I remember asking for my first pair of glamorous Gloria Vanderbilt jeans in the early ’80s, when I was about 6. I wanted to have that swan on my pocket. I dreamed of the contrast stitching crawling up my thigh in a perfectly straight line, just as it did on the models on television.
This was the first time I can remember connecting my own wardrobe aspirations to the illusion of perfection. Maybe, I thought, these jeans would help me be more like Marcia Brady.
Anyway, no sooner did I get the question out of my mouth than my mother shook her frosted-blond head and looked at me over her glasses as if I were crazy.
My grandmother was visiting that day, and she said. “Who in their right mind would spend all of that money on a pair of dungarees?”
If only my grandmother knew.
Vanderbilt died Monday at her home in New York City surrounded by family and friends. The news was confirmed by her son and CNN contributor, Anderson Cooper.
Vanderbilt was 95. Had my grandmother lived, they would have been the same age. But that’s where their similarities ended.
Vanderbilt was a socialite and great-great-granddaughter of the 19th-century railroad and steamship magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt. So she had the leisure to think about such “unnecessary” things as perfectly fitting jeans.
My grandmother was born to sharecroppers in Texas and moved to New York, where she raised my mother and my uncle. She was a stay-at-home mom and earned a little extra at the neighborhood beauty parlor for side change.
Dungarees to her were men’s clothing. So the $36 to $54 that Gloria Vanderbilt jeans would run you in department stores when she introduced them in 1977 — that’s roughly $154 to $230 in today’s money — wasn’t just not an option, it was silly.
But that wasn’t my concern. You see, I was in Catholic school, and each and every day I wore a tailored-for-the-masses blue uniform. I wanted a pair of form-fitting jeans, not because I wanted to be sexy — far from it. I wanted jeans that fit my own form, like the women on the ABC soaps had. And like Jennifer Beals in Flashdance.
I wasn’t alone. The Gloria Vanderbilt jeans brand would be worth $100 million at its peak. Why? Because her jeans — and Calvin Klein’s and the ones from Jordache and Sasson — were the first jeans that made women think about how their own butt might look in tight denim.
Gloria Vanderbilt gave ladies a pair of jeans that fit their body, and this was groundbreaking, even if at first it was for skinny ladies with money, like herself.
Vanderbilt was one of the pioneers in our obsession with fit. (And because she was a socialite, people took seriously this novel idea that women might want to dress up to go out in jeans, instead of a frock and a pillbox hat.)
I never got a pair of Gloria Vanderbilt jeans. Nor did I shimmy my booty into a pair of any other designer brands. My mom eventually bought me a pair of trendy, fitted, dark-blue jeans, but they were never quite right. And soon it stopped mattering.
By the time the 1990s rolled around, many of the 1980s designer jeans were discount brands, and baggy jeans — baggy jeans that fit just so — were what we wanted. But women’s focus has remained on fit, through our low-rise, boot-cut obsession of the 2000s to our stretchy high-waist jeans now.