Photo-Illustration: The Strategist; Photos: Retailers
For something that’s generally accepted as a wardrobe essential, great jeans are hard to find. There’s a wealth of styles — from trendier flares and mid-aughts skinny jeans to classic raw denim and wide-leg cuts — and without trying them on, it can be hard to know what’ll actually look good on you. To help, we spoke with 23 stylish guys who have gone through the denim ringer — designers, retailers, podcasters, fashion writers, stylists, electricians, and denim nerds — to hear about their favorites.
Jeans generally align with regular men’s-pant sizes, focusing on waist and inseam measurements, and that’s what we’ve listed for each pair we’re recommending. To dial in your fit, find your waist, hip, thigh, and ideal rise and inseam measurements by measuring either your body or a pair of jeans you already have that fits well.
The rise measurement runs vertically from the crotch to the top of the waistband. The larger the measurement, the higher the rise. A higher rise will place the waistband closer to your actual waist and belly button and measure more than 11 inches on average. A mid-rise will sit between your waist and hips and measure between 10 and 11 inches on average. And a low rise will sit at the top of your hips.
The inseam length runs from the crotch seam down the inside of the leg to the hem. Some brands offer multiple inseam lengths, but the average for men’s jeans is between 30 and 34 inches. Some brands allow you to select your waist and inseam measurements independently, while others only let you select your waist measurement and pair it with a fixed inseam length.
Brands may list a measurement for the leg opening, which can help you figure out if a pair of jeans is more tapered or roomier at the ankles. Flared or bootcut jeans have leg openings of about ten inches, while skinny jeans measure around five or six inches at the leg opening.
The four most common styles of men’s jeans are straight leg, tapered leg, slim fit, and skinny. The straight leg is the classic with a fairly consistent measurement from hip to hem and only a very slight taper to follow the shape of your legs. (Almost all high-end Japanese denim will have a straight-leg cut: “The entire idea behind specialty Japanese denim brands is to make jeans with the attention to detail that Levi’s had mid-century, and the fit of Levi’s in that period was straight-leg,” says Drew Romero, sales associate at Dover Street Market and alumnus of Self Edge, a specialty denim shop.)
Tapered-leg jeans will be cut similarly to straight-leg jeans around the butt and thighs but taper more visibly toward the bottom of the legs. Slim-fit jeans will be snugger in the butt and thighs while tapering toward the bottom of the legs. Skinny jeans have an even snugger fit throughout and often have a low rise. Think about how roomy you want your jeans to feel and whether you want them to cut close to your ankles or sit over larger footwear like boots.
Traditionally made of 100 percent cotton, denim was originally worn by factory workers and miners, because it held up well in rough environments and became softer over time. The durability comes from its twill weave, which creates a diagonal pattern in the cloth. You don’t need to pay super-close attention to the weave unless you’re looking for extreme durability, but you should note the cotton content and whether it’s blended with spandex or Lycra to add stretch. If you want a stiffer, more structured feel to your jeans, you may prefer 100 percent cotton. Another term you may see is selvage, which refers to fabric that is woven so that its edges do not need hemming to prevent them from fraying. It is typically associated with high-end denim, because it’s more labor-intensive and, by extension, more expensive.
The type of denim your jeans are made of will affect their color and how they fade, wear and shape to your body, and shrink after you buy them. Raw denim “has not been given an additional wash or treatment,” says Andrew Chen, co-owner of the denim brand 3sixteen and partner at Self Edge. “It usually has a deep navy color and is a bit crunchy or rigid compared to other fabrics that have been washed down or softened up to give the appearance that they’ve been worn in for some time.” Raw denim will typically require soaking to get it to its final size.
According to Chen, processes like stonewashing, acid-washing, and distressing — first introduced in the 1970s and ’80s — “give jeans a broken-in look and feel.” That’s why washed denim tends to be preshrunk and more comfortable right away, while raw denim takes effort to break in. The “reward” is that it will form to your body over time, and as it fades, the result will be a more personal distressed look.
