Guide to Thrifting Vintage Denim

The structured feel, the lived-in wash, the perfectly faded labels - the feeling of finding the perfect pair of vintage jeans is pretty hard to beat.

While other categories of vintage clothing are easier to come by at estate sales and flea markets, I’ve found the most luck with vintage denim at good ol’ local thrift stores. However, that doesn’t mean that I can just walk right up to the denim aisle and pull out some vintage 501s. Finding jeans with the perfect wash, fit, and age takes dedication to the art of the hunt.

Here are a few tips to make your hunt less of a guessing game and more of a strategic mission:

  • Know your size

After hunting through racks and trying on pair after pair, you may start to gain an understanding of what kind of shape will fit you best. Seasoned thrifters can hold up a pair of jeans and gauge accurately whether or not it will fit their bodies. If this is not yet you, bring along a measuring tape to wear around your neck. Measure your favorite pair of jeans before you leave to go thrifting (make sure to note where the waist falls as this measurement varies depending on the rise). This way, you have a better idea of the measurements you’re looking for while shopping. The key measurements I use to size jeans are: waist, hips, inseam, and rise.

  • Do the research on the spot

Of course, it would be lovely to be a vintage denim expert before you start shopping. But thanks to the tiny computer in your pocket, you can do some research on the spot when you find a pair. If you find jeans by a specific designer and are wondering what year they are from, Vintage Fashion Guild is a great place to start. They provide photos of the designer’s labels through the years so you can match the style and typography to the pair in your hands. You can also include the details of the pair you’re inquiring about in your search and that may pull up more helpful information. For example, vintage Levis with a capital “E” on the red back pocket tab were made before 1971, when the company started using a lower case “e”. Small details like these, plus the power of internet searches, can help you determine the age.

  • Don’t skip the men’s section

This guideline exists for two reasons: 1 - Sometimes women’s jeans get thrown into the men’s section by mistake, 2 - You never know what kind of measurements you will find… some may fit!

  • Always try on

While some thrift stores offer fitting rooms, most do not. If I know I’m going to a shop with no fitting room, I like to wear a skirt or tight fitting pants so that I can find an unoccupied corner in the store and try things on without getting undressed. This may save you some disappointment when you get home because even if the measurements are right, different pairs may have been constructed differently and just don’t fit as well as others.

  • Don’t rule out any brands

It can be easy to adopt the “Levis or nothing” mindset, but if you put blinders on to look for those Levis labels, you could be missing some really great pairs of vintage Calvin Klein, Gap, Ralph Lauren, Versace, etc.

  • Don’t put pressure on yourself to find anything

It’s okay not to find anything. I’ve been on many a denim-less thrift store trip. Try not to settle for pairs you’re not in love with just because you want to come home with something. Sometimes it takes a few trips to score!

And that’s it! Once you get the hang of it and know what size/fit best suits you, you can flip through those racks like a pro. Thanks so much for reading and happy thrifting!



Nikki Acuna