What are Dad Jeans? Understanding This Vintage-Modern Trend

When the fashion world was abuzz over normcore three to four years ago, dad jeans seemed like they wouldn’t last. And, why would they? No one wore them because they appreciated the shape.

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Rather, they existed as an uncomfortable, ironic symbol of the ‘90s – or, more specifically, being middle class, achieving a greater degree of stability, and following the rules of adulthood.

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Jeans by Uniqlo

That sharp dichotomy between adolescence and adulthood blurred through the 2000s and 2010s. The Great Recession stunted many young adults’ career trajectories. Rising debt made it nearly impossible to afford rent, let alone put together a down payment on a mortgage. 

And, both men and women saw no need to switch their style from low-rise jeans and crop tops to dowdy, pleated pants and tucked-in polo shirts. Today, you’ll spot thirtysomething women and men wearing cropped silhouettes and avoiding settling for practical-only style.

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Jeans by ASOS

In turn, dad jeans are a product of a bygone era, both culturally and economically, that we all view with curiosity. On the other hand, as high-waist pants make a return, they’re staying around as a viable fashion item.

Here’s what you should know as you look for a pair.

What are Dad Jeans?

All the way back in 2013, the New York Times declared that dad jeans were returning. “No way,” anyone who was remotely fashionable said at the time. “They’re hideous.”

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Jeans by Bonobos

Normcore hadn’t yet picked up steam. Rather, photos of President Barack Obama depicted him wearing higher-waist jeans and chinos, often with a button-front shirt tucked into the waist. For twentysomethings, it was a throwback to the seeming stability of their youth and symbolic of a middle-class dad figure – knowledgeable and experienced but, frankly, a bit cornball.

By 2016, it wasn’t that odd when dad trends started appearing on the runway.

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Jeans by Urban Outfitters

Called normcore and going hand-in-hand with gorpcore, itself pulling from outdoor and hiking wear, “dad” style involved these high-waist, often stonewashed or faded tapered jeans, plus a striped or solid-color relaxed button-front shirt, chunky sneakers reminiscent of a pair of New Balance cross-trainers, and unstructured dad caps, also faded slightly to suggest wear and practicality.

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Balenciaga went with it on the runway, and other brands followed.

Yet, last year, the chunky sneaker trend officially died out, and “dad caps” have gone back to being ordinary baseball caps, versus the structured snapback. However, the dad jean didn’t disappear with everything else. Instead, it’s a pant that:

  • Is clearly vintage: There is no true modern upgrade, save for athletic fit jeans, which we will get to shortly. Instead, it maintains all aspects of its ‘90s and pre-‘90s construction, including full cotton fabrication and a tapered leg, and looks like a heritage piece that hasn’t ever gone out of style.
  • Has a higher waist: By this, we don’t mean touching the ribcage or requiring suspenders. Rather, instead of how men’s jeans and trousers have fallen right at or slightly above the hips over the past two decades, these meet at the waist and taper slightly to do so. At the same time, they’re not pleated.
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Jeans by Tommy Hilfiger
  • Looks practical: You, in theory, can pick up a pair at any retailer, preferably one geared toward a middle-aged or practical consumer. This pant often falls right to the ankle – and therefore shouldn’t be cuffed – or has a boot cut fit that overlaps just slightly with your footwear. Instead of polished, embellished, slim, skinny, or distressed, it’s the full embodiment of utilitarian style.
  • Is faded: We don’t mean bleached or distressed. Rather, the denim is light enough to appear stonewashed or to seem as if you’re wearing and washing them for the past decade. As such, dad jeans should never feel stiff, like raw denim, or have too saturated of a hue. 
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Jeans by H&M
  • Is all about the details: Classic jeans, for instance, have sturdy, visible stitching and some seam puckering. True dad jeans will have this double stitch with contrasting threads and texture along the seams. If you want to be technical, the waist will also feature seven, rather than five, belt loops. 
  • Has a tapered leg: These aren’t skinny jeans, however. Instead, the pant leg has a bit of room and narrows down to the ankle, where it doesn’t go below. As well, boot cut and wider-leg jeans with a higher waist also fall within the realm of dad jeans. 
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Jeans by AllSaints

Due to this last aspect, there’s some debate about whether anyone should be cuffing dad jeans at all if they already hit high. Yet, especially as men routinely cuff their chinos and cropped pant are still having their moment, we say, “Why not?” 

For how to cuff dad jeans, make sure your pants have a bit more length – but aren’t completely baggy. Then, create a fold roughly the width of two fingers, and roll that up two times. With a cuff, the jeans should be just above your ankle and boots, but not significantly higher. 

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Jeans by Guess

Where to Find Dad Jeans

Picking up a pair of dad jeans isn’t like finding a stiff-collar polyester shirt from the ‘70s, where it’s vintage or nothing. Instead, you have a few options:

Look at Mid-Tier and Discount Retailers

Whether that’s Costco, Target, JCPenney, or Kohl’s, a retailer catering to someone wanting everyday and casual basics – read, not fashion forward – tends to carry modern-day dad jeans, which haven’t changed significantly from how they were designed in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

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Jeans by Lucky

Seek Out Vintage Jeans

All types of secondhand retailers, from thrift stores to consignment and vintage shops, all carry dad jeans in their most authentic form. Unlike modern-day dad jeans, these likely won’t be designed with a hint of spandex, so they feel as flexible as what you’re used to.

Rather, the material, even when washed, will feel a tad bit stiffer. As well, as you shop vintage, realize that because vanity sizing exists across men’s and women’s clothing, you should know your actual measurements, prepare to purchase one or two numbers up from your usual waist, and try on everything.

Look for Athletic Fit Jeans

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Levi’s 541 jeans

Athletic fit jeans, popularized by Levi’s 541 line, were initially created for guys with wider, boxier, or more muscular torsos. Today, the look tends to be a bit more streamlined than the dad jeans of decades past, and the construction remains modern, with a touch of stretch for comfort.

As well, the waist isn’t as high, while the leg doesn’t taper as severely. In turn, for a more updated take, athletic fit jeans seem more practical and like less of a novelty item. 

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