Jeans labeled “one wash” are made from raw denim that has been soaked and dried one time to remove shrinkage from the fabric. If jeans are “sanforized,” they are made of raw, unwashed denim that has been mechanically preshrunk, so they don’t require soaking.
No matter which type of denim you choose, Jeremy Smith, owner of Standard & Strange, cautions against guidance from some higher-end raw-denim brands that their jeans will stretch in the waist with wear. He advises people to buy what’s comfortable, noting that jeans that are too tight in the hips or crotch can lead to blowouts and broken zippers.
Sizing: Waist 28–58, inseam 29–40 | Style: Straight leg, high rise | Fabric: 100% cotton | Denim type: Washed
“If we’re going to talk about jeans that every man should have in their closet, a pair of good old Levi’s” is a must, according to Amy Leverton, the author of Denim Dudes: Street Style, Vintage, Workwear, Obsession. Getting a pair of Levi’s is “almost a rite of passage,” she says, noting that the 501 is still the gold standard. Jeremy Kirkland, host of men’s-style podcast Blamo! swears by his 501s, “because I wear tailoring and sport coats,” and the 12.25-inch rise is easier to dress up, he says.
Menswear writer Matthew Spade says the main things he looks for in jeans are wash, fit, and durability, and “the humble 501 seems to hit all of those right on the bull’s-eye.” The straight-leg style works with almost any body type and is available in a huge size range — including big and tall. As our own Chris Black says, the 501s are “perfect for every occasion.”
Sizing: Waist 28–38, inseam 30–34 | Style: Straight leg, high rise | Fabric: 77% cotton, 23% hemp | Denim type: Washed
“I prefer the 550 cut to the more popular 501 because of the added room in the rise and thigh area,” says Jared Johnson, co-creator of footwear brand Season Three. Although his absolute favorite jeans are vintage Levi’s 550s, he recommends the 551s as a close modern replica. They have hemp blended into the denim to make them softer, a roomier cut at the top for people with larger hips and thighs, and a classic straight leg that “gives you room to stretch out without that annoying feeling of denim hugging your calves,” Johnson says. He likes to wear them with understated trainers or boots.
Sizing: Waist 31–38, inseam 30–34.5 | Style: Straight leg, high rise | Fabric: 100% cotton | Denim type: One-wash 13.5 oz. Japanese selvage
Founded in 2005 by designer Ichiro Nakatsu, OrSlow makes clothing drawn from Nakatsu’s own vintage workwear and military archive. The brand is known for its timeless collections made from mostly custom fabrics, and the 105s are based on 1966 Levi’s 501 with a generous rise that fits most body types and a Goldilocks straight leg that’s not too slim and not too roomy. “When you close your eyes, these are the jeans you think of,” says Derek Guy, Twitter’s “menswear guy” and editor of Put This On. They’re another favorite of our own menswear guy, Chris Black, who called them out as some of his favorite affordable-ish jeans.
Available in a single wash and a “two-year” wash, the 105s are made from OrSlow’s own 100 percent cotton, 13.5 oz. Japanese selvage denim. Because they are already washed, you don’t need to worry about them shrinking, and they won’t need much breaking in. “They’re just easy to wear, nothing fussy about them, and the fit works for almost everyone,” Smith says. Black appreciates that they will “last forever” and “look better and better over time.” Just be sure to pay attention to the size chart, which is a little different than what most brands offer: There are five numbered sizes available, labeled 1 through 5, with size 2 corresponding to a 32-inch waist and a 31.5-inch inseam.
