The fashion editor’s guide to finding your perfect pair of jeans

<span><strong>Lucy wears:</strong> Jeans, £105, <a href="" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Good American;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link ">Good American</a>. Bodysuit, £95, <a href="" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Essentiel Antwerp;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link ">Essentiel Antwerp</a>. Vinyl wedge sandals, £45.99, <a href="" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Zara;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link ">Zara</a>. <em>All photographs by David Newby for the Guardian</em></span><span>Photograph: David Newby/The Guardian</span>

Let’s start with the question everyone’s asking right now. Are skinny jeans dead? This is the pressing denim matter of the moment, so I’m going to dive right in and answer that first. Are you sitting comfortably?

Yes. That’s it, the whole answer. Yes, skinny jeans are unequivocally over. OK, thanks. Bye now.

I’m teasing. There is nothing wrong with skinnies. If you want to wear them, you are entirely free to do so. Hey, go ahead and wear a bowler hat, if you fancy it. Or a gown with a bustle. Why not a powdered wig? You do you! Fashion isn’t compulsory. But are skinny jeans still in fashion? No, they are not. I don’t really see their demise as a tragedy, or even as a cautionary tale of fashion flightiness. They had two decades in the sun after their Y2K beginnings, which is a good innings. And a pair of vaguely on-the-nose jeans is a simple way to flag your fashion credentials.

You did ask.

What is fascinating about the anxiety around the demise of skinny jeans is how much it seems to matter to us. What it flags is that having a pair of jeans that we feel confident in seems like a big deal. We are emotionally invested in our favourite jeans, which is why we panic when fashion changes the rules. The moment you find a great pair of jeans is like the moment you find a signature lipstick: you feel like you are winning at life, because the right pair of jeans, like the perfect lipstick, is a brilliant thing to have in your toolkit.

Just like with lipsticks, there are classic jeans that work for lots of us, but there is no one style that suits everyone. My perfect jeans aren’t necessarily your perfect jeans. But the strategies for finding the right jeans? Those, my friends, are one-size-fits-all. And the questions – and answers – you need are all here.

How to pick a style

When skinny jeans ruled the world, life was blissfully simple, because we didn’t have to think about what style of jeans to wear. On the other hand, if you didn’t find skinny jeans comfortable or you felt they didn’t suit you, you were kind of stuck. Now the tables have turned. As well as the skinny we have a baffling‑sounding variety of looser jeans shapes, from horseshoe to carrot, which can be confusing. But the good news is, you have leeway to find the silhouette that works for you.

How much fashion energy do you want your denim to bring? This is not a trick question. The bleeding edge of fashion isn’t necessarily the best spot to pick. If you want “fashionable” to be the first word people think of when you walk into a room, you need some horseshoe jeans, asap.

Horseshoe jeans, also known as barrel legs, are the most fashion-forward silhouette right now. This is the shape showcased in every shop window you’ll walk past this weekend, because the point of the shop window of a fashion brand is to be as fashionable as possible.

But do you? I’m not being funny, but I’m a fashion editor and even I don’t want “fashionable’” to be the word people think of when I walk into a room. Stylish would be brilliant. Interesting? Lovely. But also, if I’m honest, I’d much rather have you see “normal person”, not “fashionista”. In other words, I don’t think more is necessarily better when it comes to fashion energy. The most fashionable jeans are not necessarily the most stylish. And any jeans that “release from” the leg (fashion speak for not clinging to it) will read as modern right now, so don’t stress if you feel silly in exaggerated shapes.

To narrow your search, you need to know your terms. The “rise” is the measurement from the crotch seam to the top button, so high-rise (or high-waisted) jeans have a waistband that goes to your belly button; low-rise jeans will only just cover your knickers; medium-rise sit somewhere in between. Wide-leg is exactly that. Flares get wider from the knee down, while bootcut are slim to below the knee and then kick out. A kick-flare is a slightly cropped bootcut that ends at the ankle. “Carrot” jeans are generous at the hip and thigh, tapering to a narrow ankle. Horseshoe shapes are similar to carrot, but don’t narrow as much at the ankle.

How to find your size

Jeans are sized by waist circumference, so a size 28 jeans should fit if the smallest part of your waist is 28 inches, which is roughly a UK size 10. But this doesn’t take into account your waist-to-hip ratio. Also, depending on your body shape, you may find that a smaller size works when you wear low-rise jeans but is a struggle to do up in a high-rise.

Whether you are shopping online or on the high street, grab a tape measure and note your numbers. If you have a pair of jeans that you like the fit of but not the leg shape, measure the waist and hip – this is more reliable as jeans don’t breathe in when you get a tape measure out. If you don’t have jeans that work, measure on your body.

