IIn 2005, a Japanese collector shelled out US$60,000 for a pair of Levi’s 501 jeans from the 1880s. Last year, a vintage pair from 1888 exchanged hands for a six-figure sum. For something that put the “blue” in the term “blue collar”, denim is certainly greatly appreciated by white-collar collectors today.
Its name derives from the French term “serge de Nimes” – twill fabric from city of Nimes in France – a durable fabric favoured by miners during the California Gold Rush. Nevada tailor Jacob Davis is widely credited as the creator of the world’s first pair of rivet-reinforced denim trousers during the 19th century. He would later work with Levi Strauss & Co, then a dry goods wholesaler. The rest, as they say, is history.
Today, denim jeans are carried by high-street brands and luxury fashion houses alike. And, while haute couture designers are reinterpreting the previously basic garment – think gold- and silver-sprayed jeans in Louis Vuitton’s 2016 Denim Collection, for example – boutique manufacturers are turning back time with artisanal fabrics woven with traditional looms. Whatever your style, there’s a pair of jeans for you out there.
“I wish I had invented blue jeans. They have expression, modesty, sex appeal, simplicity – all I hope for in my clothes.”
– Yves Saint Laurent
From provenance of the fabric to how a pair of jeans should be worn (and yes, washed, for the many denim fans who still believe that denim should be laundered sparingly) so that it tells a story unique to you – we dive deep into the world of denim to bring you the expert tips.
A GOOD FIT
They might be casual, but when it comes to fit, jeans should be chosen with the same sensibility you apply when seeking out a pair of dress pants.
Unless you are channelling your inner rapper, never allow the waistband to fall too low. A mid-rise is sensible, comfortable, and lets you easily tuck in a shirt. If you insist on wearing high-waisted jeans – the waistband should still fall below the belly button, not above.
There is a comfortable fit and then there is mere sloppiness. Your jeans should not be baggy at the thighs. Being able to pinch about an inch of extra fabric around the thighs while in standing position is optimal. Conversely, there is slim-fit and there is skin-tight. In the words of James Dung, denim pro and co-owner of Rugged Gentlemen Shoppe: “We do not approve of leggings-lookalike denims. They look good only on women.”
If the trouser legs are clinging to your ankles, your jeans are either too tight or too tapered. But slim-fit jeans that are slightly tapered actually work well for most men, giving thighs sufficient room without looking too baggy at the lower legs.
The hem of the legs should skim the top of your shoes so there is a break, or horizontal crease. How long you go can also vary depending on your overall look. When paired with sneakers, a slightly longer length works. But if you’re doing a smart-casual look with dark denim and dressier footwear, a more precise length with a slight break is called for.
How fashion designers are pushing boundaries with denim this season.
Pro terminology to know before you strut into specialist denim boutiques.
That seagull-like decorative stitching on the back pockets, popularised by Levi’s, which was first used it in 1873. Since Levi’s patented the design in 1943, it has become exclusive to the brand.
What others see as signs of wear and tear, denim enthusiasts treat as art. Whiskers (or the Japanese word hige) refer to the horizontal fade lines around the crotch. Fades along the outer seam of the legs are called rail tracks. Those at the back of the knee are known as honeycombs, while fading on the seams is known as atari.
03: DRY/RAW DENIM
Unwashed, untreated denim that purists go crazy over. Jeans made from this stiff fabric in deep indigo blue will mould to the wearer’s body shape, and will develop wear patterns unique to how it is worn.
This refers to the weight per square yard of fabric, and for denim, it can range from five to 20 oz (141.75g to 567g). While lighter denim of around 10 oz per square yard (283g/0.91 sq m) is favoured for summer, purists stick to medium- to heavyweight fabrics that are around 13 oz (368.5g).
Staple refers to the fibre length of the yarn used to weave the cloth. The longer the fibres, the smoother the finish. However, denims woven with short-staple yarn have uneven textures that are optimal for fading.
With a name derived from the self-finished edges that prevent fraying, this tightly woven denim was created first as a cost-cutting measure. However, selvedge denim woven on traditional shuttle looms – machines that use a traditional shuttling device to carry the weft (horizontal) yarns across the loom while interlacing them with the warp (vertical) yarns – is now considered an artisanal fabric.
A treatment process that reduces the overall post-wash shrinkage of the fabric. Before the process was invented in the late 1920s, denim jeans would shrink by some 10 per cent in length after the first wash. So, wearers then tended to buy jeans that were too long and cuffed them – rather than face the possibility of ending up with denim capri pants.
SINGING THE BLUES
A denim evangelist shares the gospel of good jeans.
James Dung wants to convert you. In his denim temple that is five-year-old menswear boutique Rugged Gentlemen Shoppe, he shares the gospel of good denim. Of how denim jeans are a work of art. “A pair of well-worn jeans truly tells a story about its owner. Your body contours, how you move, how you sit – they all leave an imprint, making your jeans unique to you.”
He cuts the fluff: “A lot of what has been said about denim is marketing gimmick.” Consider the following myths surrounding denim – all of which, says Dung, is untrue. The thicker the fabric, the higher its quality. If you jump into a bathtub with a pair of denim trousers on, it will shrink to fit you. Jeans should never, ever be washed.
“Wearable jeans are about 11 oz to 14 oz. But, say, if you are a motorcyclist and don’t want your jeans legs flapping in the wind while riding, then you would want heavyweights. Heavier denims are stiffer, more imposing-looking. But they will still wear and tear the same way as lighter ones,” says Dung.
And you want the wear and tear, because that is what brings about fading, and character to a pair of jeans. Forget about all the expert advice you’ve read online: Dung’s jeans are washed weekly.
As for the part on shrinking: It happens only when wet denim is drying, not when it’s in water. “If you want jeans that mould to the form of your legs, you should get non-sanforised raw denim jeans. You can control how it fits you by selectively soaking the parts that need to be shrunk, be it the trouser leg or the waistband. How you dry it also affects the shrinking process: It shrinks more when hung in the hot sun, and less when dried indoors.”