The Ultimate Guide to Buying Jeans

A collection of jeans
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Do you HATE shopping for jeans? It's basically the worst, no doubt about it. I've put together the ultimate shopping guide for finding the perfect fit, every time.

As I was getting dressed this morning, I tugged my pants a little too hard and ripped a belt loop in one of my favorite pairs of jeans. No, this isn’t a story someone makes up to start an article about how much jean buying sucks – I already knew I was writing this when I got up this morning. But it was a timely reminder that, even though I’m pretty decent at jean shopping, I still hate it.

And I really need a few more pairs. I’ve had most of my favorite jeans longer than I’ve had my fiance, so it’s probably time to refresh.

Shopping for jeans is such a struggle for most women. Finding a pair that fits in the hips, the waist, and through the thigh can feel like you’re trying to find the holy grail.

If you’re lost about buying jeans, sizing jeans, and getting that perfect fit, I’ve got you covered. I’ve scoured the internet to find the best tips for finding your Holy Grail jeans – and throw in some tried-and-true methods that work for me. Let’s dive in and talk denim.

How to Size Your Jeans

I’m a size 4 in my favorite pair of ultra-soft, perfect fit American Eagle jeans. I’m a size 27 in the Alice + Olivia high waisted jeans I bought during lockdown that were a little bit loose when I got them but, ahem, they fit fine now. I have a pair of black skinny True Religion (thrifted) jeans that fit me like a glove, sized 25. I have a 2 from Old Navy that I need a belt with.

Sizing is stupid and hard and completely arbitrary, it seems. I can buy 2 pairs of jeans from the same company, but because they are different cuts, they won’t fit me the same. Which, on one hand, I get. But at the same time… why is sizing so difficult?!

The best way to figure out what size you are isn’t by raiding your closet, or guessing based on what sort of fits you, but actually measuring yourself. I personally hate breaking out the measuring tape and finding out just how big my waist has gotten, but it’s a necessity in this situation.

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These are the measurements you should have on hand. I used to pretend I could remember what the important ones were, until I ordered a pair of jeans two sizes too small because I didn’t. Now it’s just stored in a note file in my phone for easy access.

Your waist measurement is the smallest part of the waist. For many women this is higher than your jeans are going to sit on an everyday basis, but that’s okay. Using a flexible measuring tape, stand with your feet slightly apart to take the measurement. Don’t stretch or tug too hard at the tape – it should be against your bare skin and tight, but not digging in or gaping.

fabric measuring tape
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If you don’t have a flexible measuring tape, carefully use a piece of string and then a ruler. It’s a little harder to get an accurate measure, but really that’s because there is more room for error – if you do it properly, it should work just fine.

Now, let’s talk inseam. I’m mostly made up of legs, so I know for most brands I need to order the tall size. (Weird flex but it really means it’s extra-annoying to buy any kind of pants) The easiest way to measure your inseam is to go from a pair of pants that already fit you.

Lay them flat on the floor or your bed in their natural shape. Avoid any big wrinkles or waves. Using your measuring tape, measure from the crotch seam all the way to the bottom of the pants, following that seam. This is your inseam.

If you want to measure your inseam without a pair of pants that fit well, that’s going to be trickier. Stand up straight, no slouching, in front of a long mirror if possible Roll up your measuring tape and hold the end with one hand where your crotch seam would go. This works best if you’re wearing something super tight-fitting, like leggings.

With one hand on the end of the measuring tape and another on the roll, carefully unroll the tape as you go down your leg. Keep it tight against your skin with your leg slightly out, like a pair of jeans would be. Stop when you reach your ideal pant leg length.

Remember to add between .5 and 1 inch to this number if you plan to wear heels. Some jeans – like 100% cotton – might shrink a bit in the wash, so rounding up half an inch isn’t a bad idea!

Finally, if you’re thinking about a low rise pair of jeans, you’re going to want to measure that, too – the area where your jeans will naturally sit, usually just above the bum.

