Calling this post “Essential Western Jeans” might be a bit of a misnomer, because these are more basic western jeans. There’s a HUGE number of jeans in the western wear market and so few are a good value. There’s an emphasis on chasing really ephemeral trends that have generally already passed in the mainstream. (I expect skinny jeans for cowboys to be along in a few years)
What I’ve done here is pick two pairs of jeans I think are pretty basic, timeless standards that won’t ever go out of style and are easy to find. I reference giving jeans a hot water soak first to break them in. There are a million great tutorials about how to do this online, and I’ll add one of my own in the coming weeks.
I’m going to start with the Levi’s 501s, because they’re basically the gold standard for jeans. The 1947 Levi’s 501 is the most copied design in the world and probably every pair of jeans you’ve ever worn is either based on it (if not ripped completely off from it) or designed in reaction to it. Levi’s are from the west, San Francisco, to be exact, and were originally marketed to westerners, specifically miners, engineers, farmers, and anyone else needing durable, affordable pants. Initially cowboys were wary of jeans, referring to them as “miner pants” and sticking to their traditional gray woolen pants. Eventually though, jeans were adopted by the ranch set, becoming synonymous with both cowboys and the West. In many languages, the word for jeans translates to “cowboy pants.” Levi’s, and 501’s in particular, became emblematic of America and freedom in the 20th century, becoming popular in places like Japan and Russia, because of all the connotations associated with a simple pair of jeans.
I like shrink-to-fits because they’re raw and as you wear them they conform to your body until they become smooth as butter. Breaking them in right creates a pair of jeans that are uniquely yours and as comfortable as something custom made.
Shrink to fits, brand new, pre break-in.
As you can see above, 501’s have a medium rise and five pockets. The back pockets aren’t riveted, but attached with bar-tacks, a fancy term for “sewed the crap out of.” I find that the downside to these jeans is the back pockets, they’re so low you end up sitting on whatever you’ve got back there all day and making your butt sore. (On the plus side, this might finally drive you off snuff, sitting on your Copenhagen can all day.)
They can fit a little boxy, and the legs are kinda wide. There’s a trick of perception that the legs often feel wider and baggier than they actually look. Part of buying shrink-to-fits is buying a pair that fits comfortably in the store, and maybe a little long in the legs, then soaking them in hot water to shrink them to size. After a hot water soak and a few washes though, they’ll shrink to a slim, comfortable fit.
501’s a year and half of near constant wear later. Note the raised rivets on the pockets and the fifth pocket, originally intended for pocket watches.
Besides the pockets being low and the wide legs, one potential draw back to Levi’s is the front belt loops, which are very close together, making it difficult to wear a large belt buckle.
I happen to like button flys for a few reasons, one of which is that 20% of male genital injuries are caused my zippers. I don’t find them any more or less convenient than a zipper and as they shrink over time the denim starts to pull away from the buttons, creating a cool fade pattern. Plus, it’s just a cool, classic design. John Wayne, Gary Cooper, and Bruce Springsteen (amongst others) wore 501’s.
The Wrangler 13MWZ (13 MWZ means it’s the 13th design of a Men’s Western Jean w/Zipper, the previous 12 designs didn’t work as well, making the number 13 a lucky one for Wrangler) is THE western jean, even if it’s come to be perceived as grandpa pants in the last decade or so.
13MWZ’s after one hot water soak.
In a way, the 13MWZ was designed as a reaction to the Levi’s 501. An outfit called Ben’s Rodeo Tailor’s, in Philadelphia made custom cowboy clothes for rodeo guys and other famous western types. They partnered with Blue Bell, a North Carolina jeans manufacturer to make jeans specifically for cowboys, using input from cowboys. The rivets are smooth so they won’t scratch up a saddle, the back pockets are high so you’re not sitting on your wallet while riding, and the rise is high for comfort while horseback. There is no fifth pocket and the front belt loops are spread far apart to accommodate large trophy buckles, basically all the things Levi’s weren’t doing with 501’s. The iconic jeans, 501’s and 13MWZ’s both appeared in 1947, making that year an exceptionally good year for denim.
I’ve only recently started wearing Wrangler’s again because they’ve recut the 13MWZ to a more generous fit in the legs. I could’t roll the old Wrangler’s up past my calfs to get my boots on. The new cut fits the way I remember the jeans fitting when I was kid, before Boy Scout hikes gave me legs like tree trunks. The high rise and pockets take a little getting used to, but one benefit of them is they make everyone look taller. To be honest, most pants these days have a rise that is too low for most bodies, considering that the natural human waist is about a fist’s width below the belly button, making it hard to wear jeans with anything but t-shirts and not look strangely out of proportion.
13MWZ’s also come raw, and I’ve found a hot water soak makes all the difference in getting a comfortable fit.
Really old 13MWZs.
These aren’t a fit for everyone, but they’re easy to find, surprisingly flattering to a lot of people, and a bona fide western classic. I only wish they had a button fly version though.
The market for jeans is huge and there are a million designs out there. I’ve tried lots of western jeans over the years and I keep coming back to these two because of price, availability, and the timeless design. Lee Jeans have been around forever, but I’ve never worn a pair. Cinch, Petrol, and Ariat all make more fashion-forward jeans, most of which come pre-distressed in really ill-fitting cuts (at higher price points than they really merit too.) Levi’s also has 505’s which are pretty much the same cut at the 501 (but with a small taper that might make it hard to get over boots) but with a zipper instead of the button fly. 527’s, which feature a low rise seem more popular every year and if you’re a younger guy or really fit, they’re not a bad option. Wrangler has many variations too, and other brands like 20x and Wrangler Retro, which have most of the same problems that Cinch, et al. have, bad pre-distressed denim and poorly fitting trendy cuts.
The bottom line is, if it looks good on you and it’s comfortable, wear it. But don’t wear something because it’s cool this year. That’s a disservice to you and your wallet.