There’s No Such Thing as Dress Jeans

Let’s get this out of the way right now.  Dress jeans don’t exist. Stop using this term.  They don’t exist in real life, except here, but that’s not the life you want.  Trust me on this one.

About 10 years ago, when the NBA elevated its dress code to eliminate jeans, shouts of resistance erupted everywhere, from the players as well as the public.  Eventually, the NBA capitulated and allowed the term “business casual” (quotations theirs) which included dress jeans.

“I’ve never heard the term (dress jeans) and it’s a little scary to me,” wrote Jim Moore of GQ.  “A jean is a jean.  I think that’s a crazy, nebulous term.”

Back in the late 90s, after the grunge look of my high school years faded away like so many Miller’s Outpost stores, I remember buying my first pair of non-stonewashed jeans from JCrew.

As a San Diego transplant living in New York, I abandoned my shorts, Docs, and thrift store flannels and adopted the New England “khakis with everything” look, along with the iconic roll-neck sweater with un-hemmed edges and raglan sleeves.  It was fresh, clean, presentable.  Things were starting to get dressier.

Shortly thereafter, dark denim debuted on the scene, and ads promoting “dressing up your denim” were plastered all over New York.  Mostly with v-neck sweaters and t-shirts.  Were men ready to start dressing up again? Oh yes, and with enthusiasm that would rival Gettysburg reenactments, with tweed vests to match.

Fast-forward twenty years, and the term “dress jeans” is universal.  But its meaning remains unclear.  What are dress jeans?  Are they simply new, unwashed, and untreated denim?  Do you iron them?  Dry-clean them for colorfast-ness?


Specifically, it’s an abrasion-resistant twill that was designed to be workwear – and that’s still it’s most comfortable use. That said, jeans will never go away, at least not in the near future, and it’s fine to embrace that. Will jeans ever be “dressy?”  No, they won’t.

But you can “dress them up.” There’s a difference. Here’s how.

Key to avoiding the dreaded “trying too hard” look is accepting that jeans are casual; you can only dress them up so much. Therefore, ties with jeans are out. Don’t argue. Would you wear a tiara with jeans? Of course not.  Ditch the tie; it’s reserved for formal occasions. In its place, consider the roll-neck, turtleneck, or open collar button-down shirt. Just no orphaned suit jacket, please – remember that these are jeans, not trousers.

Try a cardigan, or if you prefer a jacket, try the Harrington, trucker, bomber, moto, corduroy, or tweed sportcoat.  Jeans are great, and they’re a wonderful, versatile part of a man’s wardrobe. But know when enough is enough. Say it with me: dress jeans do not exist.

If you’re feeling stumped on how to dress up your denim without looking ridiculous, here are a few classic examples (along with a few of my own):