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A fashion editor's guide to denim: the styling secrets we all want to know

Anna Murphy,
fashion director at The Times

Jeans were invented to make life easier, so why have they caused us so much stress over the years? Anna Murphy investigates – and provides all the answers to help you find the perfect pieces

Woman in denim wrap jacket

Jeans were invented to make life easier, initially for cowboys, and then for the rest of us. So why have they caused us so much stress over the years? Because to date, our happy-ever-after jeans have been so darn hard to track down. Which may in itself be due to the fact that this was an item of clothing originally designed for skinny-bottomed rodeo-ers. Certainly, it’s taken a while to nail denim for the female form. Denim that flatters curves, that burnishes femininity, rather than bashing it on the head like a fence post somewhere in the Midwest.

What happy news, then, that it’s all change for summer. The new denim is ladylike and alluring, but it hasn’t lost the qualities we love it for: that youthful, laid-back edge. ’Tis the season to be merry around denim – to put to one side the trauma of our jeans-purchasing past and enjoy the pleasures of our jeans-purchasing present. And why limit yourself to the trouser variety? How about an office-ready denim jacket? Yes, really. How about a shirt so smart that it might do service should you get invited for supper at the local stately? Not so much yee-haw as la-di-da. Denim has finally come of age. You read it here first.

Woman in smart clothes leaning against a wall

The dress-up jumpsuit

Once strictly for mechanics, the denim all-in-one has left its humble roots behind it, especially when reinvented in an upscale off-black wash. New-gen layering will deliver maximum bang for your buck. Overlay a blazer to underline how far it has come from its spanner-filled past. Underlay a Breton to make like the myriad striped-top obsessives on the front row. (Minimalist sneakers will score on the zeitgeist-channelling front as well.) A bright tote will – more importantly – win you smiles all round. Alternatively, scrub all of the above, and wear this sleeveless number on its own after dark for effortless cool.

Woman leaning against the wall in blue jeans

The elevated jean

Embellishment is a great way to add star quality to this once-humdrum article of clothing – quite literally, in the case of these galaxy-strewn beauties. But, however much you pimp them, jeans remain just as practical and relaxed-looking as ever. Which is precisely why we love them. Talk about having your cake and eating it. To my mind, it’s the subtlety of the add-on detailing that ensures the overall effect is adult-appropriate. (Though – full confession – I’ve a penchant for a soupçon of diamanté.) Keep the rest of the look dialled down for day with a plain cotton top and flats. Turn it up for evening with a statement necklace, a tuxedo, heels or all three. 

Woman in a wrap jacket and pencil skirt

The grown-up jacket

If there’s a smarter throw-over out there for summer, then I haven’t seen it. And, yes, this jacket is denim. Kimono-inspired, it’s a million miles from the bulky triple-pleat blouse that began things. But it’s still a workhorse piece, putting in the hours in the office, and delivering all weekend to boot. Better still, its dark blue hue was everywhere on the catwalks this season. Style with an on-trend pencil skirt and bold necklace in order to play professional power broker, and with whatever you please when off duty.

Woman in denim shirt and trousers

The luxe shirt

It’s all about the fabric when it comes to shirting. Fluidity is your friend; stiffness is John Wayne’s. Pick right and you’ve got a way to look corner-office-bound but with a cool-girl flavour. Just follow through with a tailored lower half – perhaps these capri pants, or a pretty plain or patterned skirt and on-trend mules – plus a necklace to add interest around the collar. The very same ensemble would see you through Saturday brunch, or you could indulge in a spot of on-trend double denim, not least because you should now have those perfect jeans nailed.

Woman's leg

The hot hemline

The fashion crowd has fallen in love with cropped jeans. Why? Because they have fallen in love with their ankles. Why? Because they have worked out that showing them off draws the eye to a flattering part of the figure. Make sure you also put your best ankle forward this summer. (It works just as well if you’re short.) And get yourself double points courtesy of the new retooled white denim, cut slightly looser so as to be chic rather than try-hard. A breezy yellow top and metallic shoes add extra razzle dazzle. Who needs sunshine?