A Guide to Finding the Right Vintage Denim 501s for You

As told by venerated denim sourcer, Hillary Justin


First thing’s first: Embrace the imperfect. If you’re drawn to vintage denim, you’re likely already okay with this idea but it’s good to keep in mind that trying on vintage denim is going to feel different from new denim. Because these jeans have lived full lives before you, each pair will have a unique wash, wear and level of distress/detail.


Wash is the second thing to consider when narrowing your search. If you’re getting your first pair, I’d recommend something in a faded light blue (easiest to find) or a pair with great highs and lows, meaning you can see that the denim color has faded to a lighter blue in some areas, like the front of the legs and around the pockets. Both of these washes will give the pants a distinctly vintage denim feel that is hard to replicate with modern washes. Once you have a wash in mind, you can quickly bypass the pairs that don’t fit your preference.

Wear is about how the jeans will fit. If you’re combing through a rack of vintage Levi’s 501s, do not trust the size on the label. Because each pair has been worn differently, it’s best to measure the waist and the inseam of the denim. (This is primarily if you can’t try them on.) The fit guide on my website suggests that you measure the region of your body where you’d like the jeans to sit (just below your belly button? Lower on your hips?) and then measure the waistband of the jeans to find a match.  You can also do a quick check for fit by holding the waistband around your neck like you’re putting on a huge denim necklace. If the waistband overlaps at the back of your neck, they’re worth trying. If the ends don’t touch, they’re likely too small.  The inseam determines how long they are.

The level of distress is really what makes a pair of vintage denim feel one of a kind. If you’re not into a lot of tear, look for a pair that’s been lovingly patched or has a few paint marks. My favorite detail is a back pocket that has a wallet or round chewing tobacco fade. Another thing to look for is a selvadge edge finish on the inside of the jeans. This is where the denim has been cut along the edge of the fabric roll. It creates a nice detail on the outside seam when they’re cuffed. This also typically means the jeans are older and better quality so expect to pay more for this rare detail.

The Rose Bowl Flea Market in Pasadena is a good place to search for vintage denim, and you can find them starting at $20. While the offerings are more limited, you can even try searching Etsy.com under “vintage Levis 501s.” What you pay for vintage denim is at your discretion, though, and the range is quite wide because they can be collectable. I have pairs that I love that I’ve gotten for $8 and others for around $250.  Because they’re one of a kind and considered “a forever piece,” the most important rule, ultimately, is to let your heart be your guide.

Hillary Justin is the founder of Bliss and Mischief, a bad ass website that sells reworked vintage wear. Leandra is wearing a Rosie Assoulin top, Roger Vivier clutch and Celine shoes in look #1 and a St. James shirt, Isabel Marant sneakers and J. Crew socks in look #2. 

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  • Angie

    Girl, you rock those 4 ass cheeks! #teamnothong

  • This is actually super helpful, thank you! Rarely are there places that accommodate trying on lots of things — usually it’s a makeshift dressing room i.e. bathrobe, in a less-populated section of the store — so I am excited to try the whole over-the-neck thing.

    Also: Rose Bowl Flea Market <333333. Garments with past lives are just like:


    • I can confirm. Amsterdam has a TON of vintage Levi’s.

      • singledisneyprincess

        where should I be looking in Amsterdam?

        • You should definitely check out the four Episode stores (Nieuwe Spiegelstraat 37H, Berenstraat 1, Waterlooplein 1 & Spuistraat 96) or visit the daily flea market at Waterlooplein (it’s wise to come here early). Another great one are the IJ-Hallen (the biggest and most unique flea market in Europe). Of course there are also a lot of vintage boutique throughout the city. Enjoy!

  • The good old 501. I wish I had kept mine! (And my Levi’s denim jacket!) Looks so cool!
    Katharina // ktinka.com

  • Michelle

    I thought you had granny panties sticking out of your jeans.

    • Marianne Ronsse

      Haha me too!
      and THEN I recognised the top, and that it was tucked into the pants :p

    • So #MyCalvins <3

    • Leandra Medine

      I do. Selfie in transit

    • Haha I definitely did too, and oddly I wasn’t shocked.

      • tahreervip

        i want to speak with you at skype to enhance my englaih level can i know ur skype id my id is tahreer hussain will glad to see soon

  • parkzark

    One day I will find them. One day my vintage 501s will come instead of my prince.

    • Don’t ya think jeans arguably age better than princes do?

      • parkzark

        I would say yes, unless that prince is Jeff Goldblum because that man has aged like a fine wine.

  • Claire

    I have tried to find vintage 501s that fit my womanly hips and thighs, but to no avail. I even tried brand new shrink to fit, but I bought them waaaaaaaay too big. Any advice, or must I stick to boring, stretchy women’s jeans?

    • Madeline

      Tailors are your friend, baby. Also, reworked places like Re/dun are now making ones that accommodate hips. But yah, just buy a pair that’s fine in the hips and take them in to a tailor.

    • katiedid13

      I really like the 501 CTs!

  • lavieenliz

    they all look great on you! my problem is finding a pair that fits! I wear a small size 23 in jeans and it’s impossible


  • Still searching for the perfect pair so this is very helpful.


  • Wish I kept mine now! I had two pairs in 1994 a smaller size and a baggier size that I could roll the waistband down to sit lower and still be baggy…a la BH 90210…I feel old…

  • Jaquelyn Swartz

    how do you not get a camel-toe with the cowboy crotch?!

    • This is a secret worth sharing, pray tell!!

      • Amelia Diamond

        If you have true camel toe, then I think your jeans are actually too tight. Cowboy Crotch is the nature of vintage denim, because the fabric is so thique. (Note: fupa is different from camel toe. Camel toe is the appearance of a front thong up your hooha)

        • Thanks for clarifying Amelia! My 501s when worn have the same folds as in picture 7. I’ve been telling myself not to be so self-conscious but I’m probably just not used to it because all my previous stretchy jeans never looked like that.

  • One can never have enough denim.


  • Teresa

    The diaper on diaper situation is out of control! I want a Rosie diaper to be swaddled in 🙁

    • Ryan Osborn

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