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Understanding Different Denim Washes and Functions

Understanding Different Denim Washes and Functions  Regarding washes, do you like light, medium, or dark? While your denim’s wash may not be the first thing that comes to mind when...

Understanding Different Denim Washes and Functions 

Regarding washes, do you like light, medium, or dark? While your denim’s wash may not be the first thing that comes to mind when buying a new pair, there’s no denying it plays a role in your purchase. You're spoiled for options, given the sheer breadth of washes and finishes available today.

Just like a pair of jeans cut and overall style, its wash influences what you team with and where you’ll wear it. For example, dark-wash denim is arguably the most versatile due to the possibility of dressing it up or down. But it may look different in the middle of summer or at the beach. On the other hand, a very light wash typically connotes a casual vibe, even when paired with more polished pieces. 

While there aren't necessarily hard-and-fast rules to wearing specific denim washes, some style guidelines help you navigate what's out there. We’ll discuss those, along with more background on denim generally and how it’s evolved.

History of denim

The most common clothing item—save for the t-shirt—jeans hit the mainstream in the 1950s. At that time, Hollywood actors like Marlon Brando and James Dean made denim undeniably cool, cementing its association with youth and rebellion. In the decade to follow, the counterculture adopts it, male and female celebrities, and ultimately, high fashion.

Once denim landed on the runway, it filtered down to malls and the masses. Men and women started donning jeans in equal measure, closely following the trends, and keeping multiple pairs of denim in regular wardrobe rotation. Today, worn daily —to run errands, dates, to school, and even work. Whereas the latter may have noticed several frowns (and still is, in certain quarters), jeans as we know them today got their start as ‘workwear.”

In the late 19th century, laborers needed durable, breathable trousers that withstand wear and tear. Levi Strauss, a San Francisco-based wholesale dry goods operator, and one of his clients, tailor Jacob Davis, offered a solution. But, crucially, their trousers featured rivets on areas like the pockets, prone to tear. So the duo made one denim wash available—a blue “501” style first introduced in 1890 that quickly took off.

Popular denim styles today

While Hollywood actresses embraced denim as early as the 1930s, and publications like Vogue promoted jeans in the years that followed, most women only gravitated toward denim later in age. Previously, however, Levi’s introduced “Lady Levi’s” in 1934, and women in factories famously donned denim during the Second World War (think Rosie the Riveter). 

Fast forward to the present day, and jeans still reign supreme in the denim kingdom. Granted, designers have given just about every clothing item the denim treatment, from button-downs and sneakers to maxis and bucket hats. But, besides jeans, jackets are the most popular denim item, followed by women’s shorts, shirts, skirts, and dresses.

Different denim washes

Not surprisingly, all of these items come in a variety of washes. Denim goes through a unique washing process to achieve the desired faded look. Most identify raw and dark denim as "unwashed" or "dry" denim, which means its color is deep and dark. Medium-wash denim is a shade lighter than dark denim, meaning it's been washed and dried more often. Light-wash denim, meanwhile, is about two shades lighter than medium-wash. Lastly, acid denim wash—prominent in the 1980s and trending more recently—is made through a unique mix of chlorine and water and categorized by its fading and contrasting splotches.

Styling summer’s hottest denim shorts

Are you looking for some new ways to style summer denim shorts? Consider a high-waisted, cuffed pair teamed with a blouse and blazer for brunches and shopping or a bodysuit and a denim jacket to rock with a lightly frayed pair of denim. Embrace monochrome with black-on-black or white-on-white, plus colorful accessories like shoes, hats, and scarves. Finally, update your beach look by making denim shorts part of your cover-up. Layer your suit with a sheer kimono and add sandals.

Wearing other shorts with denim shirts

If you love denim shirts, you should embrace an of-the-moment denim-on-denim look. (Opt for contrast with lighter on top and darker on the bottom instead of anything too matchy-matchy.) Otherwise, team your denim shirt with cuffed chinos, belted Bermudas, or fluid cargos. While the former two will work best for slightly dressier occasions, the latter will work perfectly for weekends and casual outings.

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