Gloria Vanderbilt 1924 – 2019

New York ‘best-dressed’ heiress and ‘Jeans Queen’ socialite known for her troubled childhood, failed marriages, various affairs with numerous celebrities, exquisite taste, and mother of news journalist Anderson Cooper, died Monday (June 17).

There are plenty of tributes about Ms. Vanderbilt, but it’s primarily her contribution to fashion I want to mark with this post. In 1976, Gloria Vanderbilt was in discussion with Hong Kong fashion firm Murjani about creating a line of clothes under her name. Sexy-fitted high-waisted women’s jeans in stretch denim became the focus of the line that was an instant success the moment it was launched in 1977. Vanderbilt ushered in the era of designer jeans that would become cluttered with names like Calvin Klein, Jordache, and Sasson. The label remained popular for years, but by the late 1980s other brands had overtaken sales.

Glossary – Canadian Tuxedo?

Bing Crosby donning his denim tuxedo jacket, June 30, 1951

Bing Crosby in his denim tux jacket, June 30, 1951

There is a story that may be the origin of the term ‘Canadian Tuxedo’ stemming from an incident that happened in 1951. Bing Crosby, who often came to British Columbia to hunt and fish, was even awarded a key to the city in the shape of its skyline from mayor George Miller in 1948. On one of those trips in 1951 he and a friend went to check into the Vancouver Hotel. However, they were refused entry for not being properly attired as they were both wearing jeans and denim jackets. However, before being kicked out of the lobby, a bellhop recognized Crosby and the situation was quickly resolved.

The story was reported in the local news and went viral (in a 1951 kind of way.) According to the Madeira Tribune in August 1951, Art Cameron, the hotel clerk who initially refused entry to Crosby, said “He looked like a bum”. Crosby fans wrote Cameron asking why he didn’t recognize “…the most famous singer in the world?” WHen Bob Hope heard the story, he invited Cameron onto the set of his film Son of Paleface in California. “He’s the world’s number one hotel clerk,” Hope joked, cited the Tribune. “Anybody who can spot a real bum like that deserves some kind of recognition.”

A few months after the initial incident, on June 30, 1951, when Bing Crosby was to appear at the J Bar Ranch for the Silver State Stampede in Elko, Nevada, Crosby was presented with a denim tuxedo jacket, made by Levi’s. The mayor of Elko was wearing an identical jacket, and on the inside of each was an oversized leather patch signed by D. J. O’Brier, the president of the American Hotel Association that read “Notice to hotel men everywhere – This label entitles the wearer to be duly received and registered with cordial hospitality at any time and under any conditions.”

A reproduction of Levi's tux jacket, 2014

A reproduction of Levi’s tux jacket, 2014

In September, 1951, Paramount Pictures released Crosby’s latest film ‘Here Comes the Groom’, and executives took the opportunity to have Crosby wear his denim tux again at the premiere. Paramount also commissioned Levi’s to make replicas of the tuxedo jacket for promotional displays as the film opened in other cities. Levi’s made 200 replicas again in the spring of 2014 all of which were quickly snapped up by collectors.

Denim jackets and jeans, Sears, 1975

Denim jackets and jeans, Sears, 1975

While this may be the historical background for the Canadian Tuxedo, the term doesn’t seem to have entered the common lexicon until the early 21st century. The look (which is more American in origin than Canadian) dates back to 1930s dude ranches and was made iconic by American teenage rebels like James Dean in the 1950s. Probably every American (and Canadian) under the age of thirty wore a denim jacket and jeans at some point during the 1970s or 1980s. So why the sudden ‘Canadian Tuxedo’ attribution?

The Urban dictionary, which although I don’t trust as a reliable source, cites the earliest reference for the term coming from the film ‘Super Troopers’ (released early 2002 but filmed fall 2000) “…Look who’s talkin’, Denim Dan, you look like the president, chairman and C.E.O. of Levi Strauss. Where’d you get the Canadian Tuxedo?”. I suspect the term was made up as a quip by the writer for this film and bears no relevance to the Bing Crosby story.

BTW – Art Cameron eventually became the resident manager of the Hotel Vancouver…

The Sin of Stretching the Dollar

According to Leviticus 19:19: “…Thou shalt not… wear a garment upon you of two kinds of material mixed together.” This Old Testament law may not carry any religious weight today, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be consequences by ignoring it.

According to an article in the December 16 issue of the Washington Post, the paper used for printing American currency was fabricated from a blend of cotton fibres salvaged from recycled garments, especially denim. However, in the 1990s denim began to be tainted by the addition of spandex (aka lycra.) This stretchy material had been in use for girdles since the early 1960s, and bicycle shorts since the early 1980s. In the 1990s, blue jean manufacturers discovered that blending a bit of spandex with denim created better-fitting jeans.

However, as much as spandex benefitted blue jeans, it weakened the dollar. A batch of currency paper could be ruined by the inclusion of spandex fibres and there is no practicable process for separating spandex from cotton fibres. Crane, the company that has been making American currency paper for over a century, had no choice but to buy new cotton instead of recycling used garments, which explains why thrift stores are now inundated with racks of blue jeans.

Canadian Fashion Connection – GWG

wartime overalls and slacks from GWG

Anyone growing up in Canada after the war but before the 1980s designer jeans craze will remember GWG, the homegrown version of American Levi’s or Lees.

The Great Western Garment company was established in Edmonton in 1911 and became the largest Canadian workwear manufacturing company by World War II. Levi Strauss & Company purchased a majority interest in GWG in 1961 and expanded operations to include plants in Winnipeg, Brantford and Saskatoon. Costs forced the company to close operations in 2004.

If you want to know more about GWG, check out this excellent website created by the Royal Alberta Museum with a grant from Virtualmuseum.ca, a branch of the Canadian Heritage Information Network (C.H.I.N.)