It’s the fashion battle of the generations. After a heated debate on hair parts via TikTok last year, the divide between Gen Z and Millennials inevitably turned to one key fashion item: denim. Gen Z has declared that the skinny jean is out, a silhouette that they say instantly reveals the age of anyone millennial or older, a relic of 2010s fashion.
While it’s not entirely true that the skinny jean is done for (experts and retailers alike agree that the style will remain in rotation as a closet staple for its ease of wear), one can count on the life cycle of a denim trend to continuously rotate. Denim is — like shoes — one of fashion’s great unifiers, a perennial piece of fashion that most people will opt to wear regularly. For this reason, it is also one of the easiest ways to update a wardrobe, should someone feel the need to stay on trend.
While new denim is a great way to update one’s wardrobe, trying on jeans has also long been seen as an excruciating process. Fortunately, online shopping has helped to cut out the torture of the dressing room scenario. And once you do find a new pair of jeans, the real key to a fresh look is to pay attention to how a specific style pairs with shoes. Yes, painted-on, low-rise skinny jeans and a suede ankle bootie may feel outdated. But the denim style is still relevant for specific footwear styles, like an over-the-knee boot or the classic jeans-heels-blazer combo. Most jeans continue to have a higher rise (unless you’re Bella Hadid), which puts more emphasis on how a hemline is styled with footwear. When in doubt, look to the area around the ankle and calf to make sure hemlines and shoe choices live in harmony.
Another reason to pay attention to denim? After a year of quarantine, jeans will be the easiest way to start getting dressed again. After all of the sweatpants, leggings and pajamas of quarantine, most people are dealing with a bit of a pants problem. A pair of jeans can act as a transitional piece to real clothing. Think of them as the first step.
To guide your spring 2021 denim shopping, here are five styles to replace the skinny jean — plus one skinny jean update, if you can’t actually part ways — along with the shoes to wear with them all.
1. The straight fit + loafer
If you need baby steps away from the skinny jean, the classic straight fit is the style to try. Also known as the ’90s jean (and in some cases the “mom” jean), recent iterations continue to have a higher rise, a slim-but-relaxed silhouette (the looseness can vary) and a hemline that cuts right on the ankle — making them easy to pair with everything from stacked boots and heels to sneakers and the now-ubiquitous loafer (try a heavier lug sole for a more directional look). Both the straight-fit jean and the loafer serve as easy transitional pieces, particularly for the back-to-office set, who might be looking for something polished and tailored but not too formal (try them with an oxford shirt for an even smarter style). The look is also very gender neutral and allows wearers’ personal style to shine by way of jewelry, scarves, jackets, etc. Consider this today’s normcore; a great option for all ages and genders.
To buy: Prada brushed leather loafers, $975.
2. The updated skinny + flatform slides or mid-calf heavy boot
If you just can’t part ways with the skinny, there are some updates that can still be done to the perennial style. First, try an option with less stretch and more rigid cotton. While skinnies of the 2010s focused on stretchiness, today’s version is more about a stiffer fabric that gives a tailored feel. If that’s a scary proposition, don’t be afraid to either size up or try a slim-straight option in the same rigid denim material — it will give you more room in the butt, thigh and calf. For both men and women, the best way to make this silhouette look fresh is by pairing it with an oversized shoe, to play up the proportion variation. All genders can opt for a heavy lug-sole boot that hits at the mid calf (such as Bottega Veneta’s uber-popular BV Lug boot) or any of the chunky slides out there, especially if they have that pillowy padding or platform sole.
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3. The baggy + lug sole boot
It’s every TikTok’ers dance uniform and the antithesis of the skinny jean that Gen Z so detests. You’ll find the look in its purest, “coolest” form with a sports bra or baby tee, but for those of us who live outside of social media, in the real, physical world, this look requires a bit more fabric and consideration of proportions to actually wear. Instead of following the traditional rule on proportions (balancing big bottoms with smaller tops), try pairing baggy jeans with an equally oversized shirt jacket, trench coat a là Billie Eilish (before her recent Vogue cover). At the hem, these jeans should pool a bit around the ankle, with a chunky lug sole boot or sneaker propping the hemline up from the ground.
To buy: Dr. Martens Jadon 8-Eye boot, $180.
4. The cropped culotte + platform mule
The wide leg crop is a women’s trend from pre-pandemic times and in some circles it might even be considered a bit passé, a relic of 2018 first made popular by designer Rachel Comey. But when worn with a heeled or platform mule, the style can provide the right combination of ease and quirkiness for spring dressing (it also shows some leg and ankle). It’s a great way to show off a statement platform heel, such as Attico’s Devon slide sandal, with its triangular-shaped chunky block shape.
To buy: Amo Rework DIY jean, $175 (was $275).
5. The boot cut + toe-ring sandal
We already know that the 2000s are calling, but 2021 is destined to be the year that the decade’s most far-reaching denim trend — the boot cut jean — makes its official comeback. Expect to see the silhouette worn especially come fall, with everything from stacked boots to lug soles and all types of heels. For now, try it this spring and summer with a toe-ring sandal (another early aughts throwback). It’s the perfect dressed-up (but not too much) look for, say, that post-vaccination first night out.
P.S. — Guys can also try this trend, toe-ring sandal and all — in a flat or with a heel for the more adventurous.
To buy: Tamara Mellon Plume sandal, $495.
6. The low-rise + sneakers
Last summer a photo of Bella Hadid surfaced that seemed to simultaneously scare and delight. In the shot, the model is walking across an NYC street with a friend, masks on but otherwise not a care in the world. Hadid is in a cream-colored pair of trousers that she has rolled down one or two times on her hips, while her friend has on a pair of low-slung jeans that immediately call to mind Paris Hilton or Keira Knightley circa 2002 or 2003. While we aren’t exactly at the apex (or, rather, the inverse) of the low-rise jean, the Hadid’s pant choices are a good indication that the trend will make its way to mass denim in the next few years. For the brave souls who want to give it a try now, pick a pair that are looser than the painted-on bootcut styles of the 2000s. You can even just size up on a pair of baggy, boyfriend-cut jeans, letting an otherwise mid-waist rise fall down lower on the hips (think of Aaliyah in the late ’90s). This will allow the jeans to puddle a bit at the ankle — where a buzzy sneaker with a retro style (such as the new Nike Kim Jones Edition Air Max 95) will be the best fit for this throwback look.
7. The balloon + kitten heeled thongs
Let’s be clear from the start: The balloon jean is a riskier denim adventure than the previous options on this list. Still, there are ways to make this ’80s-style jean feel relatable while staying simultaneously chic and comfortable. As with most of the other styles shown here, you’ll want to stick with a classic stonewashed hue, and the waist should stay high. An adjacent option is the paperbag-waist jean, with follows a similar cut and cinches the waist even more, like a hug on top and some breathing room on the bottom (plus an instant hands-in-the-pockets vibe). The tapered ankle naturally draws attention to the feet, which is where a heeled thong sandal and a nice pedicure will fit nicely.
To buy: Agolde balloon wide leg jeans, $188.