How To Pull Off Denim On Denim

There's more than one way to get it right.

BY Marlon James | May 22, 2017 | Fashion

Photograph by Ben Goldstein

Denim on denim is swagger in excelsis. A don’t-try-this-at-home mistake that I always make at home, where everything looks cooler in a bedroom mirror. The first time I tried it, on a Saturday in Kingston in 1985, I looked like the one jackass in Jamaica who wasn’t aware that Halloween was an American holiday. Of course, I was doomed to fail. At 14, I was cool but had no groove, and denim on denim was over before it even began.

The problem was that denim on denim always walked that line between cocky and tacky. Especially ’70s denim on ’70s rock stars: open shirt, hairy chest aroar, that trouser-snake hip shake. The look needed a serious counterbalance of cool to pull off. Enter Marvin Gaye. I didn’t even notice him until my beat-making friends started sampling “Trouble Man”. But the record that caused trouble in my wardrobe was Let’s Get It On. Just like that, there he was, dressed in denim on denim, a bold-as-hell fashion move on his boldest-ever album. It made perfect sense—if you were going to tell America that she sure loves to ball, you had better come with serious stylistic attitude. He looked like he wasn’t even trying, which was the hardest part to pull off.

Usually the rule with denim on denim is don’t, and if you do, at least mismatch. But that was a rule for mere mortals, and there’s no mere in Gaye. Not only did his shirt and pants match exactly, but he punctuated the look with a red ski cap on top, like a period. Shirt open, the colour of his tank top wasn’t far from the colour of his skin, and it occurred to me that the secret to denim on denim was the non-denim details. That every bold statement needs a comma and a period—a pause (muted tank) and an end point (attention-grabbing head gear).

Fast-track to 2005, and I’m heading to a Brooklyn gallery. I’m walking down Clinton Avenue, combat boots hitting the pavement, denim boot-cut jeans and denim cowboy shirt, both the same shade of blue. The comma: a grey T-shirt. The period: a red-green-and-gold Rasta cap to pack in bushy dreadlocks. Coming through the headphones: Marvin Gaye.

Go indigo dark or sun-bleached light, or else experiment in the middle ground. Match your shirt with your jeans exactly—per Mr Gaye—or toy with the contrast. And whatever you do, remember that the accessories matter.

Shirt, SGD398* by Levi’s Vintage Clothing.

*Denotes translated price.

This article was first published in the print edition of Esquire Singapore, May 2017.