Sizing: Waist 28–40, inseam 35–37 | Style: Tapered leg, high rise | Fabric: 100% cotton | Denim type: Raw, sanforized Japanese selvage
“If you’re a raw-denim guy, it’s hard to do better than 3sixteen,” says Dan Snyder, owner and designer of New York City–based menswear company Corridor. 3sixteen is serious about sourcing its Japanese denim, and its website notes that these are made with denim that is “custom woven” for the company by Kuroki Mills in Japan. The brand makes a variety of fits, but the classic taper, or CT, is one of its most popular cuts because it fits many different body types and can be styled in many different ways.
Chen praises the jeans’ comfortable, high-rise cut “for people who are active and enjoy some more thigh allowance” and “nice modern taper without being skinny in any way.” Former Strategist writer Jordan Bowman has owned a pair for more than four years and says the fit and quality have stood the test of time, fading only slightly and taking on the softness of a trusty pair of sweats.
Sizing: Waist 27–44, inseam 34.5 | Style: Tapered fit, mid-rise | Fabric: 100% cotton | Denim type: Raw, left-hand twill Japanese selvage
Since the 2010s, raw denim has largely been the domain of niche enthusiasts, but Albert Muzquiz, an amateur denim historian and menswear TikToker, says it’s coming back to the mainstream: “You are seeing cool people online and in coffee shops and bars around you slowly and earnestly breaking in jeans again.” People may not be taking them for a soak at the beach, but they are still making their own fades and whiskers. And the under-$200 Naked & Famous Weird Guys are great for people just starting out. The 13.75 oz. Japanese twill denim is easy to break in and the Weird Guy silhouette isn’t too vintage-looking — with a nice taper from the knee that works for boots or sneakers. With one inseam, you will likely have to cuff or have them hemmed, but be sure to leave room for shrinking.
Sizing: Waist 26–40, inseam 29–36 | Style: Slim fit, mid-rise | Fabric: 99% cotton, 1% elastane | Denim type: Washed
The Levi’s 511 is to slim-fit jeans what the 501 is to straight-leg jeans: a standard-bearer. Tim Melideo, the writer behind menswear site Stay Classic, says Levi’s 511s are a staple of his wardrobe, and stylist Brandon Garr likes them too, telling us that Levi’s is a go-to brand for him because “they’re affordable and hold up in the city. I feel like I can be a bit more daring in them because I don’t have to worry as much about the replacement cost if they get a little roughed up.”
Even with the slimmer cut, cyclist Robert Evans told us the 511s work for “guys who have big legs from riding their bikes — we don’t have to squeeze ourselves into them.” He has been wearing 511s for “at least a decade” and says he gets “four or five years of use” out of each pair. The 511s contain elastane, which adds a bit of stretch to the denim. They come in a wide range of waist sizes and inseams and have a mid-rise, a gentle taper, and a 7.25-inch leg opening when laid flat.
Sizing: Waist 27–38, inseam 30–34 | Style: Skinny cut, mid-rise | Fabric: 99% cotton 1% elastane | Denim type: Washed
Alex Simons, a brand and editorial manager at Netflix, was a self-proclaimed “fancy-jeans guy for years.” As he explains, “I swore my Marc by Marc Jacobs black jeans forever. Then right before a business trip, they ripped, so I rushed into Levi’s and found the 510s and have never looked back.” In addition to being affordable, they’re “comfortable from the moment you put them on, have the perfect amount of pocket space, are skinny but not skintight, and stack perfectly on top of my high-top sneakers,” he says. The 510 is skinny through the thighs and legs with an 11-inch rise and a narrow 6.5-inch leg opening when laid flat.
Sizing: Waist 27–44, inseam 34 | Style: Bootcut, high-rise | Fabric: 100% cotton | Denim type: Raw 12.5 oz. Japanese selvage
For some, the return of flares has been greatly exaggerated. (Smith suggests that while they are “a good fit for some body types, like any distinctive silhouette, they’ll get played out quickly.”) But you can’t throw a lasso in the trendier haunts of lower Manhattan and Brooklyn without roping a pair. The looks are much more ’70s-inspired than reminiscent of early aughts flip-flops and bootcuts — though there is a bit of “indie sleaze” in the mix. And while many of the flares currently in demand are vintage, Naked & Famous is making its own new version, aptly named Groovy Guy, in a raw left-hand twill and in natural indigo selvage, which has a very 1970s lighter-blue color. You can style flares with boots for a western look or sneakers or Converse and keep the inseam on the longer side. I like pairing them with vintage hiking boots for a bit of a ’70s outdoorsy look. The Groovy Guys have an 11.5-inch rise on a size 32 with a generous 10.25-inch leg opening.