As well as the waist measurement, you need the rise: for this, if measuring on yourself, it’s the length from crotch to two-fingers’ width below your belly button, which for most of us is the ideal waistband point. Measure the inside leg, too – for maximum versatility, I aim for a length that is very slightly off the floor when I’m in flats, so that it looks good with heels, too.

Most online retailers are getting much better about providing comprehensive measurements, as they try to wean us off our returns habit, so it’s worth digging about in the “more details” sections to find as much info as you can. If I’m shopping in store, I carry a tape measure with me, along with the measurements I’m looking for – that way I can measure jeans on the shop floor and not bother with the changing room unless I feel confident it’s worth the time. Another option is to buy your jeans from a brand that uses traditional womenswear sizing, such as M&S. I’m a fan of its High Waisted Smart Wide Leg Jeans (£39.50): these have a permanent front crease, which is an effective way of making wide-leg jeans look more tailored and streamlined, and come in indigo, black and off-white.

Stiff or not?

I am always nagging you lot against buying the smallest size you can squeeze into, because most fabrics don’t look good skintight. In tailoring or a slip dress, the size that looks best is very often a size bigger than the one you want to “fit into”. Jeans are an exception to that rule.

If you are shopping online and can’t feel the fabric, look for 12-13oz denim: this will hold its shape without being too stiff. (The measurement refers to how much a square yard of fabric weighs.) In terms of hand-feel, that’s the weight of classic jeans, like Levi’s 501s – nothing like a jegging but not as tough as those crunchy Japanese indigo denims. That weight will have just enough give that if you button yourself in to a pair that feels a little snug, it will soften up where necessary by an inch – but, crucially, no more – around the waist and hips. Denim of that weight has enough structure to hold a silhouette and tends to be the best option for a straight-up-and-down body, as it will give classic, authentic-feel jeans that hold their shape. But if you have a small waist and bigger hips, traditional denim can leave you with an awkward gape at the back of the waist. Hourglass body shapes often benefit from a little stretch. Jeans brand Good American (now available at John Lewis) is a good bet for a classic denim feel but enough stretch to happily flex with your curves.

How to shop for vintage jeans

I have one tip for you here and it is not remotely original but I don’t care because it’s the truth. Levi’s 501s are stone-cold classics for a reason. Several reasons, actually. Firstly, they make your bottom look good. Secondly, the classic leg shape works with a trainer, a court shoe, a flat holiday sandal … Anything you throw at it, it will handle. The shape of the 501 has altered subtly over the decades, so if there are a couple of pairs in your size, try them both on. Don’t worry about leg length too much. If it’s a gorgeously loveworn pair of jeans already, it often works to just cut them to length with scissors and rough up the raw edge with a metal nail file, no tailor required.

How to shop sustainably for jeans

When it comes to denim, sustainability is a complex picture, but everyone agrees on the most important rule: don’t buy more than you need, and consider preloved or upcycled options. In London, ELV Denim designs and makes new jeans in the most-wanted silhouettes out of old ones destined for landfill, making a feature of the upcycle by splicing two colours together.

If you buy new jeans, look for regeneratively farmed cotton: Citizens of Humanity’s relaxed fit, cropped-leg Dahlia jeans (£310) are a beauty. For a cheaper alternative, Reformation’s Alyssa High Rise Wide Leg jeans (£168) are made from a blend of cotton and Tencel, which is made from rapidly renewable eucalyptus trees and uses 20% less water than cotton. Danish brand MUD jeans is pioneering circular jeans, made from 40% post-consumer (destined for landfill) denim. (I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the option to lease instead of buy a pair of MUD – for about £8 a month, and after a year you return or swap them for a new style – becomes available in the UK soon.)

If you do buy cheaper high-street denim, be wary of light washes, which often use large amounts of water; dark is a safer bet.

How often should you wash them?

Not as often as you think. This isn’t a T-shirt or a pair of socks, where you need worry about odour issues. Hardline denim lovers suggest wearing a pair of jeans 10 times before washing them, to allow your jeans to take on the imprint of you – not just your body, but the shadow of what you keep in your pockets, and the “whiskering” (faded lines that look like shadows of creases) that are unique to the way you sit. I’m not quite ready to go the full 10 wears as yet, but I aim for at least three. With a new pair, do try to wait out as long as you can before the first wash, to give the jeans a chance to shape themselves around you. Wash inside out to preserve the colour, and hang out to dry. Not only is infrequent washing and no tumble drying better for the environment, it’s also better for your jeans. You know that lint that gets left behind in your dryer? That is literally bits of your clothes, so every time you toss them in the dryer, you shorten their life.

Photographer: David Newby. Styling editor: Melanie Wilkinson. Styling assistant: Sam Deaman. Makeup: Sophie Higginson using By Sarah London and Westman Atelier. Hair: Rom Sartipi using Oribe. Models: Lucy Knell and Bliss at Milk; Frankie at Mrs Robinson