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How to style a jean jacket: The ultimate guide to a denim favorite

Learn how to wear a denim jacket like James Dean and Bruce Springsteen

Person in a denim jacket outside
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When Levi Strauss created denim jeans in the 1870s, he didn’t wait long to capitalize on the incredible runaway success of his new pants by introducing the top half of the ensemble, the denim jacket, 10 years later. As American as biscuits and gravy, the denim jacket became a staple in our nation’s fashion, symbolizing rebellion and individualism. But learning how to style a jean jacket is crucial to owning one.

From James Dean capturing the rebellious American spirit in Rebel Without a Cause to “The Boss” himself, Bruce Springsteen, the denim jacket endured decades of fashion by constantly reinventing itself and maintaining its originality. If you feel a slight sense of intimidation going up against the likes of Dean or Springsteen when trying to wear one, below is a guide to help you bring the timeless classic to life in your wardrobe.

What pants do you wear with a denim jacket?

Man in denim jacket
Andrea Piacquadio / Pexels

Denim jackets are the final layer of an already casual outfit. This means it complements the layers underneath it. The pants you wear with the jacket are just as important as the jacket itself. Here are the three best options for pants when styling a denim jacket.  

  • Jeans: Don’t be afraid to pair denim together. While it’s easy to go too far (think Justin Timberlake with Britany Spears at the VMAs), it’s also the most classic look. The number one rule to remember is that contrast is your friend. If you’re wearing a light wash on top, opt for a dark wash on the bottom, and vice versa. 
  • Chinos: Chinos may be the most straightforward option until you get the hang of your denim jacket. A good pair of khaki-colored chinos let the coat do all the talking and is an excellent blank slate for the outfit to grow from. The number one rule is fit. You want to wear an excellent slim fit on the bottom to avoid distracting from the jacket. 
  • Dress pants: In contrast to the ease of chinos, dress pants are the most challenging pants to pair with a denim jacket. The denim jacket dresses down an otherwise more formal or business look. The best tip is to stick to the darker washes, as they’re the most formal (there’s a similar rule with jeans) and won’t look too out of place. Once perfected, this is a trick to help you move from the office to a casual date or drink with friends.

What should you not wear with a denim jacket?

Man in denim jacket
Image used with permission by copyright holder

The trick to most denim jackets is fit. As you can see from the list above, most pants in your closet will work well with denim jackets if done correctly. Instead of thinking about what you shouldn’t wear with your new denim jacket, you should think of how you shouldn’t wear it. In the realm of denim; fit is king. 

Focusing on the jacket’s fit is the start, making sure the shoulder seams hit the curve in the shoulders (think if the seams are extended, make a V-shape below the sternum), the sleeves stop at the wrist, and the body hits the hips. If you live in a warmer climate like Florida or SoCal, try the jacket on over a T-shirt or thin button-up, and in colder climates, try it on over a sweater to ensure this fit.

The rest of the outfit should follow the fit rules as well. The tops should also be the right fit, as something fitting too loosely will look bunched up under the jacket, making it look too small. Something too form-fitting will make it look like you borrowed your father’s jacket. The pants are also crucial to the fit; baggier fits on the bottom will give you a bottom-heavy look. Think about the look of the genie in Aladdin, massive legs and a tiny chest. No guy wants to look like they have a tiny chest.

How do you style a men’s jean jacket?

The Rock in denim
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Styling your denim jacket is the first thing to consider before purchasing it. If you buy one on a whim but can’t figure out how to wear it, it’ll get lost in the abyss of things you never wear in your closet. It’ll hang next to the sweater your mom got you for Christmas that you only wear when she visits. Therefore, more focused and intentional styling is necessary.

Focus first on the color. Whether you go blue, black, gray, or white depends on the rest of your wardrobe and what complements it the most. We’ll address the different colors and how to style a jean jacket in a minute. Once you select a color, you want to start putting together outfits in your mind; I like to go by season. Assuming you don’t wear one in the summer, think of two to three looks for the other three seasons.

Once you have the color and are ready for the outfit, you must look at the shirt, pants, shoes, and accessories. Start with two pairs of pants and three shirts, then start mixing and matching. Don’t get overwhelmed, because this is supposed to be the fun part. Don’t be afraid to stretch yourself. Sometimes, you’ll put together an outfit, and it just won’t work. That’s OK. That is how we learn by trial and error. An excellent tip for the spring, if you want to add a little flair to your look, is to roll the jacket’s cuffs and add some wrist accessories. Remember to have fun. Now for the colors.

