An 1864 Webster’s Dictionary referred to denim – a fabric that began its journey towards ubiquity when jeans were invented to weather the toils of the Gold Rush and the Wild West – as “a coarse cotton drilling used for overalls, etc”. In the mid-1980s, Yves Saint Laurent described denim jeans as having “expression, modesty, sex appeal, simplicity – all I hope for in my clothes”.
Denim’s transition from workwear to desirable casualwear proved not to be the final twist in the fabric’s rich narrative. Despite decades of “No jeans” being a dress code imperative of upmarket clubs and restaurants, in recent years this hardy textile has been breaking a sartorial glass ceiling and becoming acceptable for dressier occasions. “Denim is no longer regarded as a casual fabric,” says Mark Frost, design director of Gieves & Hawkes, whose latest jeans (£195) have a gently tapered but forgiving silhouette that makes them look more like trousers.
Indeed, smart jeans such as these have helped kick-start the more formal denim trend, with a host of designers proving that jeans no longer mean dress-down. Cerruti’s slick wash-selvedge pair (£250) are an excellent choice for those wishing to opt for black, as are Dolce & Gabbana’s stretch-denim offerings (£375); French label Berluti has smartened up the slim silhouette of its latest jeans (£380) with pressed front creases, as has Emporio Armani with its pleated, tapered denim trousers (£175). Turnbull & Asser’s five-pocket Hain pair (£125) are a more vibrant option, while perhaps the most striking new addition is British tie connoisseur Drake’s first foray into denim (£195). Featuring a straight leg with a gentle taper, these jeans have a higher rise which, Drake’s suggests, makes for better proportions when paired with a tailored jacket. When a brand renowned for its old-school, English artisanal heritage incorporates a new fabric into its arsenal, it’s surely a sign that the cloth in question is going up in the world.
Trousers are just the start of denim’s acceptance into more formal dress codes. “I’ve recently noticed some of our customers wearing denim and chambray shirts with their structured tailoring,” says Christopher Modoo, senior creative director of Savile Row tailor Chester Barrie. “It’s a good look. If you’re pairing one with a full suit, I’d suggest wearing a textured tie, such as shantung, or one that’s knitted. The denim shirt collar should be quite widely spread, rather than a button-down. If worn with a blazer, I’d suggest grey flannel trousers, not jeans.”
London bespoke shirtmaker Emma Willis has also seen a growing appetite for smart denim shirts. “We use several shades of deep indigo blue and design them with our classic and cutaway collars, depending on the shape of a man’s face and build,” she says. “I’d recommend a square single cuff with two smoked mother-of-pearl buttons to match the front buttons. A fly front would look elegant too.” Such a creation from Willis’s Jermyn Street emporium would come to £290.
“I love the versatility of mixing denim with tailoring,” says Jason Basmajian, chief creative officer of Cerruti, which has a two-tone denim shirt (£150) in its current collection. “A denim shirt can look great with a dark suit.” Demonstrating just how far into formalwear denim shirts have ventured, Turnbull & Asser even suggests wearing its denim/cashmere dress shirt (£225) with a classic T&A collar with a dinner suit.
And while the words “denim jacket” may conjure a weekend look, this, too, is changing. A few years back, Italian entrepreneur Lapo Elkann would often sport a bespoke six-button, double-breasted blazer in washed-out, slightly distressed denim, and the major menswear brands have caught on. Ermenegildo Zegna’s new formal jacket (£1,390) comes in what the Italian label describes as a “wool/denim” textile which, it claims, boasts all the durability of traditional denim along with the soft richness of the company’s in-house wool trofeo (its research team has been working for several years on conquering wool’s resistance to the denim dyeing process).
Zegna’s most significant contribution to denim’s increasing clout in formal surrounds, though, is the fact that this jacket can be part of a two-piece suit (the trousers are £475). The ensemble’s not quite as polished a look as the indigo three-piece suit with double-breasted waistcoat that Ralph Lauren introduced in 2014 as a part of its Purple Label (which was modelled not only with a button-down shirt, tie and pocket square but also a pocket watch), though it would pass muster at a wedding or work dinner.
In a similar vein is Paul Smith’s cotton/denim blazer (£700) with contrast stitching, which pairs well with either light-coloured chinos or white denim Saint Laurent jeans (£420) for a nautical look, or checked suit trousers – which can be as bold as you like. If denim tailoring feels too paradoxical, consider jackets in the “thick shirt” style by Private White VC (£695) or Hardy Amies (£175).
Sealing denim’s credentials for what might be termed “high casual”, Zegna has even taken the fabric to its footwear range: Ermenegildo Zegna Couture’s triple-stitch trainers (£415) in trofeo wool/denim and Z Zegna Neoprene chukka boots (£295) can be paired with suits on less stuffy occasions. Ermenegildo Zegna also does a stylish indigo backpack (£1,175) in the same material, as does Ralph Lauren Purple Label (£700). J FitzPatrick takes denim footwear up a gear with its Wedgwood boot with denim shaft upper (£370), and Maison Corthay goes one step further with dark brown calfskin Wilfrid shoes (£1,490) with a denim panel.
Perhaps the strongest indicator of all, though, that denim now has enough cachet to be worn alongside the finest wools and West Indian Sea Island cottons is its use for high-end ties. Hepville, a one-man custom clothing maker near Bremen, Germany, does a fantastic tie (£60) in selvedge denim sourced from Japan, and the major players are getting in on the act, too, as evidenced by two slim, simple offerings: Louis Vuitton’s washed-denim-print Constellation (£140) and one in denim (£100) from Hermès.
It’s clear this robust fabric’s ascendance from the practical workwear realm to smart society is complete. One can only speculate as to what Soviet-era Kremlin Politburo officials, who banned jeans for their capitalist decadence, would make of the material today.