Gloria Vanderbilt’s Influence on American Design Tastes
From Robber Barons to Blue Jeans, Gloria Vanderbilt’s Influence Left a Mark on America’s Patchwork of Styles
As you probably know by now, I have a love for all-American interior design styles and the key figures who made their mark on the patchwork of our country’s collective image. So, I want to talk about Gloria Vanderbilt, an American icon whose fashion and interior choices inspired the past and continue to influence the future of design. Gloria Vanderbilt’s influence on American design tastes spans from bringing sex appeal to blue jeans to embracing iconic quilted frills. An embodiment of the American dream, she was an artist, author, actress, fashion designer, businesswoman, mom, and heiress of a prominent Gilded Age family. What’s more American than robber barons and blue jeans met with a dash of media scandal in the pursuit of having it all? Follow along as I dive into the life of Gloria Vanderbilt and how her 70s chic style continues to make an impact on the fabric of American design.
Who is Gloria Vanderbilt?
On February 20, 1924, Gloria Vanderbilt was born in Manhattan to railroad tycoon heir Reginald Vanderbilt and his second wife, Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt. Upon her birth into the family as an only child, her father was said to exclaim, “It is fantastic how Vanderbilt she looks!” Gloria would go on to not only inherit the prestige of the family name but also the Vanderbilt fortune.
Gloria maintained a high level of fame throughout her life. As a child, she was the focus of a nationally scrutinized court case. As an adolescent, she gained popularity as a model and actress. It is even speculated that Truman Capote modeled the character of Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s off the socialite. In her adult years as an artist and businesswoman, Gloria garnered acclaim for her lines of clothing, perfumes, and household goods. Most famously, she is regarded for her blue jean designs and her personal interior design style.
Gloria was married four times. Her fourth marriage was to author Wyatt Emory Cooper on December 24, 1963. Together, the couple welcomed their two sons Carter Vanderbilt Cooper and Anderson Hays Cooper. Their marriage lasted 15 years and ended with the untimely death of Wyatt during an open-heart surgery procedure. A decade later, Gloria’s son Carter would commit suicide. However, Gloria and her son Anderson would remain very close, and he would go on to make a name for himself as a CNN news anchor.
While Gloria never remarried, she maintained romantic relationships with famed celebrities, including Gordon Parks, Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, Howard Hughes, and Roald Dahl. Upon her death on June 17, 2019, Gloria left her entire estate to her son Anderson. Many were shocked to discover that the remaining assets of the Vanderbilt family and Gloria’s profitable career were valued at less than $1.5 million.
Poor Little Rich Girl
The American fascination with Gloria Vanderbilt began in the 1930s when the headline “Poor Little Rich Girl” hit newsstands. Gloria’s father Reginald died when she was just eighteen months old, leaving her a $5 million trust fund which would have been equivalent to $74 million today. The control of the trust was left to her mother, Gloria Morgan. Her mother used the trust on lavish trips to Paris, drawing criticism from Gloria’s aunt, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. Gertrude launched a custody trial to protect the family fortune, which captured the nation’s attention.
Scandalous allegations filled the courtroom, claiming that Gloria Morgan was an unfit mother and even engaging in a lesbian love affair with a member of the British royal family. In an era where most of the country was broke, the general public couldn’t take their eyes off what was regarded as the “trial of the century.” How could this poor little rich girl’s life be so hard with so much money? Ultimately, Gloria’s mother lost the case, and she became the ward of her aunt Gertrude.
Later in life, Gloria would describe her mother as a “magical stranger,” saying, “I longed to connect with my mother, to feel that we belonged together, but I never seemed able to get her attention.”
Introducing Designer Jeans
In her teens, Gloria Vanderbilt began a successful modeling career. However, she felt called to design. She would go on to redefine American blue jeans. What’s more classically American than a pair of good-fitting denim jeans? She launched a partnership with Mohan Murjani creating a more form-fitted “designer” jean branded with a swan logo and her signature on the back right pocket. Gloria’s jeans were a hit and paved the way for other luxury denim designers, like Calvin Klein and Jordache.
Jeans play a huge role in American culture, representing everyone from turn-of-the-century farmers to preppy 50s teens to rebellious 70s punk rockers. Whether rich and famous or hard-working and middle class, all Americans have a pair of jeans in their closet. Gloria Vanderbilt played a huge role in that, especially in her effort to take jeans from workwear to casual wear.
Gloria Vanderbilt’s Influence on American Design
In addition to being a fashion mogul, Gloria Vanderbilt was also a renowned collage artist — an art form representing America’s unique patchwork of styles. Undoubtedly, her medium influenced the famous quilt-like collage of patterns and frills that graced the interior of her home — especially her patchwork flooring! Inspired by quilt patterns, Gloria’s bedroom flooring consisted of highly varnished square pieces of brightly patterned fabrics. On her flooring choice, she said, “Isn’t it extraordinary how something as simple as quilts from America suddenly begin to relate to Russia and the East, to become exotic and mysterious when used in a certain way.” Personally, I loved her embrace of patchwork and frills as it fondly reminds me of my early youth during the 70s.
70s Interior Design
Gloria Vanderbilt’s artwork and home decor played a considerable role in 70s interior design trends. Early in the decade, she began designing Hallmark cards and eventually worked her way into specialty home goods. By 1975, she launched her own magazine called Gloria Vanderbilt Designs for Your Home. Inside, the pages were filled with needlepoint, crochet, and other various home crafts. You, too, could channel your creative spirit and design something worthy of gracing a Vanderbilt estate! Gloria’s self-named lifestyle brand paved the way for others, like Martha Stewart and Gwyneth Paltrow.
I think I am so fond of Gloria Vanderbilt’s style impact because it reminds me of my love of Holly Hobby. For those of you who don’t know, Holly Hobby was a 1970s children’s character and frankly a fashion icon who sported stylish patchwork dresses reminiscent of simple country life. For me, there’s something comforting about a classic patchwork pattern and cozying up under a handmade quilt.
American Design Tastes are a Patchwork of Styles
In my youth, Gloria Vanderbilt was the height of fashion and style. I am still a fan of that patchwork bedroom today. Her style reminds me of a time when I was young, and there were lots of arts programs in America that provided people the ability to really engage with the art world — exploring everything from painting to collage. I was born in 1970, and my early childhood was spent in an era where there was a real sense that arts were worth learning about. There seemed to be an idyllic world still out there. Of course, things changed, but we at least had Gloria Vanderbilt jeans to distract us on the pages of our favorite magazines.
Like Gloria’s bedroom, America is a patchwork of styles. Make sure your unique square is included.
Amity Worrel is an award-winning interior designer based in Austin, Texas. She has worked on high-end interior design projects for celebrities and tastemakers in NYC, LA, and the Bahamas. In 2008, Amity decided to bring her passion for diverse design back to her hometown of Austin. Her spaces pull from timeless design concepts ranging from coastal contemporary to cozy cottage to Austin eclectic. Emotional connections, functional flow, and a touch of humor remain central to every interior design scheme. Her work has been published in national and local publications, including The Wall Street Journal, House Beautiful, HGTV Magazine, Better Homes and Gardens, and Austin Home. In her free time, she loves perusing estate sales and diving into design history. Learn more about Amity.