Photo of Gloria Vanderbilt from a 1959 acting role on The United States Steel Hour.
Arguably the most famous of all the Vanderbilts, jeans queen Gloria was born in 1924, the granddaughter of ‘Electric Light Lady’ Alice Claypoole Gwynne. She first rose to prominence in the 1930s when she was the subject of a highly publicized custody trial between her mother and aunt, who both sought to take control of her trust fund, which her aunt ultimately won. It was proclaimed the ‘trial of the century’ by the press at the time and was adapted into an NBC mini series in 1982.
Portrait of Gloria Vanderbilt by Carl Van Vechten, 1958
She started her career as a fashion model in her teens. Vanderbilt was one of the first people to wear the couture designs of Hollywood designer Howard Greer. Greer created Gloria’s wedding dress (for her first marriage) when she was 17, in 1941. She donned his famous ‘table top dresses’ at fancy restaurants—dresses that were designed to look glamorous from the waist up. This helped to bring success to his couture operation.
Gloria studied art in New York and held exhibitions of her work throughout her life. She licensed out her artwork and went on to design linen, pottery and glassware.
She married for the second time in 1945, to a man 42 years her senior (the conductor Leopold Stokowski) and had two sons during that marriage. Following that, she worked as an actress between 1954 and 1963 and married for the third time, to director Sidney Lumet, known for 12 Angry Men and Dog Day Afternoon.
Gloria Vanderbilt Cooper by Toni Frissell, 1966
She married for the fourth and final time in 1963, to author and actor Wyatt Emory Cooper and had two sons with him. Carter committed suicide at age 23 by jumping off Gloria’s 14th floor balcony in front of her. Anderson Cooper became the CNN news anchor whose name a lot of us will be familiar with. Wyatt died in 1978.
Some of Gloria’s other relationships were with such names as Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, Howard Hughes and Roald Dahl.
In the 1970s, Gloria ventured into the fashion business by licensing her name and a collection of her paintings for a line of scarves.
In 1976, she teamed up with Murjani to launch a line of tight-fitting (“like the skin on a grape”!) dark blue jeans with her signature embroidered on the back pocket. The jeans also featured a swan logo—a reference to her first acting role in The Swan and also to her membership in Truman Capote’s group of ‘swans’. (She is one of the women about whom the character of Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany’s is based.) Vanderbilt was the first person to exploit a famous family name for denim—effectively creating designer jeans. She promoted them in memorable ad campaigns that set new trends in marketing. They were an immediate success. 150,000 pairs of jeans sold out the first day the initial commercial aired on TV. She went on national in-store promotional tours akin to movie star appearances. The jeans were sexy, flattering, comfortable and had inclusive sizing. They are touted as the first skinny jean. It was the best selling denim line in America and became a $100 million a year business.
Designer jeans ad, Reno Gazette Journal, March 2, 1979
A TV commercial from 1980 featured a jingle that is difficult not to enjoy: “They’re the tops, they’re the upper stratus, they’re the jeans with a social status. Girls with fancy pants and private jets think they’re tops. They’re caviar! They’re for girls who have chauffeured caddies. Girls blessed with wealthy daddies! They’re the jeans that fit when you stand or sit. They don’t stop because Gloria Vanderbilt bottoms are the tops!” She was selling a piece of the American Dream.
Debbie Harry appeared in an ad for the brand in 1980 and the jeans made appearances on TV shows such as Dynasty and Mork & Mindy.
Vanderbilt told The New York Times in 1985, I’m not knocking inherited money, but the money I’ve made has a reality to me that inherited money doesn’t have. As the Billie Holiday song goes, ‘Mama may have and Papa may have, but God bless the child that’s got his own.’”
Her success rewrote her story in the public imagination from ‘poor little Gloria’, victim of a custody battle, to fashion queen and female entrepreneur.
From this success, a host of other designers began to use their names to sell the allure of their own glamour, from Carolina Herrera in the 1970s to Nicole Ritchie in the 2000s. Vanderbilt went on to launch dresses, blouses, sheets, shoes, leather goods, fragrances and accessories.
As competition from other designer labels increased in the late 1980s, however, her fashion income faded. Still, Vanderbilt continued to spend lavishly and eventually fell on leaner times. She sued her former business partners and lawyer for fraud and was awarded $1.7 million. However, she never recovered the money and was forced to sell her residences to pay the back taxes her lawyer had never paid to the IRS. She moved into an apartment owned by Cooper.
Vanderbilt turned to writing for income and wrote a number of published works including art books, novels, memoirs and short stories, and also returned to creating art in the 2000s.
Gloria passed away in 2019 at age 95. She had maintained a close friendship with designer Diane Von Fürstenberg, who said of her: “Gloria was the most glamorous, youthful, talented, optimistic woman I ever met! In the public eye for almost a century, she managed to be in charge of her own life as an artist and a designer. In spite of the tragedies of her life, she remained positive with an amazing love for life. She remained relevant to the zeitgeist her entire life!”
Written by Ian Drummond