When I was 12 years old, a chic French clothing store opened up right next door to my mom’s first boutique. The owners, from Paris, were impossibly cool and the best dressers I had ever seen. The store was named “Vanilla” and I loved just about every item of clothing in it. One particular vêtement caught my eye — a pair of hand-painted Levi’s jeans. I was smitten.
The jeans were a baby blue shade with two large, bold images painted on each thigh. One leg had a floral bouquet and the other the face of a woman. By simply adding beautifully drawn hand-painted images, they went from reliable staple to fashion statement, as well as a marker of self-identification. Each pair in the store was unique – just like their future owners. And they looked impossibly cool in the window paired with a black blouse and heels.
I was smitten. These jeans represented everything that I wanted to be at the time: sophisticated yet a bit hippie, polished but not uptight, approachable, and cool, and confident displaying my personal style. I wanted what I wore each day to be a reflection of my attitude and aspirations; to be a personal statement. That’s a lot to ask for in a pair of pants. But there they were.
The painted designs on display were not images that I would choose, but I loved that that they were creative and original. So I asked the proprietresses about options. She informed me that I could have whatever I wanted painted on the jeans, and that if I brought my own pair, she would paint them especially for me. This was my first piece of (almost) haute couture.
After much thought, I settled on my design: a figure skater performing a layback spin and a cartoonish duck in a sun lounger with shades. Since I was a competitive figure skater at the time, the female icon performing my favorite spin was appropriate. She represented grace, strength, athleticism and a fierce reliance on the self. Ducks make me laugh and I love rye cartoons and lounging in the sun, hence the second choice of image — one that was lighthearted and flippant.
I wore those jeans proudly for many years. Equivalent to the toddler sweaters with my name embroidered on the front, these jeans made me feel a similar sense of pride in myself. They were a novelty, and they stood out in a sea of everyday denim. Since they were bespoke, the declaration of identity was loud and clear. They also just looked really cool.
When I entered high school, my jeans were less baggy, but I still made them work. I even held onto them during my “Freshman 10,” even though there was no chance I would fit in them. By junior year, however, they were once more part of my rotation, paired with heels and a baby tee or sweatshirt. Regardless of whether they fit, I was never going to part with them. They were a part of me.
After I graduated college, my Mom introduced me to the concept of benchmark clothing. These are items that we no longer wear, but still hold on to simply to connect us to our past, keep us motivated in the present, and offer a glimmer of vanity or healthy hope for our future. My proud painted pair now serves as my benchmark jean. Each season I try them on with the same excitement of the 12-year old who asked for them to be made. They help me remember who I was, how I felt in them, and the long journey on which that preteen girl has ventured. It is a trip down memory lane (not to mention a celebration of my changing body type) every time I put them on.