How to Wear Stonewashed Denim

Stonewashed Denim: For those of us with a significant interest in the craft/artisinal side of menswear, when it comes to denim it’s typically the makers of raw denim which gain a devoted following. My admiration for Blackhorse Lane Ateliers in London or Blue in Green in SoHo, NY prove that point. Wearing denim in, earning your fades and ending up with a unique look is rewarding. I’ve always said that wearing jeans in from their raw form (i.e. not washed or only washed once) makes them your jeans and there’s a sense of pride and ownership which accompanies that.

What that means, though, is that stonewashed denim doesn’t get a lot of press, because it’s already been battered and faded before it gets to you. So whilst you may not get to put your own mark on stonewashed denim like you would with raw denim, there are a lot of benefits to its wearability and aesthetics which raw or darker denim can’t compete with.

I’ll cover a couple of the key, non style related benefits first.

Size: My biggest frustration with raw denim is its unpredictability in fit. Unwashed denim will shrink significantly in it’s first wash and a little bit in its second wash (they primarily shrink vertically, typically losing at least a few centimetres in length and then a smaller amount horizontally, meaning the waist and thighs will reduce by a size or so – it depends on the specific denim being used). That would be fine if you could throw them in the wash as soon as you get them home, get them to their finished size and tailor them accordingly, but you’ve then lost a big chance to put your stamp on them as those creases before the first wash help to set-up killer fades in the months/years ahead. They’re also uncomfortably stiff until they’ve been washed, so you wind up feeling like Frankenstein’s more stylish cousin for a while, until they’ve had a couple of washes and start to feel more comfortable.

The middle ground I’ve finally arrived at, after working fades into half a dozen pairs of raw denim over the last 5 years, is to try to find single wash denim, so that a lot of (not all) of the stiffness is taken out of them and only a very small amount of fading has occurred. Additionally, they’re likely to be much closer to their final sizing with one good wash behind them.

The point I’m making is that where stonewashed denim is light years ahead of raw denim, is in convenience and comfort. Stonewashed denim is literally washed with stones in horizontal industrial washing/tumbling machines where large stones pummel the denim into submission. This (combined with the washing) removes the majority of the indigo from the denim, resulting in its characteristic paleness. Alongside the removal of indigo, the stones effectively tenderise the denim, softening it significantly. So whilst you sacrifice the satisfaction of earning your fades, you gain comfort from day 1 and no headaches with shrinkage.

Hot Weather: Stonewashed denim has the added benefit of being cooler than navy denim on hot days, as there is a much greater proportion of exposed white threads to reflect the heat and the blue threads are also significantly more pale than standard jeans. The weight of the denim will still play a big part in how they feel (heavy stonewashed denim is still doing to feel hot) but all other things being equal then a stonewashed jacket or jeans will be far more wearable when temperatures rise.


Contrast: Stonewashed denim benefits from being able to be worn with a lot of the same thing you’d wear your regular darker denim jeans with, but with the added benefit that darker shirts/sweater/jackets work much more effectively with the lighter lower body that stonewashed denim provides. With darker denim, a navy shirt risks making an outfit look like one big mass of indistinguishable navy (that’s fine if you’re specifically trying for a monotone look, but it’s harder to pull off) whereas stonewashed denim gives enough contrast to make the upper and lower body clearly separate, but still in harmony, aesthetically. The same goes for other dark colours in the upper body, like browns, olives etc. As stated above, they still all work with navy denim, but they frequently work better with the lightness which only stonewashed denim can give.

McQueen. Navy, stonewash and suede.

Denim on Denim: Brave. Denim on denim is hard to make work, but can look good when it does.. Wearing dark denim as a jacket and jeans typically means you look like a failed 70’s kids show host, so it’s up to you on how much you’re aiming for that specific look (flares will help, here). If you’re not aiming for that specific era of creepy, then alternating light on dark denim should solve that problem.

Black Shoes: Stonewashed denim works better with black than regular denim. Much better. Typically, black shoes or a black top with denim doesn’t work. Again, it’s a contrast issue as mentioned above, but black shoes and a black roll-neck in colder weather, set against a stonewash looks great. One of my favourite outfits in winter is a pair of black loafers, tapered stonewashed jeans, a black roll-neck and my cashmere navy double breasted overcoat.

Brown Shoes: Stonewashed denim can look good with brown shoes, but texture helps. Polished calf leather tends to offer too much textural contrast with the highly washed out, informal look which stonewashed denim gives. Balancing the textures between the the jeans and shoes gives the best result – i.e. pebble-grain leather, suede etc. That’s also a fairly applicable guideline with regular shades of denim, but moreso with a stonewash.

Summary: Comfort, no break-in period and the ability to be worn with things darker denim can’t. Stonewashed denim isn’t likely to become an everyday item for most of us, but a good pair of stonewashed jeans are a versatile item to have in your wardrobe, nonetheless.

With enough practice, someday, just maybe, you too can be Alec Baldwin cool.

Andrew is an Australian born writer, covering the world's leading bespoke tailors and craftspeople in menswear, with a focus on authentic quality, over branding. He spends most of his days running his successful (god knows how) consulting company and travels frequently to Europe for work and writing. He's a passionate cyclist, former trainee professional golfer and lover of all things Cocker Spaniel. He's married to his best friend and significantly better half, Mehri.

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