Again, stand straight, use your flexible measuring tape to go around the area, preferably without pants on. Write down that measurement, too. Now, you’ve got the core measurements you need. Keep them safe.

Before you buy a pair of jeans (and we’ll talk shopping soon), look at the Fit Guide or Size Chart. Each brand and style is going to be a little different, so use these numbers to find the size that fits you. For sizes that use what some people call “European” sizes, you’ll go with that number – so if your waist measures between 27″-29″, you’ll probably want a size 28. If you’re 32″-34″, a size 33 should be ideal.

When you fall in between, size up for a looser fit, and size down for a narrower fit. But always look at the size and fit guide, too – because, as we’re understanding, each brand is a little different.

Please note that most size guides on a site will not include inseam. You’re going to want to pay attention to the item description online, which is going to tell you what the inseam is.

Sidenote: The Rise

Okay, so there’s another measurement that’s important to keep in mind – and that is the rise of the pants. This is the area from the middle of the crotch seam (right between your legs) to the very top of the waistband. Pay attention to this number, because it’s going to be the best indicator of just how ‘high waist’ those jeans are, or how ‘low riding’.

Remember that each body is going to handle the rise differently. If you’re very short, a 10-inch rise on a pair of pants that are labeled “mid-rise” might actually be high-rise for your body. And if you have a long torso, those 8-inch low rise pants might be absolutely too low to comfortably wear!

The best way to get an idea of what a rise is, and what it looks like, is to measure the rise in several pairs of pants you have. They don’t have to fit perfectly – you just want to sort of understand the difference between a 7-inch rise and a 12-inch rise. You don’t need to write this number down, but keep it in mind!

How to Shop For Your Jeans

a wall of jeans in a store
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A lot of us have turned to online shopping in the past few months, for obvious reasons – and honestly, it’s the best way to shop for jeans. No, I’m being serious!

While trying on jeans in a store is great, buying online lets you look at the size guide closely, and figure out exactly what size is right for you. The best recommendation I can give you when you’re still figuring out your perfect size is to order from a store with free returns, like Nordstrom, Target, Macy’s, Everlane, etc. If you think you might be in-between two sizes, order both sizes, just make sure you return the ones that don’t fit.

You can also easily see what the jeans are made of, which is super important.

A higher cotton percentage is going to lend to higher quality, longer-lasting jeans. However, cotton jeans will shrink a little in the wash – and they will not stretch. You’ll never find a pair of skinny cotton jeans because, well, it’s not really possible.

Cotton will mold to your body, but it won’t stretch. Authentic old Levi’s are made of high-quality cotton, and people are paying hundreds of dollars for them used because they still look great and hold up.

When you start introducing synthetic fibers, you’re going to get more stretch, but they will also break down a lot faster. Make sure you’re reading all about the material the jeans are made of before you buy them.

I’m not dissing synthetic materials – they’re popular for a reason. They’re cheap, super comfortable, and nearly as important, super forgiving. If I’m bloated, my super nice cotton jeans might not fit as well… but this pair of synthetic blend pants will stretch to accommodate just fine.

Honestly, I encourage a mix of choices in your wardrobe, especially if you’re like me and wear jeans a lot.

When you’re trying on your jeans – whether you ordered them online, or you’re in-store – there are a few important things about the fit you should pay attention to.

Synthetic blends will stretch over time, so if your skinny jeans are a little loose now, it’s totally possible that by month 3 of heavy wear, they’re going to be stretched out and falling off. Cotton jeans, on the other hand, will shrink very slightly but otherwise, with proper care, remain the same.

Look for feathering or pulling around the waist and crotch, specifically in the area around the zipper. If you see pulling, that’s a sign your jeans are too tight and you should size up. (Don’t let the denim wash fool you! Sometimes feathering is part of the coloring and design. These wrinkles should be standing out, not just in the coloring)

If you don’t have a relatively comfortable range of motion – stepping, walking, bending over – the jeans probably aren’t the right size or fit for you.

