Over the years denim has evolved into its own little world of terminology and numbers that you won’t see elsewhere in menswear.
For the casual shopper, these terms and inconsistencies gets frustrating fast.
Do you need a low-rise slim fit?
A high-rise relaxed fit? Bootcut, skinny, straight-leg?
And where do numbers come into it all?
It’s a mess!
But we’re here to help.
This guide gives a definition for all the major terms used to describe men’s denim trousers, as well as some hints on how to find the style that suits you best.
For a quick summary – watch the video below.
Jean Sizes in Numbers
We’ll start with the easy part: finding your measurements.
Most jeans, unless you’re having them custom-made, will be sized by two measurements: waist and inseam.
- The waist measurement is the circumference, in inches, of the waistband of the pants — that inch-thick or so horizontal strip of cloth around the top. Wrap a tape measure around yourself where you want the waistband to sit. That’s your “waist” measurement, even if you’re wearing your jeans down on your hips.
- The inseam measurement starts in the center of the crotch (you’ll see the point where four seams all intersect in a kind of a cross-shape) and runs down the inside of the leg to the cuff. To find yours, measure from the place where your legs join down to the floor, standing barefoot. That’s about the inseam you want.
On most commercially-sold pairs of jeans you’ll see the numbers written together, with the waist size first. A tag that reads “36 x 32″ is a pair of jeans with a 36-inch waistband and a 32-inch inseam, for example.
In addition to the listed numbers, a third measurement is often used to determine how the jeans are described:
- Rise is not usually listed on the tag, but many companies use the rise measurement to distinguish between “cuts” or styles of jeans. It’s the measurement from the center of the crotch (again, that middle point where all the seams come together) up to the center of the waistband, where the button usually sits. You won’t see it on tags unless you’re buying very specialized denim, but it does have an effect on terminology.
Those three measurements — waist, inseam, and rise — are the Big Three of off-the-rack jean sizing. If you’re having bespoke jeans made, of course, your tailor will want other measurements, and you should follow his or her instructions, or use a custom sizing guide like A Tailored Suit’s.
Jean Styles: What All Those Words Mean
The numbers are the easy part. Most men can measure their waist and inseam (or try on pants until they find the measurements that work for them). It’s figuring out the difference between all the styles and cuts offered by retailers that gets confusing.
Let’s dive right in, shall we?
“Fit,” in jeans, refers to the seat and thigh. It’s easy to confuse “slim fit” with “skinny leg,” but they’re not the same thing at all. Fit is talking about your butt and your thighs.
The breakdown is about what you’d expect:
Slim Fit jeans have the least fabric in the rear panels, and the thigh openings are narrower than the regular fit. They’re designed to hug your body. These are good for guys with tight butts who want to show their figure off, and uncomfortable and unsightly on most everyone else.
Regular Fit jeans are what most of us wear. The exact measurement varies a bit from brand to brand, but they’re made to fit like traditional blue jeans: resting lightly against the buttocks in the back, with a bit of wiggle room in the crotch. Unless you’re packing some extra weight in the butt or thighs, this is probably the fit you want.
Relaxed Fit adds fabric in the back and extends the rise a little, as well as expanding the leg openings. We tend to associate them with overweight men, but they’re just as useful for men with “footballer butt” — strong glutes and thighs paired with narrower waists and calves. A lot of athletes end up needing relaxed-fit jeans.
Understand that these aren’t very scientific terms. Each brand has their own in-house stylists, with their own idea of what a “normal” person’s butt and thighs look like.
But you can generally use some common sense and self-awareness to figure out what you need. If you’ve got a great butt and you don’t mind a little restricted movement, go for the slim fit. If you’re packing some extra weight in the rear and thighs, go relaxed. And everyone else will probably be comfortable in regular fits.
Any of those words is a clue that you’re talking about the legs of the trousers, not the seat, drop, or waist. “Taper” jeans are also sometimes called “skinny” — not to be confused with “slim fit,” which we just discussed above!
Complicated, right? But in basic terms, these describe how the width of the trouser legs change over time:
- Taper or skinny jeans do just what the name says: they taper from the opening at the thigh to the opening at the cuff. Ankle openings in the 14″-16″ range generally get called “skinny” jeans, unless they’re paired with unusually small waist/seat sizes.
- Straight or regular legs are roughly the same size from the thigh to the ankle. They’re basically a tube of fabric (well, two tubes of fabric, joined together). It’s the most classic look for jeans, largely because it was the easiest to make when people were doing everything by hand.
- Boot-cut or wide-leg jeans are, as the name implies, designed to be worn over boots. The assumption is that several inches near the bottom will be resting against a boot, rather than against naked ankle/calf. They’re made several inches wider at the bottom than the top. Worn with low shoes or sandals, they look dangerously close to “flares,” which is not a style any man should aspire to.
The shape of your body and the shoes you like to wear affects the kind of leg you want. Men with a lot of taper to their legs — like the “footballer” build we discussed above — may want a relaxed fit in the seat but a skinny leg, to fit the taper of their legs. Bulkier men with thick ankles and thighs will feel more comfortable in a regular seat and straight legs. And workmen who wear boots, obviously, will want wide-leg jeans to accommodate them.
Most jeans will be described by a combination of one “fit” term (slim/regular/relaxed or something similar) and one “leg” term (skinny/straight/boot-cut or similar).
From time to time, however, you get outliers. Most are just marketing words with limited actual meaning, or else are synonyms for the existing fit/leg terminology. Here are a few we’ve seen and what they usually mean:
- High-rise refers to jeans with an extra-long rise. These are designed to sit high on the waist (which may mean a smaller waist size than you’re used to buying, if you’d previously been wearing jeans nearer to your hips). A lot of relaxed-fit jeans are already high-rise, or close to it, but anything with the phrase in the description is going to be particularly long in the rise. They’re comfortable, and can help conceal weight around the belly, but they’re considered fairly unstylish.
- Low-rise are the obvious opposite to high-rise jeans, and are generally reserved for women’s jeans. Some brands make skinny and regular fit that sit pretty low on the hips, but they aren’t usually marketed as low-rise. Anything that is marketed as low-rise is going to have some pretty noticeable sag — usually more than you want unless you’re a rapper.
- Loose sometimes gets used interchangeably with “relaxed,” but in some brands it refers instead to a bowed waistband that hangs lower on the body than a straight one. You don’t run into them too often, but if you’re buying anything called “loose” jeans, make sure you like the fit in the waist.
You can usually use common sense with marketing terminology — nine times out of ten, it’s just a company looking for an edgier way of saying something basic like “slim fit” or “boot cut.”
Finding the Right Jeans for You
Shopping for your jeans means finding the right combination of fitting factors:
- Numerical measurements (inseam and waist)
- “Fit” style (seat and thigh proportions)
- Leg cut (change in trouser leg size from top to bottom)
Try to start with a good idea of what shape looks best on you before you go wading through store and brand terminology. Know your measurements, obviously, but also have a sense for how roomy you like your pants in the butt and crotch, and for how broad your thighs are relative to your calves. That’ll give you a better idea of the styles you’ll start with when it comes time to actually try things on.
At the end of the day there’s no substitute for the fitting room. Unless you’re buying from a tailor who’s making them to your personalized measurements, don’t buy jeans without trying them on first (or, if you’re shopping online, buy ones you’re sure you can return at no cost). Brands aren’t particularly consistent — a “classic fit, straight leg” from Levi’s isn’t the same shape as a “classic fit, straight leg” from Lee’s or Wrangler.
So even armed with all this information, jeans shopping might be a challenge. But look on the bright side. It’s still easier than shopping for women’s clothes.
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