For a few years there, trying to find the best jeans for men felt a lot like getting into fancy wines. Point of origin suddenly mattered: was the denim milled in Japan or America? There was confusing terminology to learn—raw, selvedge, ring spun—and a whole whack of weird rules to follow, like never washing your jeans for the first six months. Oh, yeah, and the price tags on these artisanal dungarees were not unlike what you’d find on a well-aged bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape: wallet-busting.
Thankfully, stylish dudes in the know have mostly moved on from that level of denim geekery. Jeans are back to just being jeans: knockabout, utilitarian, the kind of thing you can dress up on a dinner date or pull on for a hungover Sunday without a second thought. More corner store beer than fine wine. As long as they look good, who cares how much they cost? You think Dennis Hopper ever wondered if his jeans were chain-stitched by hand? Of course not!
These days, your chief considerations should be fit—look for pairs that are slim and slightly tapered through the leg—and the wash, which you’ll want to appear as natural as possible. That means no more Jersey Shore bleach-heavy fades, with all that uber-fake “whiskering” across the thighs. Instead, your jeans should look like you broke them in yourself—or be dark enough that you actually can break them in yourself. To give you a head start, we’ve tracked down all the go-anywhere, do-anything, all-around best jeans for men under $100—nearly all of which you can pick up, right now, at your local shopping mall.
The Best OG Jeans
Would a denim roundup even be a denim roundup without a pair of Levi’s in the mix? The first name in jeans have taken their iconic 501s and modernized them juuuust a pinch—think less “painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa,” and more “putting free wifi in the Louvre.” The silhouette here is meant to mimic jeans from the early ‘90s, but it’s pretty much bang-on for 2020: they sit a little higher on your waist, with a timeless straight leg fit that hits the ideal middle ground between old-timey railroad worker and calf-circulation-averse emo frontman. Beyond that, you pretty much know what to expect here: five pockets, hardy denim (with a hint of stretch for comfort), au naturel wash that’ll look damn good with everything you own. Classic American jeans served up at a classic American price.
The Best Slim-But-Not-Too-Slim Jeans
Gap kicked off this whole “quality jeans at an inoffensive price” movement a decade ago, and they keep the party rolling with these medium-wash crowd pleasers. Worried you’ve got too much, ahem, “power” in your legs to squeeze into any of these slim-fit jeans? This pair was engineered to look great on the broadest range of body types: not too snug, not too loose. Not for nothing, there’s also a lived-in character to these jeans that’s hard to come by—they’ll feel like a familiar old fave right from the jump. That’s the denim equivalent of what NBA stat heads would call an “intangible.”
The Best Entry-Level Japanese Denim
Remember all those highfalutin denim details we mentioned up top? These guys actually come fully loaded with a bunch of them. Flip up the cuffs, and you’ll find selvedge—that’s the white-and-red striping running up the seams—and chain stitching, AKA those tiny loops of yellow thread along the circumference. Both are hallmarks of high quality (read: more expensive) jeans. Add to that a wider-legged, more relaxed fit—something we're loving more and more in our denim—and you've got a knockout pair from the kings of Japanese fast fashion.
The Best Gateway Dad Jeans
Looking to test the waters with baggier fits? COS's signature jeans are an excellent place to start, with a roomier, higher-waisted silhouette that still tapers down past the knee. The medium stone wash, meanwhile, is the stuff that '90s dreams are made of, and the 100% recycled cotton denim will do wonders for your consicence.
The Best Stretchy-But-Won't-Stretch-Out Jeans
Jeans this uniformly dark are normally stiffer than moonshine and about as comfortable as a root canal. Thanks to a clever infusion of stretchy elastane, Everlane’s signature Japanese denim gives you that pristine indigo look—which cement these as the most office-appropriate pair of the bunch—without any of the sandpapery breaking-in period. By that same measure, they’re also surprisingly sag-resistant: you can wear them every day of the week, and they’ll never lose their flatteringly lean shape. Pair ‘em with a tweed blazer, knit tie and equally-crisp white sneakers for a fit that’ll take you from a meeting with your boss straight into happy hour.
The Best Beat-to-Hell Jeans
$90.00, Ralph Lauren
Ralph Lauren lives in jeans. He wears ‘em with big western shearlings and Scottish tweeds, with classic dinner jackets and wild naval blazers. And, so, he also makes jeans with the exacting eye and abiding care of someone who really, truly loves his denim. Even the Varick, the budget-friendliest model in the RL lineup, come complete with the convincing worn-in wash and perfect hip-hugging fit you’d normally find on a jealousy-inducing vintage find. Only you have to know you got them fresh off the rack for less than 100 big ones.
The Best In-the-Mall Black Jeans
$50.00, American Eagle
Yes, that American Eagle. The one where you bought all the awful Laguna-Beach-wardrobe-department-reject pukka necklaces and baggy cargo shorts and shapeless striped polos you wore to junior high dances way back when. Like you, the mall brand has done some growing up in recent years, and is now a totally viable spot to cop rock-solid denim at a rock-solid price. For less than a tank of gas, these puppies get you exactly where you need to go: classic straight-leg fit, a touch of stretch for comfort, and a mild, natural wash. In other words, they’re black jeans. Nothing more, nothing less. And if you’re getting dressed on a budget, they’re your very best option.
11 More Jeans Under $100 We Love
$109.00, End Clothing
$129.00, Banana Republic
More Best Stuff
How to Wear Work Pants
Originally Appeared on GQ