The Versatile Style of White Jeans

Flat-lay of a pair of white jeans
Image is my own / All rights reserved

White jeans’ ecru-coloured star has been on the rise again in recent years and seems to have reached new heights in the last few months. It might be down to a collective sense of excitement at the prospect of re-emerging from our homes. We’re casting off the grey and subdued trappings of our locked-down lives during the pandemic in favour of clothing that’s brighter, more cheerful, and altogether better suited to an optimistic future. Then again, it could just be that people inevitably favour white garments in warmer months. 

Whatever the cause, white jeans have been all over my various social media feeds of late. They have also been featured recently in articles on Permanent Style, Die! Workwear, and a host of mainstream fashion sites. Ryan Cecil Smith even drew a great strip in their honour over at Put This On.

It only seems fair that white denim should be enjoying its time in the sun again. It has, after all, had a bad rap for a good while. They have been coloured, perhaps, by associations with European playboys with plunging necklines and luminescent smiles to match. Ditto the snobby-seeming summer whites of the Martha’s Vinyard set over in America. Then, at the other side of the class divide, you’ll find snobbery of a different sort associated with the same kind of garment. Here white jeans call to mind painters’ overalls or the torn skinny jeans of British lads out on the pull.

It’s a pity, really, because once you shrug off the negative connotations you discover a garment that’s astonishingly versatile. The fact is, white jeans go with literally everything — name just about any style, colour, or type of garment and I’ll show you a white denim pairing to compliment it. Even white-on-white combinations work if done correctly (by, say, grounding it with darker tones at the right intervals). White jeans — and I mean to include here off-white, cream, and every other shade in the ivory-coloured swatch book — are particularly useful for resolving perennial wardrobe challenges, like how to dress up denim-and-sport-coat combos, or what trousers to pair with tan shoes. 

They’re also a sure-fire way to elevate a given outfit. Barring more formal settings, white jeans offer something to an ensemble that few other items can with quite the same consistency and sense of character. They’re at once chic and striking, elegant as well as idiosyncratic. 

They’re also fit for all seasons. There is an enduring dictum that white should only be worn in the summer months that fall between Memorial Day (usually in late May) and Labour Day (early September), though don’t believe the hype. You can, of course, wear white whenever you like (thank you very much), and a cream-coloured pair of jeans is no different.

And, if you don’t believe me, just heed the expert advice of Simon Crompton, who reckons white jeans work just as well in winter as they do in summer. We tend to think of heat as being the main consideration, but according to Crompton really it’s down to sunlight: ‘White jeans won’t look out of place if the weather is bright enough; it’s just more likely to be bright in the summer than the winter. And even in overcast England, white jeans don’t really look out of place as long as it’s not tipping it down.’ So, provided you watch out for storm clouds and muddy puddles, you can pull on those ecru denims whenever you damn well please.

Close-up of shoes and white jeans in stage
Image credit: Dan Burton on Unsplash

Whatever the clothing-related question, then, the answer is almost always white denim.

Even their origins are rooted in a kind of creative problem-solving, as it turns out. Back in the late 1950s and early ’60s, when blue jeans were being adopted as part of the universal uniform of Western youth, many schools tried to put a stop to the trend. More conservative institutions sniffed at their blue-collar, rebellious associations and, judging them too casual for the classroom, installed prohibitive dress codes that banned students from wearing navy denim to school. 

In true teenage form, however, many students responded by simply bleaching their bluejeans to turn them white. Levi’s (the ultimate purveyor of all things denim) duly took note and so an icon was born. 

From here the garment’s popularity has ebbed and flowed somewhat over the years, but whether front and centre or stuffed somewhere in the forgotten back reaches, white jeans have been in our wardrobes ever since. 

Beginning in the 1960s, style icons like Steve McQueen, Alain Delon, and Jean-Paul Belmondo all wore them. David Hemmings immortalised them on screen in 1966’s Blow-Up. The very whitest of white jeans enjoyed a particular vogue in the mid to late 1980s, thanks to the likes of Freddie Mercury, Wham! and Miami Vice. Around this time they were also adopted by famed graphic designer Peter Saville, the man responsible for the album art for Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures. He remains particularly fond of lily-white Helmut Lang jeans paired with turtlenecks and Chelsey boots.  

Queen with Maradona
Image credit: La Nación / Public domain

In more recent times, white denim has featured prominently at Diddy’s infamous Fourth of July ‘White Parties’ of the late 1990s onwards and can be spotted regularly on stylish celebs like Justin Theroux, Kanye West, and Roger Federer. And, among the Pitti Uomo crowd, there is Alessandro Squarzi, who has at this point elevated wearing white jeans to a fine art.

White jeans have probably been even more central to women’s wardrobes over the years. Think, for instance, of chic chanteuse Françoise Hardy’s killer looks of the mid-60s, of Faye Dunaway’s costuming in The Thomas Crown Affair, or of a beach-bound Jacqueline Onassis in the 1970s. Ditto Jennifer Anniston and Liz Hurley in the 1990s, the very same decade in which white jeans were enshrined in the fashion canon when they graced the cover of Vogue’s 100th issue in 1992.

But, reading all this, you might still harbour some reservations. Perhaps an air of clubland tastelessness still lingers, or a fear of looking as though you’re trying too hard. Maybe you think they’re just for the Beautiful People. And anyway, how on earth are you supposed to keep them clean?

To this I say, simply: Make them your own. Live in them. Wear them until the shine comes off them. Don’t spare a thought for dirt and stains. Then, when the muck starts showing a little too much, simply chuck them in the wash and start over again. They’ll only look better with a few miles on them. After all, your clothes are meant to be worn and the best ones only look better with age. The good news is, white jeans rank among the best of them.

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