do in them, making each pair as individual as the wearer.
When buying jeans, the first thing to consider is the rise. The rise is the distance from the inseam at the bottom of our crotch to the waistline of the jeans. The rise determines where on our torsos we wear our jeans and thus, the proper waist diameter and leg length. A low rise jean will sit on our hips and require a smaller waist than a high or medium rise jean that sits at or just below our natural waist. Higher rises are more formal and can perceptually lengthen our legs. Lower rise jeans are more casual but can also make us appear shorter.
Next we want to think about the fit of the jeans. I don’t mean the waist or inseam but the way the jeans fit around our hips and thighs. The three main choices are relaxed, regular, and slim. A relaxed fit will give us lots of room to move but can look baggy and sloppy. Slim fit is the last stop before full on skinny jeans, they will fit much closer to the body but any extra muscle or weight will tend to make the pants look bulgy. The regular fit lies in the middle and is the most common.
The next thing to consider when shopping for jeans is the cut of the pants. Straight cut is the standard in jeans, essentially a straight denim tube for your legs. Boot cut jeans widen at the ankle but don’t quite cross into bell-bottom territory. Taper cut jeans become more narrow as they approach the ankle. Which cut is right depends on the look we’re going for and which shoes we’re planning to wear. A boot cut is more appropriate for bigger shoes while a taper cut will be more appropriate for loafers and boat shoes.
Jeans also come in a variety of washes. A wash is how the jean is finished before it hits the shelves. The most notorious is the acid wash. If jeans faded like chlorine stains, that would be an acid wash. The style peaked in the 1990s and tends to infuriate fashion police but the look can still be pulled off with some forethought. Stone wash jeans are generally enzyme washed now but both washes fade the denim and soften it. Vintage and dirty washes will distress and brown the jeans, giving them a lived in look. It would be natural to think that jeans that are distressed and torn and ripped would be cheaper but the time put into distressing them actually means that they are more expensive. And some jeans are completely unwashed,unshrunk, and untouched. These jeans are called “raw” and will take some time to break in and are stiffer than most store-bought jeans.
As with any part of our wardrobe there is no formula for exactly what to wear or how to wear it. Many sites will tell us that skinny jeans are out but if I like the way they make my legs look, I’m wearing them. The best way to know if a pair is right for us is to try them on with clothes we plan to wear with them. Look in the mirror. Sit down. Stand up. If we like the way they look and how they move with us then we’ve found the right jeans.
Let me know if you want me to talk about some of the things I missed like button-flys, cuffs, and selvedge denim!
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