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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