How to wear a jean jacket

Shades of blue denim
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Blue is the color most people think of when they think of a denim jacket. That’s primarily thanks to James Dean and Steve McQueen. But it isn’t that simple. There are many shades of blue, from bleached (looks like a sky blue color) to raw (the darker blue color), but most of them follow the same rules. Here are some excellent starting points to jump off from with your own wardrobe

  • Casual: Jeans are a great pairing if you consider the contrast. Remember to ensure they aren’t the same color and the fit is similar. You can do “the Canadian Tuxedo,” which is the top and bottoms the same color, but it’s an expert-level move to do it right. There is no more classic look to pair with the denim jacket than the white T-shirt. James Dean made this timeless look a mainstay, but to avoid looking dated, it’s best to update this look with a V-neck T-shirt. Plain white sneakers are the perfect shoes to finish the look, along with brown leather in the belt and accessories.
  • Dressy: You can dress up this look with fitted chinos, a pair of Chelsea boots, and a button-up dress shirt. If you decide to dress up the denim, sticking to a darker shade of blue when you buy is the easiest way to simplify your life.

How to style a black jean jacket

Zac Efron in black denim
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Black denim is less common than blue, making it a fun addition to any wardrobe. Two things to consider with black denim: It works best in the colder months, and it typically works best with monochromatic (all-black) ensembles. 

  • Casual: A black henley is your best friend under black denim. While it’s a simple shirt, it typically works best as an undergarment and keeps the jacket as the main focus of the look. When paired with black sneakers or Converse shoes, black denim or chinos complement the “blackout” look. Be sure your accessories are also black, as most of the time, you don’t want to pair black looks with brown leather. 
  • Dressy: Swapping out each piece with an upgraded garment takes this look from a casual day in the city to a first date. Swap out the henley for a black turtleneck, the chinos with fitted black dress pants, and the sneakers with leather Chelsea boots or dress shoes.

How to style a white jean jacket

Man in white denim jacket
Image used with permission by copyright holder

White denim is the least common of the colors you’ll see on the street. This means that once you perfect the styling, you’ll be truly unique in your circle. In contrast to black denim in most ways, white denim works best in warmer climates and is upgraded by the presence of colors.

  • Casual: If you like alternative colors in your jeans or chinos (anything outside the standard blue jeans and khaki or black chinos), then this jacket is for you. This jacket also lends itself well to graphic tees, sweatshirts, and hoodies. Simply put, this jacket is a final layer on an outfit that speaks for itself — the most expressive of jackets. 
  • Dressy: Similar to the casual look, this is best for dress pants and sweaters with patterns or colors. Consider this jacket if you have different shades of dress shoes or Chelsea boots, as well. Once you’re ready to have fun and express yourself with the jacket, this is the one to get.

Now that you have a jumping-off point for the denim jacket, you are fully prepared to start shopping for something that can take your wardrobe into the upper echelons of menswear. Channel your inner James Dean, Steve McQueen, or Bruce Springsteen to embrace your rebellious American spirit or individuality. Is it time to start shopping for a motorcycle now? 

What is denim anyway? And why is it blue?

Man wearing denim coat in the woods
Adam Neumann / Unsplash

Now that we’ve shown you how to style a jean jacket, we thought we’d give you a quick history lesson about denim. According to the Levi Strauss Company, denim is defined as a “durable cotton or cotton-blend twill textile.” The name comes from the city where the fabric originated. According to Levi’s, denim was originally used to refer to a serge material produced in Nimes, France. Since fabrics were typically named after the region where they were produced, the material became known as serge de Nimes, which was eventually shortened to de Nim and then eventually to denim.

It is woven with two yarns, with the horizontal, or “weft” yarn passing under two or more vertical, or “warp” yarns. The warp yarn is generally dyed with indigo dye before weaving and the weft yarns are generally left undyed, which is why when you look closely at most jeans, you can see a hint of white running through it.

Why blue?

While denim comes in a variety of colors, blue is the most predominant. That’s because of the nature of the indigo dye. Unlike many dyes, which permeate fabric at high temperatures, indigo only sticks to the outside of the threads. So when denim dyed with indigo gets washed, some of the dye washes away and takes a little bit of the thread it was attached to, making the denim softer each time it gets washed. As denim gets softer, it starts to get that worn-in look that’s the hallmark of your most comfortable jeans.

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Mark McKee
Mark is a full-time freelance writer and men's coach. He spent time as a style consultant and bespoke suit salesman before…
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