Sizing: Waist 27–54, inseam 30–40 | Style: Bootcut, high-rise | Fabric: 100% cotton | Denim type: Washed
“I think that jeans, if I may be crass for a moment, are really about making butts and crotches look good,” says Muzquiz, who laments that “a lot of modern men’s jeans shy away from making men feel sexy.” Thankfully, that’s not true of all jeans. Muzquiz recommends this classic Wrangler Cowboy Cut for that sexier look. The top block of the jeans (the area from the waist to the bottom of the crotch) hugs the butt and thigh and has a high, 11-inch rise. Because these are designed for cowboys, the pockets are placed higher in the back and further toward the hips (for easy access when on horseback), which “just makes everyone’s butt look really good,” says Muzquiz. They have a bit of a bootcut, which helps to channel a throwback, bare-chested Burt Reynolds look.
Wranglers can be a bit tough to break in at first, and the sizing can be hard to nail down — so if you can’t try them on in person, be sure to buy from a retailer with a good return policy. Guy recommends buying your regular inseam but sizing up by two inches in the waist. They are conveniently available in a wide range of sizes, which makes it easier to find the best fit, and come in ten different washes. Flynn McGarry, owner and chef at Gem and Gem Wine, favors them in white and often wears them in the kitchen: “I like to let life mess them up — whether it’s food stains or plumbing sludge.”
Sizing: Waist 28–36, inseam 30–34 | Style: Slim fit, low rise | Fabric: 94% organic cotton, 5% polyester, 1% elastane | Denim type: Washed
“Every guy should have some dressy black jeans,” says stylist David Thomas. If you want a black jean you can “dress up,” he says it’s important to make sure the color is a solid black that isn’t faded at all. He loves the Acne Max Stay Black because the fit is “slim but not supertight,” and the fabric is designed to resist fading. This particular pair of jeans came up a lot: Garr loves them too, as does Carlos Rivera-Anaya, the head of marketing at Mr Porter. “I own three pairs,” he says. “On one, I cut the hem fairly high for a super-slim leg that looks great with a sharp Chelsea boot and leather jacket. On a second, I snipped the hem about two inches lower to wear with white tube socks and Vans Old Skools, and for my work-appropriate look, I left them intact, which gives me a straight and narrow leg with some length around the ankle. Total staple jeans.” If you style them the right way, Thomas says, you could even wear them to a formal event.
Sizing: Waist 28–36, inseam 34-36 | Style: Tapered leg, high rise | Fabric: 100% cotton | Denim type: Raw, sanforized selvage
Chef Fabián von Hauske (of Contra, Wildair, and Peoples Wine) told us that 3sixteen’s founder “knows I only wear black jeans and put me on to these.” Black raw denim is more resistant to fading than indigo raw denim but will still fade to a gray color over time. At the moment, von Hauske says he owns “eight pairs and I run them all down until I can’t wear them anymore.” Truly wearing them out has been a challenge, though, because they “last forever,” making them worth their higher upfront cost. They have a high rise and a tapered leg, and a pair with a 30-inch waist will have an 11-inch rise and a leg opening of 7 inches when laid flat.
Sizing: Waist 28–42, inseam 30–34 | Style: Slim straight, mid-rise | Fabric: 100% cotton | Denim type: Cone Mills Natural Denim
White jeans can be a bit tricky. They have to be just the right combination of color and fit. Guy recommends this Sid Mashburn pair, because “natural unbleached denim is easier to wear than optic white.” They have a slimmer cut, which Guy describes as “youthful but not too much so for older dudes.” But the brand does recommend sizing up, since they run a one size small in this color.
