Denim: so easy to put on, so easy to get wrong. Unlike corduroy and velvet, which appear difficult (and indeed are), denim on the surface seems simple enough but can be perilous to a man’s sartorial reputation. Take poor Justin Timberlake, for example, who still hasn’t lived down that double denim disaster some 15 years later.
When donning the most staple of workwear fabrics, the stakes are high and each colour and wash requires an entirely different tack. With that in mind, here’s how to wear the five most common types to make sure you stay on right side of history.
Style is often about stepping outside of your comfort zone, and there are fewer better ways to do this than with white denim.
Aside from wearing it without looking like a male orderly, one of the main concerns here is keeping what you wear whiter than white. While we can’t help you keep coffee in its cup or food on its fork, we can simplify the process of getting dressed by giving a few suggestions of what to wear it with.
How To Wear
Not built like a beanpole? Worried about being washed out? Go for almost white denim in stone, cream or off-white, which are all more forgiving to body types and skin tones than a stark shade and slightly easier to keep clean.
If unsure about jumping in legs first with jeans, a white denim jacket is the perfect way to ease into the trend; worn with black trousers or dark raw denim, it’s nigh on impossible to get wrong.
If plucky enough to go full-on Mick Jagger, Tom Courcey, editor of menswear etailer The Idle Man, suggests wearing them with classic staples in light neutral colourways.
“White jeans make a great base to work other pieces around, so start with these and add in a black or grey T-shirt, a pair of sand desert boots and a stone or khaki field jacket.”
Recommended Colours: Black, grey, sand, tan, khaki, blue.
Dark Wash Denim
Unlike the other washes in this guide, what constitutes as ‘dark denim’ is up for discussion. For clarity, here we’re talking raw indigo and charcoal shades – essentially anything more or less uniform in colour that isn’t black.
As a rule of thumb, the darker the denim (and the less detailing), the better pieces lend themselves to being dressed up for more formal occasions. Yet despite this versatility, there are still a few things to consider.
How To Wear
Due to its comparative stiffness, raw indigo denim isn’t usually found in skinny fits. However, a slightly wider, slim- or straight-leg is no bad thing and will ensure that any early 2000s dodgy denim vibes are stopped in their tracks.
Whether combined with off-duty staples such as a sweatshirt or a blazer for a solid smart-casual mix, it’s never a bad idea to stick to monochrome pieces (black, white, beige, grey) as colour matching with this shade can be particularly tricky.
Tilmann Wröbel, creative director of The Cooper Collection (the premium arm of British denim brand Lee Cooper), also recommends doubling up: “Dark jeans work fantastic in double denim looks. [They] can also be paired with lighter indigo shirts for an on-trend tonal approach to dressing.”
Try anchoring a pair of raw jeans with a white T-shirt for an all-time classic menswear combination and finish off with a light wash jacket for a denim duo that never fails.
Recommended Colours: Light wash denim, beige, white, grey, black, brown.
Light Wash Denim
Keeping up with the fortunes of light wash denim is taxing. One minute it’s the height of bad taste, the next minute it’s having a resurgence in popularity, gracing some of the best-dressed legs and torsos in menswear.
In case you were unclear on where the style world currently stands, the consensus is that it’s cool. Thanks to the nineties trend, light wash jeans, light wash shirts and light wash jackets are all approved.
How To Wear
As much as light washes are having a moment, going double light denim remains firmly off the cards. That said, there are many ways to wear them while staying on the right side of dad chic.
Frayed hems, boxier cuts and ripped detailing all nod to nineties skate culture, especially when worn with pieces such as hoodies or long sleeve tops under T-shirts.
Alternatively, for a more appealing everyday look, opt for relaxed fits with minimal extras and team with wardrobe basics such as a simple white T-shirt and a pair of white sneakers for a go-to high-summer look.
“I would style light denim jeans with a Breton top or go for a contrast colour such as light green or light grey,” says Edwin denim designer Niels Mulder. “A crew-neck sweatshirt or T-shirt also make good companions.”
If stonewashed jeans are a step too far into dad territory for you, try a jacket or shirt instead; used as an accent to an otherwise dark outfit, it’s the easiest way to introduce a lighter wash into your wardrobe.
Recommended Colours: Grey, white, green, navy, black.
Anything with the word ‘mid’ in it is usually a bit drab. Middle-market, midlife, middling – basically it’s code for being unanimously naff. Apart from where mid-wash denim is concerned.
This is a favourable shade of denim to have at your disposal, not least because of its ability to slot seamlessly into several off-duty looks.
How To Wear
Mid-wash denim has similar requirements to all other washes. Like light wash denim, it’s important not to double up without leaving at least two shades in between pieces; as with darker denim, it’s best taken in slimmer fits; and just like white denim, it benefits from contrast.
When wearing mid-wash jeans, avoid pairing with navy as matchy-matchy dressing is rarely stylish. Instead, look to grey, brown and even black tones, which provide enough visual difference. Materials can also help achieve this effect – a rugged leather, suede or wool jacket adds an extra level of detail thanks to the varying textures.
But above all, keep it simple. “Mid-wash denim looks great with something as simple as a plain white T-shirt,” says Levi’s vice president of Northern Europe, Richard Hurren. “Pair with classic sneakers and roll the hem for a casual summer look.”
Recommended Colours: Grey, brown, black, white.
Like most items of black clothing, the darkest of denims is a low-risk, high-reward investment to make. A favourite among well-dressed musicians (think James Bay, Alex Turner and Oasis-era Noel Gallagher), the style refuses to date, proving just how essential and versatile it is.
Because of its classic shade, when bought in a sharp, almost tailored cut, black denim can act as a sub-in for almost any other piece of black clothing – from suit trousers to chinos. It’s not all plain sailing, though.
How To Wear
Whereas relaxed-fit light wash jeans can look charmingly nineties, black jeans have a peculiar tendency to err a little too close to emo teenager when worn wide, so always go for a body-skimming cut.
While there’s no beating the rocker edge of a head-to-toe monochrome look, black also makes a perfect anchor for bolder hues. Got a primary colour sweatshirt you’re itching to wear? Team it with a pair of black jeans for a fail-safe look. Likewise, layering an on-trend pastel tee underneath a black denim jacket will help reduce its impact for those looking to branch out from the safety of neutrals.
Not quite ready to take the technicolor plunge? Camel and black is a timeless and foolproof colour combination that always looks sophisticated; try pairing a camel overcoat or suede bomber with your black jeans and a white tee for an outfit that will never date.
As Topman’s creative director Gordon Richardson is keen to make clear, black denim can work for a range of formalities too.
“For a casual look, wear faded black denim jeans with a white T-shirt and an open check shirt. This way you […] can button up the shirt if you need to smarten up. [Or] pair a crisp white Oxford shirt with black jeans [then] add a blazer and smart boots if you’re worried that you won’t look smart enough.”
Recommended Colours: White, black, grey, pastel shades, primary hues, camel.