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7 Secrets To Finding True Vintage Denim

Just like the cowboy, denim is integral to the Western identity. Much of this has to do with the birth of Levi Strauss, a brand synonymous with the blue jean. Levi’s started in 1853 making pants for miners and cowboys who had flocked to California during the Gold Rush. Levi’s had a patented design for their denim pants, then called “waist overalls,” but that patent ended in 1890 ushering in a whole new market of manufacturers that could replicate the style. OshKosh B’Gosh was established in 1895 followed by Blue Bell (later known as Wrangler) and then Lee. Across the board, jeans were being made for everyday laborers and almost exclusively designed for men. However, during the golden age of Hollywood, jeans appeared on big screen characters like John Wayne which helped explode the garment into popularity and also reinforce the idea of a very American uniform. Vogue magazine coined Western as “chic” in the 1930s, and the transition of workwear to fashion continued to unfold from there. Throughout the 20th century, jeans have expanded well beyond the cowboy country they were born into and have become one of the most popular pieces of clothing in the world.


The global market of fashion has jean brands and manufacturers aplenty. However, the demand for vintage clothing, especially vintage denim, continues to grow in popularity. The clothing industry classifies vintage as a garment from at least two decades back and the ol’ saying “they just don’t make ‘em like they used to” hits the bullseye when it comes to jeans. The leather labels, the heavy weight material, the high waisted cut, the pockets and zippers and buttons that have already made it through wear and tear of their first owner all speak to the quality and durability of the pants of yore. While American fashion has taken a turn producing most everyday clothing outside of the USA, there is still an abundance of Levi’s and other household denim brands circulating amongst us at our local outlets, thrift stores and consignment stores. However, to find the real gems, you’ll need to know what you’re looking for and where to look.

When sifting through racks and racks of pre-owned jeans your goal should be to walk away with a pair that not only suits your vibe but really is a quality piece. Below are 7 ways to know if those pants you’re holding are truly vintage and, in some cases, worth the price tag.

1.) Brands will guide the way

The quickest way to narrow your search when presented with stacks and racks of denim is to seek out labels from brands that have been in the denim game for a while. Levi’s, Lee, and Wrangler are three of the most prolific denim producers that have been putting out styles for decades. The reason these brands have been successful is the top quality production of heavy duty, long lasting jeans. Because of the durability of the fabric, these companies have naturally generated great vintage pieces that have lasted the test of time. Search for these name brands but also keep an eye out for classic designer labels that have become household names. Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, and Eddie Bauer are all brands that could lead to a great vintage score.


2.) Label (re)design

In the past, it was much more common for companies to put a large leather label on the back side of their pants. This comes in handy when trying to be more efficient in your search. Another giveaway is to look out for a branding redesign. As with most companies competing to keep up with the times, brands will rework their logo to align with what’s current. It definitely helps to have knowledge of current logos. However, the tags and labels that include bold colors, unconventional font choices, and generally more involved designs have a good chance of being pre Y2K at the least.


3.)  Disregard size and try everything on

The classic fit of a vintage jean will most likely wear like a Levi’s 501: tapered leg, high-rise fit with a nipped-in waist. As with most vintage clothes, sizing won’t line up with modern day fits. When looking for vintage denim, a good rule of thumb is to look for two sizes up than what you’d normally wear in contemporary brands. However, I wouldn’t rule out sizes outside of that range. It’s best to shop for your perfect pair in person and try on as many sizes possible to get it right. Again, the fit will likely not be anything you’ve worn before especially in the legs. So, if possible, always try on before you buy.


4.)  Take time for the details

This is important to not only getting the look of vintage, but making sure you’re getting the real deal. Here’s where you can figure the age of a pair of pants by the specs. 


There are multiple clues as to a pair of Levis’ age. One of the quickest is to check the care tag. The company didn’t even start adding care tags until the ‘70s so if you can’t find one, you may have scored a real classic pair. If you do locate a care tag, however, the production location will clue you in. Levi’s made before 2002 will be labeled “made in the USA.” The last US factory for Levi’s closed after that year. 

One more trick: look for that little red tab on the back pocket. Levi’s trademarked their red tab that usually carries their logo. Occasionally you will run across a pair of Levi’s without the brand name stitched into the tab. This is intentional and not a bad copy or knockoff. Levi’s have to have a certain percentage of their stock with a blank red tab in order to retain the trademark for it.  However, for tabs with the brand name… If the “e” is capitalized you’ve got yourself a gem. This style is called “The Big E” and was put on jeans produced before 1971. The Big E styles are highly sought after. Some Levi’s produced in the ‘60s were tagged with an orange tab as a way to differentiate between classic Levi’s design and trendier styles like bell bottoms. Still, the orange label isn’t as tell tale as other Levi clues because it is still in rotation today.


It’s the classic leather label for me. A good pair of vintage Wranglers will not only have the easy to spot large leather label on the back right side of the pants but also the classic W stitched design on the back pockets. You should also look for a Blue Bell logo on either the leather label or inside the jeans near the fly. The blue bell design is an ode to their original company name. A little harder to spot, but well worth the find! 


The 1980s were the peak years for Lee for female jean design. They created a campaign with the tagline “The brand that fits” and created new styles to better fit a woman’s figure. Finding Lees from this era will have the tell tale leather label and a small tag on the top of a back pocket with the brand’s name on it. The most common pairs of Lee’s I see are the “Riders by the makers of Lee.” This offshoot of the brand started in 1991 designed to be a more budget-friendly option for the mass market, but they may not have the vintage fit, or quality, you’re looking for.


5.)  Check the distress

You should know, intentionally distressed and ripped jeans weren’t a “thing” until the ‘80s. There’s an obvious line between intentional and unintentional distressing. Because we’re looking for vintage, there will often be flaws, tears, or natural distress on the pants. For the most part, this adds character and charm. If you’re looking for resale value, I would suggest passing on items with obvious distress; they won’t sell at as high of a value as you may like to get. If you’re shopping for yourself, keep an open mind and don’t be so quick to pass on flawed pieces. I’m personally keen on pants that have the wallet outline faded onto a back pocket. Of course, distress isn’t inherent to vintage and there are plenty of great jeans out there that hardly look worn. Keep both on your radar!

6.)  Two words: Men’s Section

Sorry to give away the secret, guys. More often than not, my favorite jeans have been found in the men’s section. Women’s pants departments in thrift stores are often the dumping ground for more modern day labels and brands. There is a wonderfully androgynous aspect to vintage denim that leads most vintage styles to being shuffled in with men’s clothing. This circles back to fit as well. Disregard size sections and look through it all. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised with what you find.

7.) Find your treasure chest

This is the secret that, once you find it, you may want to keep to yourself. You know what to look for, but where to look for it? The most luck I’ve had searching for vintage denim has been at second hand thrift stores. Goodwill and Savers can hold some scores, but the small locally owned community thrift stores are often less picked over and full of treasures. There are plenty of quality vintage pieces in the least suspecting shops if you have the patience and are willing to look. Boutique vintage shops might have what you’re looking for without having to dig but, the price difference will be night and day. Plus, isn’t there a little more finders pride when you strike gold in a place with bargain pricing? eBay or Depop are good for cutting out the search time (and the risk of finding nothing) but can also be a little on the pricey side and you don’t get the benefit of trying on. However, if you’ve become well versed enough in the sizing and brands that feel good to you, purchasing second hand online is often a guaranteed score.


Happy hunting!