Sizing: Waist 28–40, inseam 34 | Style: Straight leg, mid-rise | Fabric: 25% Dyneema double-face stretch, 75% cotton | Denim type: Washed
Of course, the origins of jeans are as hard-wearing workwear. While all of the jeans on this list have details dating back to the 19th century — rivets on the stress points, for one — most of us won’t break a sweat in our indigos. But which modern jeans can take the rigor of the worksite outside the confines of an open-plan office? Peter Zottolo (a union electrician, photographer, and editor who wears jeans regularly on the job) says the toughest pair he owns is from Australian motorcycle brand Sa1nt. “They have Dyneema (a Kevlar-like material) woven along with cotton, and they’ve got a six-to-seven-second slide time, which makes them incredibly abrasion-resistant,” Zottolo explains. They even have interior pockets in the knees to add pads.
While some purists will balk at the stretch and Kevlar woven into the denim, it’s hard to come up with a tougher pair of jeans. Take it from Zottolo: “I wore them for a month straight while working under train tracks at the San Francisco Chinatown Muni station, and they hardly had a scratch, while my toolie’s double-knee Carhartts were shredded.” Despite the hefty price tag, for Zottolo, who rides motorcycles, the protection they offer is worth every penny (the jeans meet E.U. “Class B” abrasion-protection standards for motorcycle clothing). The Unbreakables have a straight leg and a 10-inch rise.
Sizing: Waist 26–38, inseams 30.5–32 | Style: Straight fit, high rise | Fabric: 100% cotton | Denim type: Raw, 10 oz. weight
Not all denim pants are jeans, which are defined by a five-pocket design, rivets, and, maybe most crucially, the back yoke. Denim is so associated with jeans that other styles made from denim can look off. But a classic style that makes perfect sense in denim in the painter pant. Like many trends of the past decade, painter pants can be traced to workwear and skate culture, and “the carpenter pant has sort of surpassed the five-pocket in terms of cool-guy signifier,” says Muzquiz. Many painter pants come in white or off-white. Stan Ray makes a pair in a 10 oz., 100 percent cotton raw denim. The 10 oz. weight makes them easier to break in than most other raw-denim jeans — they’re even lighter than the Naked & Famous Weird Guys above — so they’re perfect for someone looking to dip their toe in the blue of raw denim at a more affordable price. These painter pants have a wider leg than most jeans and a high waist for a comfortable fit. They are unsanforized, which means you can expect a bit of shrinking after the first wash, but they don’t require soaking.
• Chris Black, Strategist columnist
• Andrew Chen, co-owner of the denim brand 3sixteen and a partner at Self Edge
• Robert Evans, cyclist
• Brandon M. Garr, stylist
• Derek Guy, menswear writer
• Fabián von Hauske, chef at Contra, Wildair, and Peoples Wine
• Jared Johnson, co-creator of footwear brand Season Three
• Jeremy Kirkland, host of men’s style podcast Blamo!
• Amy Leverton, author of Denim Dudes: Street Style, Vintage, Workwear, Obsession
• Flynn McGarry, owner and chef at Gem and Gem Wine
• Tim Melideo, writer at Stay Classic
• Albert Muzquiz, amateur denim historian and menswear TikToker
• Carlos Rivera-Anaya, head of marketing at Mr. Porter
• Drew Romero, sales associate at Dover Street Market
• Alex Simons, brand and editorial manager at Netflix
• Jeremy Smith, co-owner of Standard & Strange
• Matthew Spade, menswear writer
• David Thomas, stylist
• Peter Zottolo, Union Electrician and U.S. editor of the men’s fashion magazine Plaza Uomo
Additional reporting by Jordan Bowman, Louis Cheslaw, and David Notis
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