If you find yourself having heavy waist gaping when you size up and reduce that feathering at the waist, well, that’s an issue for our later section – tailoring. But know that it’s not a lost cause.

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If you’re gifted with larger hips and thighs and a smaller waist, or thicker thighs, there are brands that cater to your needs. You don’t have to always tailor everything, or only wear leggings if you really want “real” jeans.

Check out brands like DL1961, Guess Curve line, Levi’s Curvy line, and True Religion’s Curvy Bootcut. Torrid and ASOS also have great lines for a curvier fit! If you hate jeans because you can’t find a pair that fits you probably, don’t fret – there are jeans out there for your body.

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What The Fuzz is Coated Denim?

While shopping, you might see a pair of jeans labeled coated denim. Also sometimes called waxed denim, these are just regular old jeans that have been coated with a pigment to give them a waxy finish.

Coated denim was pretty ‘in’ last year, but you can still find them around if you’re in love with the trend or the look. They sort of feel like regular jeans and leather pants had a lovely pants baby, if you’re into that. I personally have exactly one pair of coated denim jeans and I don’t love them, but that’s not their fault – I didn’t take my own advice, and ignored the inseam. They can only be worn comfortably with high boots, unless I want to be asked where’s the flood?

Coated denim is not exactly the most breathable material, so they aren’t great for summer. But for fall and winter, these make great, sturdy additions in your closet. Coated denim can also give a polish or edge to an otherwise boring outfit, which is fun.

Care for coated denim is generally the same as a normal pair of jeans, but make sure you read the care tags before you toss them in the washer… or, honestly, before you buy them. I know if I have to do an extra step, I’m not going to be wearing them often. Or, more likely, I’ll forget and ruin them. Don’t judge me.

In Style vs Perfect Fit vs Personal Taste, The True Struggle

denim with large holes
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I run into this personal struggle a lot in my closet, and I still waffle every now and again. Skinny jeans were in for a long time, but now we’re moving away from those. Flare jeans were back for like, ten seconds, and I was truly thriving, but now cropped denim is super in, in the jean world. Here’s the thing – I don’t like cold ankles. The Kids (as I call anyone younger than me, honestly) really are into those ripped denim, as seen above, but those were popular when I was in highschool, too – and I just can’t go back to that era of my life.

I have a few pairs of ‘trendy’ or ‘fun’ jeans that follow what is hot right now, but most of my jeans are relatively trend-free. I try to buy sturdy, long lasting pieces (generally second hand) that will last a long time, and I don’t want to shell out a lot of money for something that will look dated in a few months.

However, this really is a personal choice. If it’s important to you to spend a little extra money for a higher-quality, trendy pieces, you do you.

Price Isn’t Always an Indicator

Here’s the honest truth – some of my best jeans have been the cheapest additions to my wardrobe. I’ve had H&M jeans blow out on me within two wears. I’ve had a $20 discount buy last me years and years with no holes. I’ve seen high-end brands perform poorly and thin quickly.

Price is not always the best indicator of how good your jeans will be. If I want a pair of ‘fast fashion’, trendy jeans, I’m going to be less concerned about materials and longevity and more concerned about the look at the moment, because it won’t be fashionable within a season or two.

If I’m going to be buying something I will consider a ‘wardrobe staple’, and something that will last me a long time, I’m going to spend more money. But fabric and what the jeans are made of is more important than the price, without a doubt.

That said, jeans can get really expensive, really fast. My heart hurts a little every time I think of spending $200 on a pair of pants, but you really don’t have to shell out that type of money.

