How to Dress Up Denim | A Man’s Guide to Looking Sharp in Jeans.
“No one wants to give up his blue jeans”.
But do you have to, if you want to move into the world of stylish dressing? No way, says modern fashion.
Style has embraced denim and then some. It's the new millennium, baby!
Jeans have shown up everywhere from the meatpacking plants to the red
If you're looking to keep denim at the center of your wardrobe — a smart,
sensible choice, given its durability and comfort — look no further than this
short guide to walk you through updated looks that'll keep your jeans looking sharp.
The Key Ingredient: High Quality Jeans
Here's the key to looking good in jeans: get good-looking jeans. Makes sense,
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 — Deep indigo works best, or a deep blue-gray.
✓ Closely Fitted — Not “skinny jeans” tight, but without any sag in the
✓ Straight-Legged — Boot cut can work, but it's not as versatile
✓ Clean and Neat — No obvious wear and tear from work on them
✓ Simple — No bells, whistles, straps, flap pockets, etc.
to get the right pair. The difference between a $20 pair of store-brand jeans
and a $50 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
The other key to all these looks? Skip the tennis shoes. No sneakers. Seriously. Maybe a pair of colored canvas sneakers, if you know what you're doing and
you want a little bit of a punk feel. But for the most part, these looks will look best with casual leather footwear — brogues, saddle shoes, suede of all kinds, chukka boots, Dr. Martens, you name it. Gym shoes are the kiss of death for a denim look.
Dressing Up Denim: What goes with what?
- CLASSIC LOOKS:
Don't want to push too many fashion boundaries all at once? Turns out the classic ways that men have been wearing jeans for decades can still work for you.
Most of these are “casual” styles. They aren't meant for business. Wear them around town, or to low-formality settings like ballgames and taverns — but don't be afraid to wear them in those settings. Done right, they'll look better than some fancier outfits would.
- Jeans and a T-Shirt
In a lot of fashion writing “jeans and a T-shirt” gets used as slang for
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 work shoes or work boots.
As soon as you throw gym shoes or T-shirts with
splashy graphics into the mix, you're no longer
classic. The look is ruined. 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
look can be a great one.
- 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 you
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.
- 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.
Make it look a little more relaxed by
unbuttoning and rolling the cuffs.
(Especially important with plain white shirts —
dark pants and a long-sleeved white
button down 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 big,
decorative buckle on it, and some sturdy leather shoes or boots to go with it.
- Fashionable 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.
Jeans and a Sweater
A fall/spring classic: dark jeans, light shirt, medium sweater.
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, throw pretty much any sort of shirt on under the
sweater and you've got an outfit.
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 (think 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 and you've got a nice visual mix that's interesting but not overwhelming.
Get a good fit in the jacket to make it work well. A little softness and slouch is
all right — this is a casual look —
but you still want the shape of
your torso to be defined.
Jeans and a Light Blazer
Solid-colored blazers are a little
dicer with jeans, but you can still
make them work.
The key here is to keep it pretty slim. Stay away from the boxy, squared-off
“country club” flavor of blazer. 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 deep navy can be too close a
match for some deep indigo jeans. You end up looking like you tried for a
matched suit and failed. Make sure there's a good, strong contrast between
your jeans and your blazer that'll be visible even at a distance.
Jeans and a Suit Jacket
Want to get a little funky? Take an old suit jacket (thrift stores are a great
source for these) and throw it on over jeans and an eye-catching belt.
This is a look that's built around deliberate contrast. You're purposefully
defying norms (a suit jacket should match its trousers, and you're breaking
that rule), so don't go halfway here.
Wear a T-shirt under the suit jacket instead of a collared shirt, pair the outfit
with some brightly-colored sneakers, add a colored vinyl belt instead of
leather — some small touch that really jazzes it up makes this into a fashion
look rather than an amateur mistake.
Exercise some caution here. Not all suit jackets are going to work with jeans.
But if you find a color and a cut that works for you, go ahead and try the suit jacket/denim pairing — in the privacy of your own home. Double-check
yourself in the mirror before you take it out for a spin.
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
You should also put a little thought into your outerwear, if it's cool enough
to require any. Jean jackets are right out — that combination is called the
“Canadian tuxedo,” and it's not a compliment.
There are a handful of men in the world
who've pulled off a good jean jacket/blue jeans
combo, and you're probably not one of them.
Long, dressy overcoats are also a tough match.
Stick to short, sturdy jackets that end around
the waist or just below it. Blousons, field jackets,
and leather jackets of all varieties work well
here, 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.