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How to Find That Perfect Pair of Jeans

Lois Joy Johnson talks to Diane Gilman, the diva of denim

Model wearing Diane Gilman jeans on the Home Shopping Network


Follow these helpful tips for buying jeans.

Ever gotten dazed and confused on a denim hunt? It happens even to the jeans aficionados among us, but happily we can call on Diane Gilman — who designed custom jeans for everyone from Cher to Janis to Jimi back in the day — to solve the mysteries of fit and flattery. Gilman, the “Jean Queen” of the Home Shopping Network, with her own best-selling DG2 brand, recently agreed to help me cut through some fashion clutter.

Q: I appreciate stretch denim, but the labels are confusing. Some say simply “cotton/spandex,” while others say “cotton,” “polyurethane,” “cotton/nylon/spandex” or even “lyocell/cotton/modal/polyester/spandex.” What wording should we look for?

A: Rather than analyze labels, choose the stretch fabric that feels the best. And don’t be fooled by its percentage of spandex: Not only are there many grades of high-tech spandex today — that’s what gives jeans their flexibility, stretch and “memory” — but too much of the stuff can make a pair of jeans lose its shape and never recover. Extras such as modal and lyocell add softness and strength, but not more stretch. Take special note of stretch at the waistband — some are stitched on separately for extra give in that area.

Q: “Mom jeans” have gotten a bad rap, yet these looser-legged jeans and boyfriend styles appeal to women tired of squeezing into skinnies. Must we choose between fashion and fit?

A: I personally prefer a neater, closer-to-the-body jean style in an uber-stretchy fabric that holds me in, is super comfortable and visually slimming. On occasion, I’ll wear a  pair of distressed (razor-slashed, for example) boyfriend jeans, but I make sure they’re cuffed to show off my ankles — the skinniest part of the legs. Then I pair it with a simple white tee (front-tucked only), a strictly tailored gabardine blazer and a sexy pair of sandals or booties. The controlled “uptown girl” tailoring offsets the casual “downtown girl” of the boyfriend jean.

Q: We seem to be stuck on the idea that dark denim makes us look slimmer and is dressy enough for both work and evenings out. Is that your view?

A: Black and indigo jeans are slimming indeed — but so are deep, saturated colors such as espresso, wine or loden. If you’re after a more formal, dressed-up effect, the new weaves and silicone washes offer a lush, sateen finish. Or, for a city-chic or glam-rocker look, try a dark, coated denim, either leatherlike or in a subtle metallic weave. Finally, ponte-knit jeans feature a dense matte surface and all the detailing of a true jean, but with insane amounts of stretch. 

Q: The trend toward higher-rise jeans has freed us from constantly tugging up waistbands — and spared us the mortification of muffin-top spillage. Which cuts do you find most flattering? 

A: A medium, “not-so-high high-rise” elongates the legs, holds in the tummy like mild shapewear and guards against “the plumber look” — that back-of-the-waistband gap. Look for a front rise that stops below the natural waist and a back rise that ends right above it. The fit should be snug enough through the hips to smooth out your stomach, with short pocket bags (to create less bulk) and high back pockets. As with any pair of jeans, make sure you can crouch, reach and sit — and breathe! — comfortably.

Diane Gilman on the Home Shopping Network


Diane Gilman showcases her jeans line.

Q: Most women are 5-foot-4 or shorter and prefer to wear flats, so tailoring jeans length is a must. Why are clothing designers blind to our proportions?

A: After 35 years in the fashion industry, it mystifies me why nothing is designed for those who have the discretionary income to buy what they want! I prefer wearing flat boots, flats and tennis shoes every day over pumps, and even at 5-foot-6, I need to cut the hems. Leaner jeans are a better choice because they can be worn in any season, with shoes of any height. Flared jeans, by contrast, are high heel- or platform-dependent. Too many jean designers focus on an idealized, tall, 20-year-old body, giving us jeans that are too tight in the waist, knee and thigh. In fact, I’ve tried on certain European brands in which I couldn’t get my foot through the thigh!

Q: Can women age 50-plus rock the vintage ripped look, or does that make it seem like we’re trying too hard?

A: I love vintage wash and slightly ripped or torn jeans. The trick is to find a pair with enough stretch to accommodate a more mature body while avoiding those “total destruction” jeans with exaggerated rips and too much exposure. I always offset vintage ripped jeans with something controlled and sharply tailored on top. Skip high-contrast jeans with bleached-out leg centers in favor of a subtle, soft, hand-rubbed ombré with a slight lightening of color down the center of the thighs. This has a leg-sculpting effect.

Q: Is there a difference between a pair of $300 jeans and affordable ones?

A: The finish on that pricey pair may have gone through 10 different enzyme and chemical hand rubs to achieve its high to low tonalities, or the cotton may be of truly premium quality. On the other hand, the brand may simply have to recoup the cost of its expensive ad campaign — or finance the lifestyle of the designer on the label!

For more beauty and style tips for women age 50-plus, check out The Woman’s Wakeup and AARP’s new Beauty & Style digital magazine, available on tablets.