How can you look good in jeans at your office's next dress-down Friday or ‘blue jeans and beers' networking event?
Keeping denim at the center of your wardrobe is a smart, sensible choice, given its durability and comfort.
But, how can you make the right impression and avoid looking sloppy?
Look no further than this quick guide to walk you through updated looks that'll keep your jeans looking sharp.
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How To Look Good In Jeans: The Key Ingredient Is Quality
Here's the key to looking good in jeans: get good-looking jeans. Makes sense, no?
There's a limit to how far you can dress things up if you're wearing a pair of battered old Wranglers. To really pull off a sharp look, you're going to need jeans that are:
- A dark color — choose deep indigo for versatility or black for formality.
- Closely fitted — think “trim”, not “skinny”.
- Straight-legged — a boot cut can work, but it's not as versatile.
- Clean and neat — no obvious rips, tears, stains or fades from working in them.
- Simple — no straps, flaps or ostentatious embroidery on the back pockets.
Don't be afraid to spend a touch more than you're used to spending on jeans to get the perfect pair. The difference between a $20 pair of store-brand jeans and a $60 pair from a name brand can startle you, especially where the quality of the denim is concerned.
It's worth spending a few extra bucks to get a good fit and a dark, dressy-looking dye. Cheap jeans will make whatever you wear them with look cheap as well.
The other key to all these looks? Skip the tennis shoes. No sneakers. Seriously. These looks will work best with casual leather footwear — brogues, saddle shoes, suede of all kinds, chukka boots, you name it. Gym shoes are the kiss of death for a smart denim look.
How To Look Good In Jeans: Classic Looks
Don't want to push too many fashion boundaries all at once?
The classic ways men have been wearing jeans for decades still work for you and me today.
Most of these are “casual” styles. They aren't meant for business. Wear them around town with confidence, or to low-formality settings like ballgames and bars. If you nail all the elements, you'll look better than someone else wearing a fancier outfit that's poorly executed.
Classic Jeans Outfit #1: Jeans and a T-Shirt
In a lot of fashion articles, “jeans and a T-shirt” gets used as slang for “sloppy dressing.”
That's something of a disservice. Marlon Brando and James Dean became heartthrobs and instant style icons when they appeared in Hollywood films wearing dark jeans and plain white T-shirts.
You can pull off that same classic look — if you're smart about your shirts and your accents. You'll need a plain-colored T-shirt (no graphics or logos) with a close fit, a sturdy-looking belt, and some leather shoes or work boots.
As soon as you throw on gym shoes or a T-shirt, you lose the classic look. Same goes for a baggy shirt — the T-shirt should be tight on your chest, and it shouldn't fall past your belt. But if you keep it close, plain, and paired with rugged accents, this can be a great look.
Classic Jeans Outfit #2: Jeans and a Work Shirt
Upgrade slightly from a T-shirt and go with a long or short-sleeved work shirt instead: something with a soft, turndown collar and a buttoning placket up the front.
This is a classic workwear look that does fine in social settings too. Just avoid the rookie mistakes: nothing in a blue that's too close to the color of your jeans, and nothing with a company logo or (worse) one of those rectangular name patches with the cursive script on them.
The goal is to look rugged and a little rebellious, not like a grease monkey. Leave the shirt untucked for maximum devil-may-care effect.
Classic Jeans Outfit #3: Jeans and a Dress Shirt
To dress things up a notch while still remaining in the realm of timeless, working-class looks, pair quality blue jeans with a tucked-in dress shirt. Plain white, light gray, or light blue all work fine here, as do white shirts with light stripe or check patterns on them. I show here how a dress shirt should fit so you can find the perfect one for you.
Make your outfit look a little more relaxed by unbuttoning and rolling up your cuffs. (Especially important with plain white shirts — dark pants and a long-sleeved white button-down shirt has a tendency to make you look like a door-to-door Mormon witness).
This look works best when you've got a nice belt, maybe with a stylish buckle on it, and some sturdy leather shoes or boots to go with it.
How To Look Good In Jeans: Stylish Looks
Want to go a little beyond the classic and timeless style of wearing denim?
No problem — guys have been working blue jeans into more fashionable, sophisticated-looking outfits for a while now.
These are good looks for when you want to look a little dressier, and a little less blue-collar or working class. Whip them out for cocktails at fancy bars, evenings at trendy concerts or theater productions, and other “sophisticated” — but casual — settings.
Stylish Jeans Outfit #1: Jeans and a Sweater
A fall/spring classic: jeans, a shirt and a quality sweater or cardigan.
There are a lot of ways to vary this one up. V-necks with collared dress shirts underneath look great. So do cardigans with T-shirts. You can wear the dress shirt tucked or untucked, sleeves showing past the sweater cuffs or hidden under them — play with it to your heart's content.
It's beautiful in its simplicity. If you've got a good pair of jeans and a plain, solid-colored sweater, you can throw almost any shirt on underneath the sweater and you've got an outfit.
Stylish Jeans Outfit #2: Jeans and a “Busy” Sports Jacket
Most sports jackets have some sort of active visual element to them — either a textured weave, a colored pattern, or in some cases both (a mottled herringbone tweed jacket, for example).
These “busy” jackets go well with the simplicity of jeans. Throw one on over a plain-colored dress shirt and a pair of dark jeans for a visual mix that's interesting but not overwhelming.
Get a good fit in the jacket to make it work well. A little softness or slouch is all right — this is a casual look — but you still want the shape of your torso to be defined.
Stylish Jeans Outfit #3: Jeans and a Blazer
Solid-colored blazers are a little dicier with jeans, but you can still make them work.
The key here is to keep it pretty slim and less structured. Stay away from boxy, squared-off “country club” blazers. If it's got brass buttons on it, think twice about pairing it with jeans. Some will work and some won't, but don't take anything for granted.
Your other concern is colors — the traditional navy-colored blazer can be too close a match for some deep indigo jeans. You end up looking like you tried for a matching suit jacket and trousers but failed. Make sure there's a good, strong contrast between the color of your jeans and your blazer that'll be visible even at a distance.
I go truly in-depth on how to wear a blazer jacket with jeans here.
As we said above, footwear is key to a good denim look. Most jeans-based outfits look sloppy with gym shoes. Keep it leather, or go for funky colored canvas — nothing that looks like it's actually seen a basketball or tennis court lately.
You should also put a little thought into your outerwear, if the climate you live in is cool enough to require any. Long, dressy overcoats are tough to match with denim. Stick to short, sturdy jackets that end around the waist or just below it.
Jean jackets are right out though — denim trousers and jackets combined are called the “Canadian tuxedo” and it's not a compliment. Unless you are a lumberjack, I strongly recommend avoiding this.
Instead, field jackets, leather jackets and blousons of all varieties work well, as do corduroy jackets cut along the same lines as a classic jean jacket.
Finally, relax and have a little fun. Nothing makes jeans sexy like that slightly rebellious, come-what-may attitude, even when you're dressing them up.
Read next: Stacking vs Cuffing vs Rolling Your Jeans