Styling Barrel Jeans? These Shoes, Boots & Sandals Are Your Best Bets


We’ve been getting more & more reader questions about barrel jeans, and most of them have to do with shoes. Which shoes (or boots) work best with this tricky new style of denim?

Initially, I had a flip answer: all of them.

I double-checked my gut response with some of the other barrel-jean devotees on the team. Yup, they agreed. Complete shoe versatility is actually the whole point of barrel jeans!! Wear any shoe!!! Go nuts!! Be free!!! We were in total agreement.

And then…there was Jeni.

Jeni, our collaboration manager, happens to have a degree in fashion and is decidedly not trend-adverse, yet she is (was?) deeply suspicious of barrel jeans. And even more suspicious of our lofty claims! So, at one team meeting – when we were discussing, hands waving in air, the effortless nature of barrel jean styling – she narrowed her eyes at us. “If they really do work with ANY shoe,” she started, fixing us with a look, “then I’d like you to…prove it.”

Proving Which Shoes (or Boots) Actually Work With Barrel Jeans

So the next day, I pulled on my barrel jeans, then went into my closet and pulled out almost every pair of shoes I own. Did I grumble “prove it? ok fine I’ll prove it JENI…” to myself while I worked? Perhaps. But I did try on every shoe (or boot) with my barrel jeans, took pictures, and then printed the photos out like it was 1993. Hardcopy photos in hand, I headed into the office for some larger team analysis.

Because it turns out that Jeni’s hunch was ultimately right: not all shoes work equally well with barrel jeans.

tee (s), jeans (26, also at Nordstrom), similar bag

Left: adidas superstars | Right: adidas sambas (more sizes at Dick’s)

While I’ll go into more details below (for each type of shoe, sandal, or boot), this direct comparison, Superstars vs Sambas, best illuminates our one big finding: Barrel jeans look best with a smaller, dantier, sleeker shoe.

A low profile, slim shoe allows the barrel jean to properly drape, and allows the cool shape of the jean to be fully expressed. When pairing barrel jeans with a chunkier shoe, sandal or boot, it’s a little like the shoe & pant leg are competing with each other, instead of complementing.

IMPORTANT CAVEAT: That said, I’d like to point out that the barrel jean lovers (Abby, Amy, Em, Laura & I) weren’t completely wrong: even after I tried on every shoe in my closet, most shoes worked OKAY with barrel jeans. In fact, even in the example above, the Superstars look…fine. Are they the best possible shoe choice for barrel jeans? Nah. But they’re not offensive, either.

Which Sandals, Sneakers, Heels, Shoes & Boots To Wear Barrel Jeans

Ok. After trying on basically all of the shoes, sandals, sneakers, boots, etc in my closet, we selected a handful of comparisons that we thought best illustrated which footwear works with barrel jeans. Really refining the overall shape definitely helps when adopting a new trend. So if you’ve been wanting to play around with barrel jeans, these shoes, boots, and sandals are the most foolproof way to get started.

1. The Best Sandal Styles For Barrel Jeans

top (s), jeans (26, also at Nordstrom), bag

Left: Birkenstock slides | Right: flip-flops

There’s no doubt that the daintier line of the flip-flops pairs much better with barrel jeans than my usual Birkenstocks. Does that mean I’m going to stop wearing Birkenstocks with barrel jeans? Nope. But this direct comparison does help to make our point. So if you’ve got a few sandals to choose from, when wearing barrel jeans…start dainty.

Here’s a little more proof that dainty sandals look best with barrel jeans:

A. Delicate Gold Sandals

sandals, top (s), jeans (26, also at Nordstrom), similar bag

Any sort of metallic, date night sandal looks amazing with barrel jeans. The straps are thin enough that these sandals would work regardless of hue, but the fancy gold offsets the baggier barrel jeans quite nicely.

B. Slides

slides, top (s), jeans (26, also at Nordstrom), bag

This is an example of a shoe that is juuuust on the cusp of being a little too chunky for barrel jeans. But the sleek shape and neutral tone helps to offset that wide toe box. Again, these are shoes I’ll happily wear with barrel jeans, even though a daintier slide (like this one) will definitely look better.

2. The Best Sneaker Styles For Barrel Jeans

hoodie (s), jeans (26, also at Nordstrom)

Left: On sneakers| Right: adidas gazelles

Once again, we’re in a situation were I do wear both of these shoes with barrel jeans. But if we’re getting real picky (and frankly, it’s our job to get real picky)…the lower profile Adidas Gazelle Bolds look better with barrel jeans. This one is interesting because both the On sneakers and the Adidas sneakers have a bit of a platform, but in this case it’s the upper that matters. On sneakers have a slim, comfortable upper (it’s basically mesh), but the styling is such that it’s copying the look of a chunky sneaker. Adidas Gazelles, on the other hand, have a much more low-profile look (even with a platform bottom).

