I wish I could tell you when I bought my first pair of Gloria Vanderbilt jeans, under what emotional and transformative circumstance. But the truth is that I have no recollection at all — just the strong suspicion that I acquired them with babysitting money, at one of two Long Island malls, sometime around 1983.
It would be hard to exaggerate the role that designer jeans played in the life of a certain kind of teenage girl growing up between the years of the Carter presidency and Black Monday a decade later. If you were from a striving, suburban family — one many degrees of separation removed from anyone like Gloria Vanderbilt — then you could not easily shake the belief that popularity, or even just acceptance, was a dream to be forfeited unless you wore tightfitting denim with someone else’s name on the back.
It was not until I got to college and met people whose lives, like Vanderbilt’s, were preciously circumscribed by maps guiding them back and forth between the Upper East Side and key leisure destinations on the Atlantic coastline that it became clear what real status was — and how little it had to do with a pair of jeans carried home in a bag from Bloomingdale’s.
Gloria Vanderbilt, who died at her home in Manhattan on Monday at the age of 95, possessed position and pedigree of especially high grade, but she saw the value in dismantling the old hierarchies. By middle age, with her fortune dwindling, she had to hustle. But unlike so many other recipients of vast sums of inherited money — Barbara Hutton or Doris Duke (who legally adopted a belly dancer she believed to be the reincarnation of her only child) — Vanderbilt was naturally disposed for a life of industry over chronic indulgence, for engagement over eccentric seclusion.
And so she emerged, however unintentionally, as a template for a whole new era in marketing, in which lineage would now become something to monetize.
Vanderbilt held to her own status with an appealingly loose grip, realizing all too clearly that whatever privileges it conferred, it rarely brought peace. In the mid-1970s, she found herself in the garment business, selling jeans to ordinary people, and while this hardly made her an agent of the resistance, it gave her outlier standing among people who spent their childhoods in mansions in Newport, R.I.
Vanderbilt had come of age when the adage for a woman in the highest tiers of society still applied, that her name appear in the paper only three times during the course of her life: when she was born, when she married and when she died. But Vanderbilt never had the luxury of choosing obscurity.
As a child, she was the subject of an ugly custody battle that played out in the New York tabloids and society pages. No movement was too small to warrant coverage. The day after Christmas, in 1934, The Times ran a story with the headline: “Gloria Vanderbilt Home for the Day Attends Mass With Her Mother and Has Private Party With a ‘Very Large Tree.’”
By the time she was called to make a living, she made virtue of the public’s fascination with her.
Even in the years before she started her company, one that relied on the image of an accessible aristocrat, she seemed to place little importance in distancing herself from the broader universe, in hiding from photographers and cultivating mystique.
In 1954, when she was still married to her second husband, the conductor Leopold Stokowski, a reporter approached her one evening during intermission at the theater, where she was on a date with Frank Sinatra. Instead of rebuffing the reporter, passing along the number of a press agent or insisting that she and Sinatra were just friends — because really, who was just friends with Frank Sinatra? — she offered that she and her husband had been talking about splitting up for three years, that he was gone for long periods and that she decided to “break away.’’ She had contacted a lawyer, she said, but harbored “no bitterness.”
In the end, Vanderbilt’s legacy had little to do with fashion. Slim-cut jeans, tailored high at the waist, were her only signature, even though lots of things were produced under her name. Other people and companies made skinny jeans with prominently displayed rear-end labels; eventually the trend ran its course. What endured was Vanderbilt’s way with self-revelation and her seemingly primal understanding that often the best way to sell something was to sell yourself.
Whatever vulgarities followed in the years to come, whatever the subversions of her formula that gave us the Hilton sisters and the Kardashians and so much else that remains regrettable, Vanderbilt was in pursuit of something true.
Beginning in the mid-1980s, she wrote poignant memoirs that described a life complicated by loneliness and loss. Her mother was monstrously absent; her father died before she was 2. Even after her mother had lost custody of young Gloria to the child’s aunt, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, she squandered her visitation rights. Instead of spending time with her daughter during these interludes, she would leave her alone as she pursued her life of maniacal socializing.
Later Vanderbilt would write about the son she famously lost to suicide in the late 1980s.
Others who had built fashion and beauty empires — Coco Chanel, Estée Lauder — constructed them on narratives that polished over unglamorous biographical details — Chanel’s early years with a laundress mother, followed by her time in an orphanage; Lauder’s modest beginnings in Queens. Vanderbilt’s wealth and profile gave her the freedom of authenticity, of selling what was aspirational without the accompanying pretense.
You could buy something from Ralph Lauren and maintain the fiction that you were crisply in control — that you had arrived, and now looked, just as he did, as if you had been there all along. But the name “Gloria Vanderbilt” signaled a darker truth: that the world of money, while enviable in lots of ways, was chaotic and unreliable. Fate would always have its way with you; fortune was forever reversing itself.
Vanderbilt never seemed to stop telling stories, but she had interesting stories to tell. Writers — Joyce Carol Oates, Amy Hempel — were among her close friends, and her own books were widely praised. Ultimately Vanderbilt was the link between a time when the well-born said almost nothing to a present when they often say far too much.
She was born into a culture in which the rich circled high above the rest. She died in one in which they seem to live right down here among everyone else — with their Instagram feeds and jade eggs and gluten-free recipes and self-help bromides — even as they inhabit a gated universe that has become more and more insidiously elusive.
Gloria Vanderbilt could have had all the influence she wanted. She chose honesty instead.