Let’s start with the obvious: Jeans are tough to fit. I’ve spoken to women who have been questing for properly fitting jeans for more than a decade, women who have tried $19 pairs and $199 pairs, women who have sworn off them entirely out of sheer frustration. As a gal with a smallish waist, low-slung tummy bulge and squishy hips, I get it. I’ve had my fair share of dressing room tears over ill-fitting denim.
The good news is that right now, in 2016, we have access to more jean styles than ever before. I was in college in the ’90s and wore flares because that was all the denim world offered to me. Now we can choose from flares, boyfriends, skinnies, straight legs and boot cuts in low-, mid- and high-rises. There are dozens of washes at dozens of price points and in a mercifully wide variety of sizes and inseams. It’s a veritable denim smorgasbord, people!
That doesn’t mean that finding your perfect pair will be easy. It just means you’ve got a better shot than ever before.
So if you’re searching for that elusive pair of ideal jeans, here are some tips to make your mission less stressful.
How jeans should feel
Always start here, friends. Jeans that make you look sexy but squeeze your midsection uncomfortably will never get worn. Focus on comfort first.
Like any pair of pants, jeans should conform to your curves without cutting into your body. This means that if the waistband digs — creating the dreaded muffin-top — you’re wearing the wrong size or the wrong style. Higher-rise styles typically cause fewer waistband issues because many of us are slimmer around our torsos. Then again, depending on how you’re built, a low-rise might be the best way to avoid midsection lumps. Sizing up may feel demoralizing, but remind yourself that clothing sizes are arbitrary. Focus on feel. And cut out the tag if that pesky number bothers you.
The advent of stretch is a fine thing — lending stiff denim some give and flexibility — and most women prefer pairs with a hint of Spandex (myself included). Beware of super-stretchy jeans because they’re sag-prone. I recommend nothing higher than 3 or 4 percent Spandex. When you’re trying on pairs with stretch fabric, make sure they feel snug. They’ll loosen with washes and wears.
How jeans should look
Jeans should skim your rear end without clinging. If they sag, they’re too big. If they create a “butt shelf,” they’re too tight. End of story.
In this day and age, hem length is all down to personal preference. Most young women tend to prefer ankle-length and cropped styles since they accommodate ankle boots and other fun footwear. Longer lengths are often cuffed to show a hint of ankle. But if you’re going for full-length and plan to wear your jeans cuff-free over the top of your shoes, here’s the guideline: Like slacks, you want jeans to hit just a couple of centimeters off the ground. This means jeans hemmed for flats are too short for heels, and jeans hemmed for heels are too long for flats. Annoying but true.
High-rises work for many figures, but mid-rises are perfect for many petites and short-waisted gals. What’s more, they’re often more comfortable for women who carry weight in their midsections. Women with boyish frames may gravitate toward low-rises because they create the illusion of curves — they can also balance the look of a big bust. But your mileage may vary. Try a variety of rises and see what looks best on you.
Style is also the wearer’s choice. Boot cuts are lauded as universally flattering since they balance the volume of hips, but other options abound. Straight legs are a great choice if you dig a slim look but true skinnies make you self-conscious. Boyfriends are baggy and low-slung, so they’re fantastic for short-waisted figures hoping to balance their proportions. I’m a die-hard high-rise skinny gal myself, since they elongate my legs and allow me to wear arty, voluminous tops.
Keep in mind: Jeans need to fit in the waist, seat, hips, thighs, knees and calves as well as being the right length. That’s seven fit points, people. So be prepared to buy pairs that fit as close to perfect as possible before having them tailored. Hemming is the simplest alteration, but jeans can be taken in at the seat and waist if you experience sagging or gapping. Remember to fit your largest area, and tailor to the rest.
You can also try custom pairs. Online retailer eShakti just introduced bespoke denim at $79.95, with 13 measurements to enter before ordering. Another online retailer called Made to Order Jeans lets you choose from 17 washes, three rises and six cuts.
And counterintuitive as it may sound, used pairs are great for hard-to-fit folks. Why? Jeans that have been worn, washed and thoroughly broken in won’t sag or shift that much. What you see in the thrift store fitting room is what you get. Trying on fiber mixes and styles from bygone eras is another possible route to the perfect pair.
Got any other questions about jeans? I’d love to help! Reach out to tellus@ startribune with any shopping, fashion or fit conundrum.
Sally McGraw is the author of Already Pretty, a daily blog about the intersection of style and body image.