Want more proof?

Chunky White Sneakers Vs. Nike Dunks

hoodie (s), jeans (26, also at Nordstrom)

Left: P448s (or similar) | Right: Nikes Dunks (or similar)

The white chunky sneakers look, again, fine…but something is a little off. Nike Dunks, while they do have some heft to them, visually, with all of the detail, still have a fairly low-profile upper, which makes them work better with barrel jeans. Additionally, the color placement of Nike Dunks often makes the foot look more narrow (and these shoes run a little narrow anyway), contributing to the overall sleeker look.

3. Ballet Flats, Always

ballet flats, top (s), jeans (26, also at Nordstrom), bag

Honestly, if we were to create the perfect shoe for barrel jeans…it’s a ballet flat. Not only is the shape of this shoe perfect for barrel jeans, but all ballet flats – even edgy, studded ones – ultimately have a ladylike and feminine vibe, and are a such a good offset to the baggier shape of the jean.

4. The Best Heels For Barrel Jeans

jeans (26, also at Nordstrom)

Left: similar clogs, tee (s), bag | Right: heels, black tank (6), bag

This is one hill I almost died on: ALL heels work with barrel jeans!! Heels make almost any tricky denim better, right??? And then I tried on…clogs. Womp. Womp.

Clogs are the anti-dainty. So when trying to wear them with barrel jeans, a jean that blooms when paired with a pair of dainty shoes…oof. Clogs are tough. (Clog wearers, I suspect, will not care. Clogs are the personality hire, and will go forward with barrel jeans regardless. You do you, Clog Wearers!)

But, since we’re here…the absolute BEST heels for barrel jeans?

Barrel Jeans + Kitten Heels: The Best

heels, top (s), jeans (26, also at Nordstrom), similar bag

Kitten heels, with their dainty little heel and sexy little shape are THE best heels for barrel jeans. Done.

5. The Best Boots For Barrel Jeans

jeans (26, also at Nordstrom)

Left: Docs, sweater (s), similar bag | Right: booties, similar sweater, bag (similar or similar)

This particular comparison was Jeni’s ah-ha moment. She loves a good, chunky boot, and all of her previous attempts to wear barrel jeans this past winter didn’t sit well…but she had been trying to wear them with chunky boots. I mean…if you’re a hardcore Docs girl, a little barrel jean action may not bother you, but if you ever find yourself wondering why something looks off, it might be about balance. And a daintier boot offsets the barrel jean nicely. And while “dainty boot” sounds like an oxymoron, in this case, it’s the sleek shape, the pointy toe, and the delicate heel.

Another example of “dainty boots”:

Cowboy Boots & Barrel Jeans

boots, similar sweater, jeans (26, also at Nordstrom), bag

So I know that the mythology of cowboys boots are, like, the opposite of dainty. Except!! Cowboy boots have a fairly sleek shape, pointed toe, and – while the heel could hardly be called delicate – there is a sort of sleek, sculptural element to a cowboy boot heel. (It just also happens to be really practical and walkable, too.)

6.Can You Wear UGGs With Barrel Jeans?

UGGs (more sizes on Amazon), hoodie (s), jeans (26, also at Nordstrom), bag

UGGs basically defy all of the rules: they’re not dainty, they’re not sleek, they’re not feminine. Instead, they’re chunky and puffy and cloud-like and ahhhhh….sooooo….comfortable. But do they work with barrel jeans?

Eh. You decide. I’m too blinded by my decades-long love affair with UGGs to form an unbiased opinion. Instead, I’m going with CLOSE ENOUGH.

Hope this helps, Gang!! This was a tricky one, simply because these are really nuanced differences – and sometimes, the trickier footwear choices can work/not work based on what else I’m wearing with my barrel jeans. THAT SAID: we like to try and make getting dressed a little easier, so if something is off with your barrel jean outfit, first things first: try switching to a daintier pair of shoes, boots, or sandals.

And hey – we LOVE pics. So if you’re playing around and something is off, send me a pic. Honestly. We’ll do our best to weigh in. Either DM us on IG or shoot me an email directly (shana at Full disclosure: I’m one of those people with an embarrassing number of unread emails (in my defense: they’re mostly from stores) but our IG is run by this incredible GenZ’er, Aliya, who is such a star. (And has ZERO problem tracking down whomever she needs for an answer.)

Good luck out there. Denim is…hard.