How to Wear Light Wash Denim Now (and Why We Need to Stop Being Afraid Of It)

How to Wear Light Wash Denim Now (and Why We Need to Stop Being Afraid Of It)
For guys who found their style in the early 2000s, we were sworn off all denim that wasn't dark. Fortunately for our range of options, things have lightened up.

“We are kind of looking at a piece of clothing that has gotten a bad rap, right?” mused Daniel Baraka, a Primer style contributor who finds inspiration across different aesthetics and decades. “I think when it comes to my personal style, I love the challenge of taking a piece of clothing that is considered casual and trying to present it in a more refined way that just kind of ‘works.’”

Historically, darker denim has been the go-to for most men seeking a sharper look. In fact, dark denim's dominance over the last 15 years isn't surprising. But cultural shifts in the past three years have revived the look. But why this shift? And why now?

daniel wearing light wash jeans with a navy blazer, blue sweater, and loafers

“I love to live between the lines, I love to live between universes. And so, with the resurgence of the light wash, high-waisted jeans, I acquired some as soon as I could. These are some vintage, classic high-waisted Levi’s 501s,” Daniel shares.

lightwash jeans with a linen shirt and plaid linen blazer

His desire to blend historical fashion elements with modern trends illustrates the thoughtful approach needed when selecting the right pair of light wash jeans.

Andrew wearing light was levis 501 with ocbd
Levi's 501 in “Unleaded – Medium Indigo” / Read my full piece on the 501

Why Millennials Think Dark Denim is Better

Initially gaining popularity in the post-war years in westerns and with the likes of Marlon Brando and James Dean in the “misunderstood bad-boy” film genre, then again in the vibrant 1980s and grungy 1990s, light wash jeans have always represented a rebellious spirit.

The light wash jeans worn by rock icons like Bruce Springsteen and Kurt Cobain stood in stark contrast to the formal attire of the continued stiff, big formality found in business and on Wall Street.

Kurt Cobain pairs light wash jeans with a baggy cardigan in 1993

Various subcultures, from punk rock to grunge to hip-hop, embraced light wash jeans as a key component of their distinctive styles. Punk bands like The Ramones paired them with leather jackets for an edgy look, while grunge musicians like Cobain favored their distressed, carefree vibe paired with baggy cardigans.

johnny ramone wearing light wash jeans in concert in 1983
Johnny Ramone in 1983

In the hip-hop world, artists such as Run-D.M.C. and LL Cool J made light wash jeans a staple of urban fashion. Their relaxed and laid-back style became synonymous with the casual, spirited look of those eras.

But as the new millennium dawned, young professionals in their 20s and early 30s found themselves navigating a changing work environment where the lines between professional and casual attire were blurring.

We discovered a compromise in deep, dark, tailored denim, which balanced professionalism while maintaining a contemporary, casual vibe. By pairing these jeans with dressier items, they adapted to the evolving workplace, finding a universal foundation that could be dressed up or down as needed:

A screenshot from Primer features three men wearing jeans and gray blazers. The first man wears light blue flared jeans with a red "X" below him. The second man wears dark blue bootcut jeans with a brown "X" below him. The third man wears dark blue straight leg jeans with a green checkmark below him. The text above reads "Dress Better Instantly! Dark, Straight Leg Jeans." To the right, red text says, "In 2011, we published this article, representing a shift in fit and fade from the decade prior." Below, there is additional text promoting dark, straight leg jeans for a polished look.

The economic downturn of the early 2010s influenced both consumer priorities and men's fashion, steering towards a more rugged and Americana-inspired aesthetic. This style emphasized “base” garments, such as crisp, dark denim, made from premium materials with a focus on craftsmanship and origin. These jeans embodied a desire for durability and timelessness, resonating with Americans facing financial uncertainties.

As the decades have passed and trend cycles inevitably revolve, we’re again finding renewed interest in lighter denim – but not with the same style perspective as before:

“We're looking at a way to wear them that's smart and looks modern. It feels trendy and classic at the same time.” Daniel tells me. We have something today we didn't have when I published our article in 2011: The ongoing and inevitable casualization happening in society has brought us to a place where even light wash denim can be dressed up. Both of Daniel's light-wash jeans-with-blazer looks featured here could very well make him the most dressed up in the room in many places.

Today, many who embraced the dark wash trend in the 2010s find themselves hesitant towards this lighter resurgence. The resistance comes partly from the previous “unintentional” aesthetic that many felt was a staple of the 80s and 90s—a style marked by a seemingly accidental casual fashion sense that felt less polished and more spontaneous.

Screenshot from Back to the Future featuring Jenifer and Marty in light wash jeans. The woman has curly hair and wears a light pink jacket over a white shirt with light blue jeans, holding books in her arm. The man has short hair and wears a denim jacket over a checkered shirt with blue jeans, carrying a red backpack and a skateboard with a colorful design.
Marty McFly's double light wash is a time capsule

Many people associate them with outdated fashion faux pas, such as poorly fitted “dad jeans” or acid-wash disasters from the 80s and 90s.

obama practicing a pitch in light wash baggy jeans
President Obama made headlines in 2009 for his “dad jeans” when throwing the opening pitch at the All-Star game / White House

But in a way, it makes sense for faded jeans to be popular now, even among the die-hard raw denim and selvedge fans from the 2010s. They have likely worn their crisp, dark jeans into beautifully faded light wash jeans over time. For those that truly embraced the long-term promise of dark, raw selvedge denim, continuing to wear them, now faded and as a lighter wash, was inevitable.

A pair of Tellason selvedge denim made in 2008
A pair of now-faded Tellason selvedge denim made in 2008

How to Style Light Wash Jeans Now

Enter the contemporary casual aesthetic. Post 2020, silhouettes began to breathe easier, with looser fits gaining traction. As a result, footwear, too, underwent a transformation, moving away from the slender outlines to more robust, chunky designs.

