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):

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Peter works in construction, but has an extensive collection of custom suits which he gets so that he can wear suits on the weekend. Even though he lives in San Francisco, he has never used the word "impact" as a verb. He writes about classic menswear and is one fedora away from being a complete dork.

15 thoughts on “There’s No Such Thing as Dress Jeans

  1. Lots of good points here but I disagree on one of them. You can wear a tie with jeans. I used to see Andy Warhol at MoAFA shows in a blue blazer, OCBD, Levis 501’s and a rep tie in the late 70’s. Ralph Lauren could be seen checking out his shops around NYC about the same time sporting a similar look (blue blazer, tie, jeans and cowboy boots). In the late 60’s many an Ivy League student, when required to wear a “jacket and tie” wore jeans, a blazer, tweed or corduroy jacket, rep tie and OCBD to barely pass yet rebel against the rules in certain social settings requiring ties and jackets. I think of this look as having an authentic American pedigree. In general I stick with less formal materials such as knit silk or wool, rustic patterned and looser weave linen, cotton and silk, tweeds and even the occasional rep tie. In general the more worn the jeans, the less formal the neckwear fabric.

    • Artists, moguls, and protesters get a pass; in the vast majority of cases “ties with jeans looks” seem contrived or ambivalent. With the advent of athleisure, will “dress sweats” and ties be next? Exceptions exist, but should they be emulated? And really, who puts on jeans, a button-up shirt, and blazer, looks at himself in a mirror, and says “That’s what’s missing – a tie.”? Just because you can wear a tie with jeans doesn’t mean you should. It doesn’t mean you can’t either, but will you look better?

      • Just fwiw, “dressed up sweatpants” already exist. I think that companies like Outlier ( and Mission Workshop ( paved the way with tech fabric pants that are ostensibly okay for office wear. I like them for casual wear, they can be incredibly comfortable with an athleisure feel without going full athleisure. I’m unconvinced that you can make sweats office ready, though I’ve seen enough pairs that look good worn casually to be convinced that that, at least, can be done. Of course, they’d look odd with your John Lobbs. Unless you are an eccentric billionaire, I suppose.

        • As much as I love techwear, I have yet to see tailored techwear that looks like tailored clothing and would be at home in anything other than a casual office. That includes Outlier. The closest is maybe some shower-proof stuff done in natural fabrics, but that’s hardly the same thing. And I’d argue that those “dressed up sweatpants” you mention are more like “dressed up hiking pants,” which in my mind is pretty big difference. Dressed up sweatpants would be, what? A Juicy Couture velour tracksuit?

    • Agreed, although I stick to cotton/linen/wool (basically, matte) knit ties for denim. And never with anything more formal than loafers (derbies can work, but I hate them for ill-defined reasons) that aren’t high-polish, and never, ever with the top button done up. I detest the loosened non-knit tie with trousers (especially with no jacket), but with jeans it really demands it.

      • Are you saying you’re wearing your knit ties with denim and your top shirt button undone? Please don’t do this. We beg you. I’m with Peter, here. My opinion is that unless you’re Gus, or one of the individuals he’s mentioned, ties with denim aren’t a good look.

        • It’s too hot for a jacket (of any weight/fabric) 4-5 months of the year where I live, and I wear a mid-blue or navy SC or blazer with everything – therefore, when sans jacket, I roll the sleeves and navy-knit tie it up. Just not all the way up. Never do it with a jacket/unrolled sleeves though, and never with dark (‘dress’) denim. To me, the loosened knit in this way roughly equals the formality/casual equivalent of the open collar + casual jacket I wear the rest of the year, and allows some sense of balance/cohesion in my look.

          A charlatan, I know.

          • While I certainly won’t think less of you as a person over it, I suppose we’ll have to agree to disagree. A loosened tie, to me, is only acceptable during the later hours of a wedding reception. Otherwise, I would say to either not wear a tie if your dress code allows (and definitely not without a jacket), or to wear a shirt with a slightly looser neck and adjust accordingly.

          • Fair enough. I should probably add a few caveats, although unlikely to change anyone’s opinion: I’m talking strictly non-office wear, generally with suede loafers, and most importantly to me personally w/r/t aesthetics: button down (or hidden button down, even) collars. A point, spread, or cutaway collar with loosened tie I cannot abide.

          • Although I prefer no tie, I’ll admit your pics with a loosened tie/rolled up sleeves don’t look forced. Also, your jackets are pretty awesome.

          • I’d love to be flattered by such primo member as yourself, but I’m afraid you’ve got someone else’s pics – to my knowledge I’ve never posted any like that on the forums…

            Would love to see the ones from whatever user you’re referencing though!

  2. I have never owned jeans and never shall. But to suggest that a tie “is reserved for formal occasions” is plain ridiculous (certainly here on the eastern side of the Atlantic). However, the author is right in pointing out the inconsistency of tie-with-jeans.

    • Allow me to clarify: ties should be reserved for more formal occasions, relative to those occasions where jeans are appropriate. Rarely do the two intermingle, if ever.

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