The Denim Dictionary
Updated: Feb 6
There's nothing more masculine in a man's closet than his jeans. Tried and true, denim has been a staple to a hard working man's attire for over 150 years. Like a suit, there are rules to be followed to look your absolute best. Do you know them?
The truth is, denim isn’t the great equalizer you thought it was. There are more types of denim washes, cuts and styles than there are pop stars in rehab. And the thing is, you can’t just team up any of these styles and colors with whatever shirt happens to be lying nearest to your bed. There are rules, ManBabe, and I’m here to explain them. I’ll make it quick and painless, if that’s how you like it.
Some Key Terms You Should Know
Jeans – The word derives from their place of origin, Genoa, where they were originally worn by sailors. Levi’s started the US jeans trend in the 1850s. Yes, that was a long time ago, ManTini. See, you’re learning!
Denim – A cotton fabric. Cotton shrinks and stretches and fades. If you like the fit and color of your jeans, don’t put them in the dryer, hang them. Matters are worse if there’s any bit of elastic in your jeans (check tag), because those strands of elastic will snap in high heat.
Hue – A color.
Shade – Adding black to that color (aka a darkened version of it).
Tint – Adding white to that color (aka a lightened version of it).
Saturation – How dark a hue is.
Contrast – Something you need to learn. For beginner-intermediate dresser purposes, your shirt shouldn’t be the exact same color(s) of your jeans. That’s called color blocking, and it convinces girls that yes, in fact, you have no idea what you’re doing and you’re a bit too removed from pop culture to be super fun. Play with different hues and saturations. Think of your outfit in terms of graphic design. Put on a green shirt and jeans. Now convert the outfit to grayscale. Are your shirt and pants similar shades of gray? Yes? No good. Try to encompass as much of the grayscale spectrum as possible to make your outfit look dynamic.
An “unwashed” pair of jeans means it hasn’t been faded at all, even subtly, by the manufacturer. Most jeans have some kind of wash—
You remember, from the ‘80s? If you don’t remember the ‘80s, good for you, but we should probably cancel our date (I’m just not ready to be your Cougar, okay?). Acid wash is having a bit of a comeback among the fashion-forward folk here in New York. If you’re going to try something as silly and extreme as an acid wash (I’ll support you’re decision, I’m all for experimentation, minus Cougar), you really need a basic, solid shirt. White, red and black are super hot right now, and are also reminiscent of the ‘80s, but in a much less risky way. I suggest one of those.
Kind of looks like someone put a hot fudge sundae in with the indigo dye when they were making your pants. These jeans are both distressed (you know, like really faded) and browned and are super common, but don’t be fooled; you shouldn’t wear them with everything! A white shirt can contrast nicely to the saturation of faded brown and indigo jeans. Tans, though, are the same color as the dirty faded part and will make you look (and your outfit) washed out. If the dirty wash is really exaggerated, the jeans may look very rockstar-ish rather than like a basic wardrobe staple. Be aware of this—you shouldn’t wear an un-trendy yellow polo, for example, with jeans that have extreme washes (or extreme detailing for that matter).
While many retailers often overlap “antique” and “dirty” washes, I’d like to separate them to give you a better knowledge-base. Antique wash jeans look as though a layer of dust has been accumulating on them for thirty years in an attic somewhere. They aren’t necessarily mega-distressed, which makes them easier to match with a variety of shirts. The effect of this material is slightly off-beat and trendy, so it’s best not to wear antique wash pants with traditionally-preppy shirts. Try something with a little edge, instead.
These jeans, which aren’t substantially faded, dusted or browned, are your basic wardrobe staple and will look good with a solid t-shirt. This is also probably a good time to tell you that classic, light-colored denim jeans are very hot right now, but just during spring and summer. Only expert fashionistos know how to pull these off when the weather gets colder. Mid-saturated (or medium) denim and dark jeans are good all year round, and dark jeans are the easiest to dress up. Every guy should own at least one pair of mid and one pair of dark denim. T-shirts (especially red ones!) look especially good with mid-denim for that classic, All-American ManDoll look. If you’re trying to match a black button up with a pair of dark jeans for a date, you may want to make sure the jeans are slightly distressed and dynamic to avoid color blocking. Plus, romantic restaurants are quite dark, and unless you’re trying to dodge paying the bill, it’s best if you don’t camouflage into the shadows.
Icky Euro Clubbing Jeans
I don’t think I’ve seen shiny jeans since 1999, but I figured I’d warn against them, just in case. If you must (for whatever reason, which I don’t want to know) wear shiny denim, make sure the jeans fit and look more like proper trousers than jeans. Or do it completely ironically and get a pair of skinny hipster shiny jeans. Do not get shiny jeans that are also browned and faded. You can’t mix genres like that because it would turn the whole Denim Dictionary on its head, throw a wrench in my writing career, and—most importantly—make you look like a fashion casualty.