Denim: so easy to put on, yet so easy to get wrong. Unlike corduroy and velor, which look tough (and indeed are), denim looks pretty plain on the surface, but can be dangerous to a man’s sartorial reputation. Take poor Justin Timberlake, for example, who still hasn’t survived this double denim disaster some 15 years later.
When donning the most basic workwear fabrics, the stakes are high, and each color and wash requires an entirely different grip. With that in mind, here’s what to wear with the five most common shades to make sure you stay on the right side of the story.
Dark wash denim
Unlike other washes, what constitutes “dark denim” is up for debate. For clarity, we’re talking about raw indigo and charcoal shades here – basically anything more or less uniform in color that isn’t black.
As a general rule, the darker the denim (and the less detailing), the more the 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 relative stiffness, raw denim (which has not been washed after manufacture) is generally not found in skinny fits. However, a slightly wider, slimmer, or straighter leg isn’t a bad thing and will ensure that any dodgy early 2000s vibes are stopped in their tracks.
Whether paired with casual basics such as a sweatshirt or blazer for a solid smart-casual mix, you’ll need to consider the balance of your overall outfit. Stiff denim tends to pull away from the body, so make sure anything you wear up top and on your feet isn’t too tight (read: no tight shirts).
While that’s not on the menu, just about everything else is firmly on, be it colors (neutrals and primary tones also work here), textures, or other shades of denim.
Tilmann Wröbel, creative director of The Cooper Collection (the premium arm of British denim brand Lee Cooper), also recommends doubling up. “Dark hues work beautifully in double denim looks,” he says. “Dark jeans can also be paired with lighter indigo shirts for a trendy tonal approach to clothing.”
Recommended colors: Lightly washed denim, neutrals, primary colors, navy blue, khaki.
Anything with the word “medium” in it is usually a bit lackluster. Mid-market, mid-life, middle-of-the-road – basically, that’s code for unanimously sucking. Except when it comes to mid-wash denim.
It’s a favorable shade of denim to have at your disposal, especially because of its ability to fit perfectly 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 between pieces, and just like white denim, it benefits from contrast.
Whether you opt for navy or slip-on shades over gray, brown or black, the primary goal should be to keep it simple. “Medium-washed denim looks great with something as simple as a plain white T-shirt,” says Levi’s Vice President of Northern Europe Richard Hurren. “Pair it with classic trainers and roll up the hem for a laid-back summer look.”
Recommended colors: Grey, brown, black, white.
Lightly washed denim
Following the fortunes of light wash denim is tough. One minute it’s the height of bad taste, the next minute it’s enjoying a resurgence in popularity, gracing some of the best-dressed legs and torsos in menswear.
In case you don’t know exactly where the style world is at, the consensus is that it’s cool. Thanks to the ’90s trend, light wash jeans, light wash shirts, and light wash jackets are all on the “approved” list.
How to wear
As much as light washes have a moment, double light denim remains firmly out of place. That said, there are plenty of ways to rock the shade while staying on the good side of dressing dad.
Frayed hems, boxier cuts and ripped details all nod to skatewear, especially when worn with pieces like hoodies or long sleeve tops under t-shirts. shirts.
Alternatively, for a more appealing everyday look, opt for relaxed fits with minimal extras and pair them with wardrobe basics such as a simple white t-shirt and a pair of white trainers for a must-have summer look.
“I would wear light denim jeans with a Breton top or a contrasting color like light green or light grey,” says Niels Mulder, denim designer at Edwin. “A sweatshirt or a crew neck t-shirt also make good companions.”
If faded jeans remind you too much of your old man, try a jacket or shirt used as an accent to an otherwise dark outfit instead, it’s the easiest way to introduce a lighter wash into your wardrobe.
Recommended colors: Grey, white, green, navy, black.
Like most black clothing, the darkest denim is a low-risk, high-reward investment. A favorite 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.
Due to its classic hue, when purchased in a sharp, almost tailored fit, black denim can serve as an undergarment for virtually any other black garment – from dress pants to chinos. It’s not all that simple, however.
How to wear
While relaxed fit light wash jeans can have a charming 90s look, black jeans have a particular tendency to get a little too emo teeny when worn wide. Similarly, a clinging spray on black jeans will veer either to guys’ vacation or to post-millennium indie rock; so always go straight leg to be on the safe side.
While there’s nothing quite like an all-black look, it’s also a perfect anchor for bolder hues. Got a primary color sweatshirt you can’t wait to wear? Pair it with a pair of black jeans for a rock-solid look. Likewise, layering a trendy pastel t-shirt under a black denim jacket will help lessen its impact for those looking to stand out from the safety of neutrals.
Not quite ready to take the Technicolor plunge? Camel and black is a timeless, foolproof color combination that always looks sophisticated; try teaming a camel overcoat or a suede bomber jacket with your black jeans and a white t-shirt for an outfit that will never go out of style.
“For a casual look, wear faded black jeans with a white t-shirt and an open plaid shirt,” suggests former Topman creative director Gordon Richardson. “That way you can button up the shirt if you need to dress up. Or pair a crisp white Oxford shirt with black jeans, then add a blazer and some smart boots if you’re worried you won’t look stylish enough.
Recommended colors: White, black, gray, pastel tones, primary colors, camel.
Style is often about stepping out of your comfort zone, and there are fewer better ways to do that than with white denim.
Aside from wearing it without looking like The Man from Del Monte, one of the main concerns here is making sure what you’re wearing stays the intended shade. While we can’t help you keep the coffee in his cup or the food on his fork, we can simplify the dressing process by giving you some suggestions on what to wear.
How to wear
Sure, white denim looks great on tan plus sizes, but if you’re not a bean or worried about getting washed out, it’s okay. Go for near-stone-white, cream, or off-white denim, all of which are more forgiving to body types and skin tones than a stark hue (not to mention a little easier to clean).
Not ready to jump legs first with jeans? A white denim jacket is the perfect way to relax; worn with black pants or raw jeans, impossible to go wrong.
If brave enough to go full, Mick Jagger, team at menswear retailer The Idle Man, suggests wearing them with classic staples in light neutral colourways.
“White jeans make a great base to work into other pieces, so start with those and add a black or gray t-shirt, a pair of sand desert boots, and a stone or khaki field jacket.”
Recommended colors: Black, grey, sand, beige, khaki, blue.