Lighter wash denim — with its sun-bleached hue — slots perfectly within this renewed aesthetic, providing a bridge between the past and the present, formality and playfulness.

Analyzing Daniel’s outfit, he paired his light wash jeans with a crisp white linen shirt and a checked jacket. The contrasting white socks stood out, embracing another casual vintage aesthetic and adding a pop against his black shoes.

man wearing light wash jeans with gray socks and black loafers

It was a look reminiscent of the 80s, even hinting at the iconic style of Michael Jackson, the 60s with Paul Newman, or the 50s with Dean before that.

close up of black loafers with light socks and light blue wash jeans

While many men's fashion rules have favored dark wash jeans, light wash denim can be equally as striking in a modern context, if styled correctly. “There's a few reasons why it works in the way that it works,” Daniel noted. “The very first is just contrast. We're working on a lighter palette again.”

man sitting on a couch wearing light wash denim with a blazer and linen shirt
See how else to wear this jacket

The Real Benefit to a Lighter Wash: Contrast

A lighter palette, as Daniel explains, is not just about the denim itself but about the overall ensemble. “I talk about palette very often when it comes to outfits because it's a very easy way to have a cohesive outfit.”

Contrast in style plays a crucial role in defining the overall impact of an outfit. Typically, we have seen high contrast Getups, where dark and light elements starkly differ, creating a visually striking look. Or low contrast with all dark tones, offering a sophisticated, evening style.

Two men are standing in separate photos side by side. The man on the left is dressed in a black sweater, dark gray jeans, and brown lace-up boots. He has short hair and is posed thoughtfully with one hand on his chin and the other in his pocket against a plain gray background. The man on the right is wearing a white hoodie, black pants, and beige high-top sneakers. He is also wearing a black baseball cap and has a short beard. He is standing in front of a light-colored draped fabric backdrop, with part of a green plant visible to the left and an armchair on the right.
Left: Low contrast Right: High contrast

However, the versatility of contrast also allows for lighter, low contrast combinations, which blend similar tones to create a seamless aesthetic:

A man with short hair and a short beard is standing in front of a light-colored draped fabric backdrop. He is wearing a tan suede jacket, a white long-sleeve shirt, beige pants, and brown leather boots. He has one hand in his pocket and the other resting by his side.
Low contrast with similar hues

Before the resurgence of light wash denim, achieving such a look typically required substituting jeans with lighter alternatives like chinos or linen trousers. Now, light wash jeans reintroduce denim into the low contrast equation, offering a stylish yet understated option for creating outfits that are both cohesive and suited to the demands of the spring and summer seasons.

When exploring the range of lighter shades available, it's important to consider the overall vibe they bring to an outfit. Opting for “organic” shades that look naturally faded can provide a more refined look compared to more eccentric acid wash or overly distressed styles. This choice in shade and wash plays a significant role in crafting an outfit that feels both modern and authentically vintage.

“I've worn these denim jeans in more casual outfits and less casual ones,” Daniel adds, illustrating the adaptability of light wash jeans across various settings. Continuing the style requirement introduced at the turn of the century, this flexibility is key in a wardrobe that values both function and style, enabling an effortless approach to everyday dressing.

Andrew wearing light wash jeans with a harrington jacket
Levi's 501 with a Harrington jacket

How to Incorporate Lighter Wash Jeans into Your Style

For the everyday guy, wearing lighter denim again might come with a fear of returning to an old way of dressing. But with a few simple ideas, even the most style-averse gentleman can gracefully integrate light wash denim into his intentional wardrobe:

  1. Start Simple: Before diving deep, begin with a classic, straight fit like the Levi's 501s. It's enduring, versatile, and provides a great foundation to build upon.
  2. Focus on Fit: While loose silhouettes are in, it's essential to find a fit that complements your personal style and body type. Avoid overly baggy or skin-tight options. Choose an inseam that allows a subtle break but not excess stacks.
  3. Pair with Staples: Don’t overthink it. Start by wearing your light wash jeans with wardrobe staples like solid-colored tees, polo shirts, or a classic white button-down. It's a fail-safe combo that always works.
  4. Footwear Fundamentals: Whether it’s your white sneakers, casual loafers, or leather lace-ups, light wash denim pairs effortlessly. The key is to match the silhouette of the shoes with the fit of the jeans. Looser pants feel complemented by chunkier footwear. To further avoid the Dad jean look, don't wear your straight fit light wash denim with modern running sneakers.
  5. Layer Thoughtfully: Throw on a navy blazer, a casual Harrington jacket, or even a soft cashmere sweater. Lighter denim can act as a neutral base, allowing for varied layering possibilities.
  6. Trust the Process: Style, at its core, is about personal expression. Over time, with experimentation, you’ll discover combinations that resonate with your personal style. Give it time and trust the journey.

While dark denim will always have its revered spot, light wash is offering a welcome addition to the options we have. So, for those also looking to live “between the lines” or simply searching for a change, light wash denim might just be the modern (and vintage) twist you're after.

What will you pair yours with?

Light Wash Jeans Quick Picks:

Andrew Snavely

Andrew founded Primer in 2008 and brings 15+ years of men's style expertise. Known for his practical, relatable approach to style and self-development, he has been a recognized speaker at conferences and has styled work for top brands. Off-duty, he loves photography & editing, and enjoys road trips with his dog, Leela. Raised in rural Pennsylvania, educated in DC, and living in LA for nearly 20 years, Andrew's diverse experiences shape the relatable and real-world advice that has helped millions through Primer. On Instagram: @andrewsnavely and @primermagazine.