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The Ultimate Guide to Vintage Denim

Breaking down the best brands, their fits, and where to shop them.

A rear view of vintage jeans.

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Call it a trend, call it a responsible environmental choice, but vintage denim is a "thing" any way you cut it.

In part, vintage jeans have never been so popular because there have never been so many options. As Alice Wells and Jennifer Francis (co-founders of Kindred Black, a secret weapon source for vintage denim) tell us, "there is such variety right now — the beauty of vintage jeans is that they’re so versatile. Wide-leg cut short and worn with ankle boots, long and skinny, slouchy boyfriend, flares... there isn’t a way to go wrong."

While the pool may be wide, shopping for vintage jeans isn’t as simple as picking your typical size off the thrift store rack (the size on the tag basically means nothing), and not every pair is created equal: Some of these jeans are going to make your butt look good, and some of these jeans are going to make your butt look really good. (Wedgie jeans are styled after vintage for a reason.)

Different brands are also geared toward different bodies. According to Janet Sung from Denim Refinery, "Wrangler and Lee have less discrepancy between the waist and hip size, so they’re better brands for ladies with less hip." Meanwhile, Levi’s and Calvin Klein are made to accommodate curves, and don’t forget that many of the coolest pairs will come from the men’s section.

To help you make sense of it all, we pulled together a guide to the brands and styles most commonly found at vintage and thrift stores. Here’s what to look for, what to expect when you pull them on, and most importantly, where to find them.


Levi’s 501

Levi's 501

The gold standard of vintage Levi’s, 501s look great on every body type. According to Karyn Hillman, chief product officer of Levi’s, "the fit of the 501 has evolved over the decades in keeping with style of the time — legs get narrower or wider and rises fluctuate slightly depending upon the year."

Look for pairs from the ’80s and ’90s, and size up if you’re going by the number on the waist band.

Rise: High rise (at or just below the belly button) with a nipped-in waist.

Fit: Straight leg, classic fit (aka mom jeans). These are the most accommodating Levi’s for curves thanks to that button fly, which gives more room through the hips and butt.

Note: 501s come in all sorts of washes; look for cool touches like paint splatters, rips, or whisker fades.

Where to Buy: eBay, Etsy, Tictail, Denim Refinery, Urban Outfitters, your local thrift store, curated vintage shops.


Jordache

Jordache Jeans

Whether your ’80s babysitter is still your style icon or you just really fell hard for Stranger Things, you’re going to look good in Jordache. The super high waist nips everything in, while a little extra room (and sometimes stretch) through the thigh and its tapered leg make these jeans curve-friendly.

Rise: Super high (at or above the belly button).

Leg: Slim fit with a tapered ankle on pairs from the ’80s; late ’70s pairs have a slight flare.

Note: These are great for an hourglass shape, or anyone looking for statement denim — acid wash is common, as are unexpected embellishments at the ankle like zippers, buttons, snaps, and/or denim bows.

Where to Buy: eBay, Etsy, Jordache, Tictail, your local thrift shop.


Wrangler

Vintage Wrangler Jeans

With the telltale "W" and tan leather logo stitched on the back pockets, Wranglers do wonders for the booty — especially if you don’t have one. According to Sung, "they give my hips a tighter hug, making my boyish shape a little more curvy." Plus, the bright blue indigo and slight flare give off a nice ’70s cowgirl vibe.

Rise: High rise (at or just below the belly button).

Fit: Slim through the hip and thigh with a super straight or slightly flared leg; a great option for narrow hips. Save yourself the trouble in the dressing room if you have thicker thighs, butt, or a much slimmer waist than hip; these are better at creating curves than accommodating them.

Note: Look for dark or bright blue washes with cool whisker fades on the thighs. Go for a snug fit, because these stretch out kind of fast.

Where to Buy: eBay, Etsy, Denim Refinery, Urban Outfitters, curated vintage shops.


Carhartt

Carhartt Jeans

Even if you don’t often wield a hammer, carpenter jeans are nice to have in the rotation. The workwear classic is so comfortable you almost feel like you’re getting away with something by wearing them in public. A bunch of different brands have made the style, including Oshkosh (yes, for grown-ups) and Gap, but Carhartt is definitely the easiest the brand to find in thrift stores.

Rise: High-waisted (at the belly button) or low-slung (at or below the hips), depending on how much you do or don’t size up.

Fit: Roomy, wide leg throughout.

Note: If you go for a pair that’s your actual waist size, you can crop these above the ankle for Jesse Kamm or Rachel Comey vibes.

Where to Buy: eBay, Etsy, Urban Outfitters, your local thrift shop; buy them new at Army/Navy stores.


Lee Riders

Lee Jeans

A nice alternative to Wranglers, Lee jeans have a similar fit without feeling so Western. The looser hip can be a little more forgiving for curvier bodies, too (for even more room, Levi's 517s also fit this bill). As Alice Wells from Kindred Black tells us, "I’ve had a pair since middle school that miraculously keep stretching and molding to my body as the years go by."

Rise: High rise (at or just below the belly button).

Fit: Slim through the hip and thigh with a straight leg or slight flare.

Note: The long inseam makes them tall-girl friendly; alternatively, you can crop them for the perfect kick flare.

Where to Buy: eBay, Etsy, Kindred Black, curated vintage shops.


Levi’s 505

Levi's 505

Fashion types are quick to gush over 501s, but 505s are even better. They’ve got a similar fit, but the zip fly holds everything in if you want to go more fitted, and the thigh is slightly slimmer. If you choose to size up instead, they're the perfect comfy boyfriend jean — just roll the cuff or crop the bottom.

Rise: Mid to high rise (just below the belly button).

Fit: Straight leg, relaxed fit. Size up at least two sizes if you are going by the number on the waist band.

Note: Hillman reccomends looking for pairs from the 1970s, which have a slimmer thigh for more of a rocker vibe.

Where to Buy: eBay, Etsy, Kindred Black, Denim Refinery, your local thrift store, curated vintage shops.


Calvin Klein

Calvin Klein

Thanks to decades of good advertising, Calvin Klein jeans are burned in our collective mind as the sexy denim ideal. "I still look at the Brooke Shields ads from the early ’80s as my style inspiration every fall," says Francis. And who could forget Kate Moss with Marky Mark?

Funny thing is, most of the CKs you"ll find at the vintage store are from the ’90s and fit like actual mom jeans: blouse-y thighs and tapered ankle. If that’s a look you can make sexy, more power to you.

Rise: Mid to high rise (just below the belly button).

Fit: Usually a cinched waist with a loose, relaxed fit through the thigh and a tapered ankle.

Note: Look for ’90s pairs in baby blue washes; if you can find late ’70s Calvins (à la Brooke Shields), snag them.

Where to Buy: eBay, Etsy, Tictail, your local thrift shop, curated vintage shops.


Gitano

Gitano Jeans

Gitanos were popular in the ’80s and early ’90s as a second-tier discount denim brand; if you couldn’t afford Calvin Klein or Guess but wanted the same look, you wore Gitano. Once again, it’s all about the butt here, with a super high waist, slim fit through the thigh, and just enough stretch.

Rise: High (at or above the belly button).

Fit: Look for pairs from the early ’80s, which have a slight flare that make them the ideal disco jean.

Note: Later versions often had some kind of pizzaz, like different colored stitching on the pockets, pink stripes, acid wash, or intense pleating.

Where to Buy: eBay, Etsy, Tictail, your local thrift shop, curated vintage shops.


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