Resale sites like Poshmark are great for trying new brands and styles, and getting a good discount. Be sure to ask for measurements, so you can properly measure yourself and know if the jeans will fit you, or look up the exact type of jean on the manufacturers website to get a sizing chart. I also love hunting at a local thrift or consignment shop, because you can really find some amazing hidden bargains – like that time last summer I found a pair of J Brand jeans for $20. They retailed for about $280.

Finally, ‘discount’ stores are an amazing source for you. I love Nordstorm Rack especially, and I’ve found some killer deals. If you have a Rack near you, or a similar store, be sure to scope it out thoroughly – and check back often, as the inventory is always changing. Their website, as well as placing like Zulily and HauteLook, are great to watch as well.

Don’t Be Afraid to Tailor!

It is totally okay if your jeans don’t fit you perfectly off the rack. Somewhere along the way, a lot of us have lost the idea that tailoring is totally normal.

a tailor's set up
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My body is different from yours, why would we fit in the same size? We’re not all cookie-cutter shaped, after all!

The most important place your jeans should fit you is through the hips and thighs. If they’re a little long, or they are gaping at the waist, a tailor can absolutely fix that.

It’s also not that expensive! It’s usually less than $20 to fix a hem, and usually under $50 for waist alterations. Sure, you might groan at another price on jeans you already bought… but if they fit you perfectly, you’ll get more wear out of them, and more enjoyment when you do wear them. While you probably don’t have to tailor your $15 Target jeans, if you’re going to be investing in a good pair of denim, you might as well go all teh way.

How to Care For Your Jeans

Good denim is kind of like a child – it really does need attention. Now, I’m going to readily admit that I’m very bad at this. I wash my jeans after every wear, mostly because I have a tiny demon puppy that loves to play in the mud – and then jump up on me. But if you want your jeans to last longer and look better, there are some steps you can take.

Washing your jeans constantly isn’t doing them any favors. While Levi’s official website recommends that you only wash your jeans every ten wears, that seems a little extreme. Go as long as you can, and you can spot clean a stain or smudge with a damp cloth or an old toothbrush, and some mild soap.

The more you wash your jeans, the more the fit will change, and the quicker they will wear out.

A woman using a washing machine
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When you do toss your jeans in the washer, make sure you’re washing on cold. Not warm, not hot, not cold-warm like my mother-in-law’s very fancy washer has, but cold-cold. Hot water is going to cause bleeding of the dyes, making them lose their color faster, as well as shrinking. Both of which you really don’t want to deal with.

If you have a darker wash jean you really love, consider washing them inside out to help preserve the color.

Stop! Before you put your jeans in the dryer, think again. Drying your jeans is going break down the fabric faster, cause shrinkage, and overall damage them. If you have the space and the ability, consider line drying your jeans. Hang them inside out and out of direct sunlight to avoid fading.

Even hanging them in the bathroom shower is going to work, and you’ll preserve your jeans much better.

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If you’re suffering from the dreaded chub rub (aka, when your thighs break down that piece of fabric between them) or you’ve got a tear, you don’t have to throw them away! When you first notice thinning or tearing, stop wearing them and take them to the tailors. Yes, that same tailor who fixed your waist!

When caught early, minor issues like this can be patched and sewn back together, and will extend the life of your pants. There’s nothing worse than going to put your favorite pair of jeans on just to realize you’ve got a hole, and they’re not going to be a part of your outfit.

Jeans Won’t Last Forever

Let’s be clear here… your jeans won’t last forever.

If you buy 100% cotton denim and take very good care of it… yes, they’re going to last a long time. But the average pair of jeans, with an average amount of wear, has a shelf life of about 2 years, give or take. The more cotton in the blend, the higher that number is going to be.

But jeans aren’t a buy-it-for-life item anymore, not for most people. Normal wear and tear is going to break down your jeans, and eventually, you’ll need to replace them.

Does this mean you should spend as little as possible on your jeans? Of course not! You deserve a pair of jeans that fit well and feel good. But don’t be upset if your synthetic blend jeans break down after a few years of good wear.

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