If you’re like me and prefer the ultra butt-flattering, high-waisted, stiff denim of vintage Levi’s over the stretchy stuff of contemporary skinny jeans, you’ve probably asked yourself many of these questions: What are the best styles to look for? What the hell is up with the weird sizing? How do I make them look good and not awkward? Where can I buy these sweet puppies?!
As with any type of vintage shopping, searching for the right kind of decades-old pair of Levi’s can land you in the territory of careful inspection and tons of try-ons (for Pete’s sake, try on as many vintage Levi’s as possible).
But there are also a few shopping tricks to keep in your back pocket to help you navigate this world of particularly iconic denim. Ahead, we break down the four essentials you must know before purchasing a pair of these Americana blues.
Most vintage Levi’s jeans are men’s jeans. Ignore the sizing label.
Considering that Levi’s were originally designed as the go-to workman’s pant, it shouldn’t be a shocker that these jeans would fit awkwardly on the modern-day woman’s body. To be safe (and to save yourself from utter disappointment), never shop for jeans (especially vintage styles) based on the numbers you see on the label—go by actual measurements and fittings.
You’d be surprised by how much the hip-to-waist ratio varies from pair to pair. Forget everything you know about J Brand sizing; scoring the best vintage pieces often means throwing vanity out the window.
Be familiar with the three most flattering styles.
The numbers associated with vintage Levi’s can be mad confusing. Even a simple search for vintage Levi’s on eBay can result in an instant headache when you’re inundated with random code numbers, leg shapes, wash types, and eras. To simplify things for all the ladies out there: The top three vintage Levi’s styles to know are 501s, 505s, and 551s from the 1980s.
“501s and 505s are both classic and versatile at the same time, and they also cater to different body types,” says Janet Sung, creative director at Denim Refinery, of the two most popular style of Levi’s. “They essentially have the same body; the only difference between them is the closure—505s have a zip fly, whereas 501s have a button fly. I find that a zip fly usually fits a bit more snug and sits closer to the body, which is great for girls with less curves. A button fly allows for more room, so if you have a booty, it’s perfect.”
The straight-leggedness, the long inseam, and the high-waisted rise of these styles result in the trifecta of what makes for a solid pair of vintage Levi’s. The type of wash and softness varies, of course—that all depends on the jeans’ personal history and the kind of man who had previously worn them.
So have a feel using the palm of your actual hand to determine how soft or stiff the jeans are and then buy according to your preference. (For many, there’s a certain joy that comes with breaking in a tougher denim fabric and having it mold to your specific body.)
For petite gals out there (what’s up, my fellow shorties!), nothing compares with the fit of vintage 551s, which were made specifically for women. These styles come in both petite and long inseams, and the leg is slightly tapered for a more feminine and/or mom fit (depending how you look at it). Like the 505s, the 551s also have a solid high-rise fit and feature a zip fly.
Memorize key styling tips to make these jeans feel modern.
Hem them yourself. And by “hem,” I mean take a pair of scissors and snip the leg to the desired length. If you’re unsure about what length to go with, cut the legs to just above the ankle to start (that way, you can always cut more or roll up the hem). A quick wash will leave a perfectly frayed edge (which is definitely a thing right now—here’s proof.)
Top them wisely. Vintage Levi’s have a way of making the butt look real nice, so when it comes to tops, be sure to wear a piece that complements the bottoms.
For a casual look, nothing beats a lived-in cotton T-shirt that’s slightly tucked in at the front. A crop top works just as well. For a more buttoned-up look, wear a tucked-in silk button-up and strap on a heeled shoe to elevate the outfit.
Wash ’em regularly. There are endless debates surrounding how jeans should be washed (if at all). Some die-hard denim fanatics never wash their jeans. Others take them to the dry cleaner only. Some throw jeans in the freezer. Rest assured, whatever you’ve heard about washing denim does not apply to vintage Levi’s.
When you think about it, these are pants that have been worn for decades, have seen the hardest of labor, and have been washed a million times over. In fact, regularly washing vintage Levi’s will only help age and break them in better.
Remove the waistband if you need to. For women with wider hips, vintage Levi’s with small waistbands can be tough. If you have a pair of jeans that fit well over the hips but won’t close at the waist, it’s possible the jeans will fit once the waistband is removed, à la Mariah Carey in her 1999 “Heartbreaker” video. Carefully snip off the belt loops and waistband on a pair of button-fly jeans (or be mindful not to get too close to the zipper fly).
Get fitted. If you’re looking for a very specific fit, it may be worth it to take a pair of Levi’s to a denim doctor who can make proper alterations according to your measurements. A great tailor will be able to hem and taper the legs and adjust the waistline, all without ruining the true spirit of the worn-in Levi’s.
Alterations can no doubt get pricey, though, so also check out brands like Re/Done, which basically does the job of a tailor and takes apart vintage jeans and sews them back together to ensure a more solid fit.
Ready to buy? Here are some spots to score a great pair.
Thrift stores. They can be hit or miss, but thrift stores are where you’re going to find the most affordable pairs—and most are packed with dozens of styles. Since the sizing of Levi’s is all over the place, be sure to check out the men’s and women’s sections (and kid’s, if you’re on the more petite side). As always, try everything on.
eBay and Etsy. You can usually find great deals if you look hard enough. Searching keywords like vintage Levi’s or vtg Levi’s will usually yield plenty of results, and you can further refine your search by adding in style numbers like 501, 505, or 551. Be sure to read all the measurements and study every photograph—oftentimes merch isn’t returnable.
Finer vintage shops. Legit vintage shops are convenient when looking for old Levi’s, but they sure know how to jack up those prices. If you find a pair that you absolutely love at a vintage boutique but don’t want to spend hundreds of dollars for it, jot down the style and size; it’s possible you’ll be able to find a pair online for way cheaper.
Online retailers. If the hunt for the perfect pair of vintage Levi’s at a second-hand shop is too time-consuming, there are now online retailers who can do the search for you. Sites like Denim Refinery, Urban Outfitters’ Urban Renewal, and ASOS’s Marketplace are great places to start for secondhand pieces.