Loose, Distressed, and Other Men’s Jean Styles You Might Not Understand

Loose, Distressed, and Other Men’s Jean Styles You Might Not Understand
Photo: Maksym Azovtsev, Shutterstock

I was embarrassingly old before I understood the meaning of different fits in men’s jeans and pants, but after years of trial and error, I’m here to share what I’ve learned.

Like a lot of guys, I always assumed pants were pretty straightforward. You needed precisely two pieces of data: Your waist and inseam measurements. In actuality, these are just starting points, because the fit of your pants will determine a great deal about how they hang on you, how they feel, and how they look. If you’re just embarking on this humiliating journey of discovery and you’re mystified by the difference between “skinny” and “slim,” read on to find out about all the denim types you might not understand.

Why denim fit matters

While everyone is a unique snowflake and there are plenty of men who take their sartorial choices seriously, a lot of men still make a fundamental mistake: They think “loose” equals “comfortable.” Well, to be fair, it kind of does — but at the cost of any aspect of your physicality that people might find attractive. On the other hand, words like “skinny” and “slim” evoke images of discomfort. They make some men feel like they’re going to spend the day doing lunges in a vain attempt to adjust their, er, appendages.

The truth, as I have discovered far too late in my wasted existence, is that true comfort comes from clothes that actually fit, though not necessarily loosely. Sure, sweatpants might be the epitome of DGAF comfort, but the moment you actually put on a pair of jeans that fit properly is kind of like when Rick builds Morty the perfectly level platform: You will never go back.

Different fits in men’s jeans

Here’s a simple breakdown of the different kinds of fits you can choose from and what they mean. Different brands may get a little creative with the wording, but there are standard keywords that are typically reliable.

First, know that there are two categories of fit descriptors: The first describes the overall cut of the pants, and the second describes the leg openings. These are often combined in various ways, making things even more complicated.

The typical adjectives describing the overall cut of your pants are straight, skinny, slim, relaxed, and loose. Here’s what those mean:

  • Straight. A straight fit means that the legs are the same circumference all the way down, so they will look a little baggy below the knee, because your legs get skinnier. Straight (sometimes called “regular”) fit jeans tend to be comfortable on everyone, and are a good generic choice if you’re not sure what you want.
  • Skinny. Skinny cut pants are like straight-cut ones, but, you know, skinnier. That literally means what you think it means: They’re narrower, but the same circumference down the leg. These are good for guys who have slim legs and find themselves swimming in straight pants.
  • Slim. Some brands differentiate between slim and skinny. Slim-cut pants are narrower in the seat and thigh, but wider in the lower leg. This is just a matter of finding the right cut for your body shape. If you have big thighs but skinny calves, slim might be perfect.
  • Relaxed. This is sort of the opposite of slim, in that relaxed fits offer extra room in the seat and thigh and a narrower lower leg — but not a “skinny” narrow lower leg. It’s, as the name implies, a very comfortable fit. This is sometimes called “athletic” these days, because branding.
  • Loose. Loose-cut jeans and pants are very roomy all around. The legs will tend to pool around your shoes and be very wide in general.

Let’s move on to leg openings. A big contributor to how pants look on you is the cut of the leg. This is a matter of taste and preference, as well as the kinds of shoes you favour. Learn these terms:

  • Straight. A straight leg doesn’t taper at all, so the cuffs will be the same circumference as the rest of the leg. It will fall around your ankles pretty widely.
  • Tapered. Tapered legs get narrower as they go lower, which means they will fit more closely around the ankles. They might even feel a bit tight when pulling them on because of your unsightly, enormous feet.
  • Boot cut. If you wear cowboy boots, these are the pants for you, as the legs are designed to accommodate the boots below the knee. Without the boots, these might not look or feel right.

It’s worth noting that brands sometimes try to find new and exciting ways to describe these fits, and there will be variations between the way different manufacturers interpret these terms, but the fundamentals will always hold true. The only way to figure out which fit and leg opening you prefer is to wear them, so an old-school trip to a physical store — or a binge of online ordering and returns — may be in order. Don’t assume, for instance, you’d never wear skinny jeans until you’ve actually felt what it’s like, because your clothes should make you feel good and make you look good. That’s all in the cut.

Keep denim washes in mind, too

Even once you know the fit of your jeans, your work is not done. Because there are a lot of different ways that denim can be processed before you wear it, you have to consider washes and embellishments. 

You can think of your denim’s “wash” as its colouring and feel, but washes are a little deeper than that. Your jeans can go through various treatments before you put them on to strut your stuff. Here’s what those are:

  • Raw. Raw denim is unprocessed and unwashed, so it will feel stiff and unyielding. The blue dye in the fabric will bleed and rub off a little until you wash it a few times. It’s got an old-timey feel.
  • Rinse wash. This refers to lightly washed denim that’s a little softer than raw, but still very dark in terms of dye. The dye will still rub off a little, so you will want to wash your new pants yourself a few times before wearing them anywhere.
  • Medium wash. This is sort of your standard jeans look: Medium-washed jeans are soft to the touch, a lighter blue, a bit faded-looking. The dye won’t bleed or rub off.
  • Tinted/colored. Most jeans are dyed classic indigo, but you can also get your jeans in a variety of colours, which are technically considered “tinted.”
  • Stone Wash, acid Wash, and enzyme Wash. These washes give the jeans an aged, distressed look using different techniques. Stone-washed jeans are washed with pumice stones to get an aged, broken-in look. Acid wash adds in a bleaching agent to give the jeans a faded look. Enzyme washing is a more environmentally-friendly way of pre-ageing jeans.

What to know about distressed jeans

The other processing that affects the look and feel of your jeans is the distressing done to them:

  • Distressed. Distressed jeans are sometimes called “ripped” jeans, and that refers to exactly what you think. The fabric will be scuffed and torn, sometimes to ridiculous levels. The whole idea is to get the look and feel of an old favourite pair of jeans right off the rack.
  • Grinding. Grinding makes the seams and hems of your jeans worn and frayed. This is often combined with distressing, but not always, and also gives the jeans a “worn” look.
  • Bleaching. A bleached pair of jeans just looks like you accidentally spilled bleach on them, giving them a “splotchy” look, which accentuates the casual-not-casual look of jeans in the modern day.

The world of pants and jeans is a lot more complicated than you think, but putting more than two seconds of thought into what these terms mean for you will pay off big time when your pants actually fit for the first time in your life. You’re welcome.

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