For a time largely spent alone, the pandemic year has prompted a lot of conversation about clothes. When lockdowns began, it seemed like every news publication ran a nearly identical roundup of advice from work-from-home veterans, who often suggested getting dressed in normal work wear every morning. That didn’t really last—a few months into the pandemic, people started recommending lists of luxury sweatshirts, daytime pajamas, and less restrictive bras. Now that vaccine distribution is ramping up, talk has turned to the expiring era of round-the-clock sweatpants, and let’s just say—I will scream into a pile of French terry if I have to hear another joke about the painful transition back to “hard pants.”

But I will admit: I want to know which of those much-maligned hard garments we will choose when we revisit our wardrobes or buy something new for summer. Will our shut-in year accelerate the turn away from formalwear and toward athleisure, or will our structure-starved bodies crave seams, buttons, zippers, and textiles that do better in a closet than a gym bag would? Will we relish in adornment and body-baring frivolity, prancing out of our cocoons in a sensual spectacle? Or will we hide in the baggy T-shirts and shapeless dresses that were everywhere when last we gathered? “The biggest mistake any brand or retailer can make is to assume that they know what customer product priorities will be when they come out of this period,” a VP at a trend-forecasting company told Harper’s Bazaar of the near future in fashion. Fair enough. But that brings me to perhaps my most important question—what in the heck is going on with jeans right now?

In previous years, denim trends always seemed to coalesce into a single, if expansive, theme. The broad thrust of it was legible even to those who didn’t read fashion blogs or frequent particularly stylish hangouts. When I was a tween, flares and bell-bottoms were big, so much so—and so exclusively—that I couldn’t even bring myself to imagine wiggling my feet through impossibly tiny ankle holes. I remember enduring a physical wave of humiliation when my mom wore what we then called “tapered” jeans to a school function against my wishes. While I was in college, skinny jeans began to supplant flares; by the time I hit my early 20s, the shift was complete, so much that I shuddered at the memory of loose denim flapping around my ankles. So-called boyfriend jeans have always been around, as have niche subcultural offerings like raver pants. But the general drift of on-trend denim silhouettes was always clear.

The market is a lot murkier in 2021. In the years before we went into lockdown, the mandate for skinny jeans loosened up: People who cared about fashion or lived in fashion-forward locales had abandoned them, but skinny jeans were still commonplace. Now, no one is quite sure which jeans our legs will want once our arms have been jabbed. Slim-cut, baggy, straight-leg, flared, wide, barrel-leg, boot-cut, bell-bottomed, cuffed, frayed, asymmetrical, patchwork, distressed, low-rise, high-waisted, paper-bag-waisted, elastic-waisted, elastic-ankled—they’re all on the menu right now. But the fashion industry and its spectators thrive on the novelty and transience of trends, so denim writers have been straining to create infinitesimal distinctions between the allegedly cool and the allegedly uncool anyway. Some say bell-bottoms are in— Vogue Paris recommends “the 1970s flare”—but apparently kick flares are out. Others, including one Who What Wear roundup, say those “wide flares” are “outdated and a bit costumey,” while slimmer boot-cut jeans are in. But that same Who What Wear post claims that “skater jeans” are in, including this pair from H&M:


… I’m sorry? In what world are “wide flares” uncool while the above pants remain cool? I’ll allow that there may be some subtle differences between Who What Wear’s textbook definition of “wide flares” and these pants, which still look hella wide and pretty darn flared, but how can the average denim consumer be expected to detect such discrepancies, if they exist, with her naked eye?

To make matters more confusing, this Elle piece illustrates its entry on “boot cut jeans,” which most people agree are in, with a photo of what I’ve been led to believe are kick flares, which I could have sworn I’d just read are out? It also says cropped jeans are in—but kick flares (out) are simply cropped (in) flares (also in). If both flares and cropped jeans are cool, how could a cropped flare be uncool? Is this one of those things where two negatives make a positive? I swear I’m not being willfully obtuse or anti-fashion here. I just genuinely believe the supposed differences between the in jeans and out jeans in question are now so outside the realm of normal-person perception that they will be utterly meaningless when applied to the actual practices of buying and wearing clothes.

Cropped jeans are in—but kick flares (out) are simply cropped (in) flares (also in).

Consequently, the current selection at your favorite retailer is probably a veritable cornucopia of styles from the past 50 years or so of denim technology. Indeed, according to the Zoe Report, this season has seen “the resurgence of items like ’80s mom jeans and ’70s flares” in addition to the baggy cargo pants all your friends wore circa 1998 to the fifth grade assembly on the importance of wearing deodorant. The New York Times says we’re in an era of high-rise jeans; Vox claims low-rise jeans are cooler. There are also some new additions to the canon, like cutout jeans, which omit the upper part of the front pockets so a little blob of hip can poke out. (These are from the controversial, influencer-owned brand WeWoreWhat, which is what we’ll all be saying in a few years when we look back at photos of ourselves wearing cutout jeans.) “When you start thinking about the 2021 denim trends to invest in,” the Zoe Report’s report advises, “start with the fact that there is no wrong style to try.” Whether that strikes you as empowering or intimidating is as good a personality test as any, I guess.

If you are the type of person who just wants to know what pants will help keep you in the general vicinity of current trends, pretty much every fashion observer is on the same page about one thing: While there is little consensus on which specific other jeans are in, there is a widespread recognition that skinny jeans are out. Some people have just come upon this realization after watching Gen Z TikTokers mock millennials for their skinny jeans and side parts, but the writing has been on the wall for years. It’s not generational; it’s temporal. The style has simply run its course.

Has it, though? Search for “straight-leg jeans”—a trend on the rise, so we’re told—on any denim e-tailer’s website, and you’re liable to find a bunch of pairs that look something like this:

Four different styles of jeans are modeled.

Are these not skinny? Are they not jeans? And yet, by virtue of hems that don’t quite touch the entire circumference of ankle or calf, they are not skinny jeans. What I mean to say is that, unlike the ankle holes of classic skinny jeans, even the sole seemingly rock-solid guidance on 2021 denim offers a fair amount of wiggle room. A lot of the “straight-leg” styles that fashion writers have been submitting as supposedly indicative of the new phase in denim look exactly like regulation skinny jeans whose hems have been cut off or cuffed. Do the same to yours, and you’ll be most of the way there.

Or don’t! Trends are never mandatory; you’ll almost certainly be able to purchase new skinny jeans from a variety of retailers for years to come, right up until the denim pendulum swings back and skinnies regain their supremacy. Post-pandemic trends feel even more optional than usual, in part because a lot of us have been hanging on to new pre-pandemic clothes we barely got to wear in 2020. My sister bought me a beautiful red suit for Christmas 2019, which I’d intended to wear to a professional event that was canceled when the pandemic hit. The tags are still on it, and now I’m wondering whether the cut will look dated by the time opportunity, weather, and pandemic recovery align such that I finally get a chance to wear it. But I’m going to anyway! We should all grant ourselves a year’s worth of enjoying our old favorites or breaking out our never-worn 2019 outfits before we reconsider them in the harsh light of whatever trend outlook 2021 will bring.

Before too long, many of us may be choosing outfits for our first dinner parties, nights out dancing, or mornings back at the office in more than a year. This is a moment in personal fashion, as opposed to one created by the industry of manufacturers and consumers. It feels consequential, like a chance to reinvent oneself—and also celebratory, like a time for plants to send forth their first colorful blooms after a season in brown and brittle dormancy. It’s fitting that we’re reemerging into the world, and presumably shedding our soft pants, during such a fertile phase of denim design. The post-pandemic jeans landscape is a Wild West. Go wild.