Of all the fabrics to have emerged from the last 150 years, none have been quite as revolutionary as denim. This hard-wearing material might have started its life in the workshops of North America but it wasn’t long before it had permeated every conceivable nook and cranny of menswear. Now here we find ourselves, in a world awash with the blue stuff.
Except it’s not all blue anymore, is it? Sure, those early days knew nothing but indigo, but here in the 21st century, no shade has been left untouched. From raw and rigid to pale and washed out, there’s a shade of denim to suit every mood, taste and occasion. Trouble is, with a palette so varied, versatility across the entirety of your wardrobe isn’t guaranteed. Each colour denim has its own specific set of dos and don’ts, and if you want to look put together it’s a good idea to learn them.
From Canadian tuxedos done right to how to actually make white work; here’s what you need to remember when it comes to some of menswear’s most popular shades of denim.
Dark & Raw Denim Jeans
For the uninitiated, raw is more than just a shade when it comes to denim, it’s a whole menswear subgenre. Without getting technical, this is indigo-dyed denim as it exists in its purest, unwashed state. It’s dark and rich in colour, fades beautifully over time and tends to spell bad news for light-coloured sofas. (You have been warned.)
When it’s fully broken in, raw denim is whiskered, characterful and casual. However, for the first six months or so it’s sharp and smart, meaning it can be worn with dressier smart-casual outfits. This makes it a solid option for things like dates and evenings out as well as general day-to-day duties.
How To Wear It
Raw denim’s natural habitat is amongst workwear. There’s a whole men’s fashion subculture devoted to vintage blue-collar garments, big boots, bushy beards and achieving the perfect fade with the heaviest possible jeans. This considered, workwear staples like flannel shirts, chore coats, shearling jackets and moc-toe boots will always be a good match.
Still, it’s no good rocking up to your Tinder date dressed like a mid-century railroad worker. When a little more refinement is required, opt instead for a slim fit over a straight leg, and team with smart leather footwear (Chelsea boots are a fail-safe option), a dark knitted roll neck and a well-cut overshirt or mac.
Stonewash Denim Jeans
For years it was a style crime on par with socks and sandals (which oddly enough is now “fashionable” too) but stonewash denim is back in a big way. Light, laid back and casual, this pale-blue wash may have some unfortunate mullet-and-moustache connotations, but when handled with care it can provide another way to bring some contrast to your wardrobe.
As a rule of thumb, the darker a garment is, the dressier it tends to look. With that in mind, stonewash denim sits very much at the casual end of the dress-code spectrum, meaning it’ll work best as part of your weekend wardrobe.
How To Wear It
First and foremost, steer well clear of double denim. Yes, it can work in some cases but this is not one of them. The only way it might look passable would be paired with black denim – a stonewash jacket and black jeans, for example – but unless you’re 100% confident, it’s best not to go there at all.
So what can you wear it with? Well, stonewash is a bonafide 1990s icon, so taking some style cues from that era is a good bet. Grungy essentials like plaid shirts, high-top Converse and slouchy outerwear if you’re thinking super casual. Or light desert boots, knitwear and an unstructured sports coat or suede jacket for something a little more polished.
Mid-Wash Denim Jeans
There’s a misconception that mid-wash denim is boring. It’s probably because out of all the washes it’s the safest option. But from where we’re standing that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The reason it’s safe is that it’s versatile and – as far as we’re concerned – the more things you have that work across the majority of your wardrobe the better.
This subtle wash is definitely best suited to casual occasions but can be dressed up a bit if needs be. This makes it a perfect all-rounder; something that can be called upon throughout the week, whether for work or play.
How To Wear It
With the possible exception of black, double denim always looks bad when the shades are too close. That rule is particularly true of mid-wash, so unless you’re deliberately trying to dress like a cowboy, avoid it like the plague.
Outside of that, it’s more or less anything goes colour wise. Mid-wash denim is nice and neutral so will play well with both dark and light hues. Keep things casual by teaming some pinrolled mid-wash jeans with a hoodie and luxe leather sneakers, or take it up a notch by teaming it with a roll neck jumper, sharply-cut overcoat and a pair of leather Chelsea boots.
Grey Denim Jeans
When it comes to keeping it subtle and understated, grey denim is the perfect option. It’s not the loudest, brightest or most attention-grabbing shade, but it works perfectly as a minimalist base on which to build a bolder look.
In terms of when and where to wear it, grey is one of the more versatile shades of denim. It can easily be dressed up or down and works well as part of a tonal outfit – particularly when worn in place of black denim in an otherwise all-black look.
How To Wear It
Grey denim is infinitely versatile, so it’s easier to say how not to wear it. Again, avoid double-denim colour matching. Outside of tailoring, grey on grey isn’t a particularly stylish look.
Instead, use grey jeans, a grey denim jacket or a grey denim shirt with other neutral-coloured pieces – black, white, different shades of grey – to keep it subtle and minimalist. A pop of colour can always be added via a statement jacket in a block, primary colour.
When it comes to footwear, pare back. White canvas or leather sneakers will always look good with grey, as will anything black.
Black Denim Jeans
Black denim in at least one of its various forms is an absolute must in any self-respecting man’s wardrobe. The Jekyll and Hyde of fabrics, it’s a smart-casual staple by day and a rock ‘n’ roll rebel by night.
When the occasion demands something more than your everyday denim, black can help to bring a little refinement and sophistication to the table. For this reason, it’s the perfect accompaniment for evening meals, nights out and dates.
How To Wear It
Of all the shades of denim, black is the easiest to dress up. Go for black jeans in a slim cut – always avoid skinny fits unless you want to come off looking like an emo teenager from 2005 – and pair with black boots, fine-gauge knitwear and some textured outerwear. A wool overshirt or corduroy jacket in light grey or tan would work well.
For something a little edgier, swap the smart-casual outerwear for a good quality leather biker jacket – Schott if you’re thinking classic, Saint Laurent if you’re thinking high-end – a plain white tee for contrast and a pair of black leather boots or white sneakers.
White Denim Jeans
Dabbling in white denim is one of the riskiest but potentially highest-payoff moves in menswear, particularly when it comes to jeans. Get it right and you’re the epitome of Italian Riviera cool, mess it up and you’re a reality TV contestant. There’s not really much in the way of middle ground.
As for when to wear it, reserve white jeans for special occasions. This isn’t the sort of thing to be brought out for day-to-day duties and should only be called on when a little sprezzatura is required. The only problem is, such occasions tend to involve drinks and red wine just so happens to be white denim’s arch-nemesis. Try your best to avoid spillages.
How To Wear It
The key to nailing white denim is twofold. First of all, the fit must be on point; mid-rise jeans in either straight-leg or slim fit, but absolutely never skinny. Secondly, it needs to be worn with confidence – if you’re not sure whether it looks good or not, it doesn’t. You can’t be apologetic in a pair of white jeans.
For best results, pair with black or brown footwear and stick to earthy tones and neutrals throughout the rest of the outfit. An unstructured navy blazer should be considered white jeans’ best friend; for bonus points team it with some brown suede loafers.