Buying jeans can be difficult enough. But when it comes to shopping for vintage jeans, finding a secondhand pair that has the wash, cut, and fit that you're looking for — within a reasonable price range — can seem virtually impossible, especially when you’re doing it online. And with the retro silhouettes from heritage brands like Levi’s, Wrangler, and Lee making a comeback over the last couple of years, it’s made finding true vintage denim styles at your go-to retailers that much harder. So if you’re looking to successfully secure a pair for yourself, you’ll need to be particularly privy to the secrets of the industry to get ahead of the masses.
According to research from thredUP and GlobalData, the secondhand market was reported to be worth a whopping $32 billion, and while handbags and shoes may come to mind as the most desired secondhand categories, jeans are closer to the top of the list than one may have initially thought. “Used denim is one of the most popular items to thrift,” thredUP merchandiser Kesha Linder tells NYLON. “Mainly because jeans are so durable and look even better with some wear.” Denim archivist and designer Kelly Harrington has similar sentiments. “Denim fabrics get better with age; they’re completely timeless,” she divulges. “If you choose wisely, they will last and last.”
These points are especially important as the production of denim continues to have a significant impact on the environment. According to a 2015 study by Levi Strauss & Co., one single pair of their jeans, specifically, requires 3,781 liters of water to produce. Along with other pain points of the industry (toxic dyes, sandblasting, and exploitation of laborers) and over 2 billion pairs of jeans being made each year, it’s important to be mindful of the complete life cycle of denim.
It also starts with what you decide to bring into your closet. To offset some of those harsh practices and extend the life of pieces in your collection, Harrington suggests looking for denim made from (or with) recycled cotton, certified organic cotton, plant-based dyes, biodegradable or deadstock fabric, or Tencel Lyocell, which is made from sustainable wood pulp. As an ambassador for the No More Plastic Foundation, an organization that helps spread awareness about plastic pollution, she also recommends patching, mending, and upcycling your denim after years of wear to get the most out of your purchase.
Deciding on a pair that’s ethically made is only half the battle: Size and fit are equally as important when it comes to shopping for used denim. “We’ve recently seen a rise in popularity of wider-leg denim and less interest in skinny jeans,” revels Linder, reflecting on the trends young shoppers are finding on TikTok. “[They] have been selling 65% faster on thredUP than [slim]-leg jeans over the last month. Boyfriend jeans are also a popular style.” However, if you’re not sure where to start, Harrington says shoppers should not get discouraged. “It may take time to find the right fit, so always try a range of cuts, sizes, and washes until you have found your perfect match.”
Regardless of your personal denim preferences, below are a few foolproof tips to help speed up your search for those perfect vintage jeans, as well as ensure you’re buying styles that will last in your wardrobe for seasons to come.
Shopping For Vintage Jeans Tip #1: Stretch Or No Stretch?
One of Harrington’s biggest tips is to first decide whether you are looking for rigid denim or for styles with some stretch — this advice comes in handy, whether you’re shopping for denim online or in person. Jeans with stretch are often a denim-blend, meaning they are made from a mix of standard cotton-twill and synthetic fabrics that can include, but are not limited to, polyester and spandex. So you’ll want to make sure that you have had a good look at the care label to make sure that they align with your preferences. Plus, whether they are made from raw denim or a blend, understanding what they are made from will help you know how to take care of them.
Shopping For Vintage Jeans Tip #2: Know Your Measurements
Unlike with other vintage clothing categories, the sizing for denim can vary according to the brand and the decade they were made. That’s why it’s important to measure your waist, hips, and inseam before starting your search. “Some denim has been heavily washed and may have shrunk or been altered over time,” Harrington explains. “Vintage and modern jeans can have a totally different size structure. Concentrate on the rise of the jean and the hip measurement.” This way, you know that your jeans will fit regardless of whatever the tag says.
For those conducting their search online, be sure to read the product description in full for measurements. If they’re not listed, try contacting the seller for additional information. And if you’re still unsure, your best bet is to size up, as they can often be altered or tailored to your preferred fit, so long as the cost doesn’t exceed the price of the actual pants.
Shopping For Vintage Jeans Tip #3: 100% Cotton Jeans Are King
Whether you’re shopping online or at your go-to secondhand boutique, you’ll find that jeans made from 100% cotton are hard to come by. One of the reasons is that they are some of the most desired styles among collectors for their history alone. Made in the U.S. between the ‘90s and early ‘00s, they are crafted from what Harrington calls a “higher quality” of denim, meaning that when taken care of properly, they will be some of the most durable pieces in your closet. Local thrift stores and online sellers located in the Southwest (Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, for example) are a great place to look for these somewhat rare items, as its “war-worker” roots can be traced back to the area as early as 1873.
Shopping For Vintage Jeans Tip #4: Country Of Origin Matters
Denim jeans may have gotten their earliest beginnings in France during the early 1800s but it has since taken on many forms, including where it was made. So for those who are looking for specific vintage designs, you may want to read up on the style’s country of origin before committing. For example, if you’re in the market for raw selvedge denim, consider opting for vintage styles from Japan, as they’ve been dubbed the “raw denim capital of the world,” and those who prefer a classic 100% cotton pair should be on the lookout for designs made in the U.S.
Shopping For Vintage Jeans Tip #5: Embrace Flaws And Imperfections
What can be a dealbreaker for many thrift finds is often considered a unique selling point for vintage jeans. If you find a pair that you love, but can’t get past the frayed and fringed hems or faded whiskered edges, just remember that it’s likely those jeans have lived several lives before making their way to you. Also, it’s worth mentioning that coming across a pair of jeans that’s already “broken in” allows you to reap the benefits — without the years of wear it takes to achieve that super-soft, worn-in feel. It’s truly a win-win.
Shopping For Vintage Jeans Tip #6: “Buy Less, Buy Better”
In the case of vintage and used denim, the phrase “less is more” is fitting, to say the least. Translation: the more conscious you are about the process, the less you have to worry about rebuying new jeans for seasons to come. Don’t be afraid to spend a little more on a pair of denim that you truly love; just be sure that they are truly worth it. This means asking important questions like whether or not they are made from sustainable, circular components so that you aren’t unintentionally feeding into the harmful cycle that the denim industry is known for.