by Janet Gilmore
“Jan, why are you wearing dungarees in the bath tub?” my mother asked in 1960.

“Shrinking them to fit my body,” I replied. I was 14.

She left the room quietly, not certain what to say.

“They’re not dungarees, mom; they’re jeans,” I yelled after her. Remember when dungarees suddenly became jeans, and fashionable? Remember trying to make your mother wear them?

After a childhood spent in dungarees because they were cheap and wore like iron, there was a break, between 5th and 7th grade, when dungarees were cast aside. Big girls didn’t wear them.

All of that changed in the 1960s; dungarees were being worn as fashion.

Fashion is an important factor in life. In some lives, anyway.

At Wagner Junior High School, girls lucky enough to have an older sister knew that to look very hep, you went to either Rodeo Ben’s or I. Goldberg, bought a pair of dungarees two inches bigger than your waist measurement and four inches longer than your legs, put them on and sat in a bath tub of hot water for 30 minutes until the pants shrank to fit your body perfectly. That was an urban legend. My fashion soak left me with a pair of very wet dungarees that were still too big, too long and nearly impossible to remove.

A few years later, at Penn State University, jeans were sweeping the collegiate fashion world. Some sort of vague solidarity with the workers of the world, which we would join in a few years. We wore them all the time, everywhere.

“Dungarees may NOT be worn in the dining hall,” the college administration proclaimed. “The rivets scratch the chairs.” Nice try, college administration, but no one could have held back the denim tide.

The tide never went out. People have been wearing jeans as serious fashion ever since. As happens, the fashion statement of anti-establishmentarians was picked up by the fashion industry seriously and profitably.

“Mom, you have to get a pair of jeans.”

“I don’t want jeans,” said my mother, who was neither a cowgirl nor a hippie.

“Everybody is wearing them.”

That worked. Mom followed fashion trends; she bought jeans. She did not look cool. She looked like a mom in jeans. Dungarees. Trying to be something she wasn’t. The jeans went to the thrift shop in a matter of months. End of experiment.

This week was my turn to take a middle-aged body shopping and try to buy jeans for it. Why? Because it’s my heritage; that’s why. I’m an American baby-boomer, and jeans will define my generation to the grave.

There were  114,585 women’s jeans offered for sale on Ebay — 3,445 in my size — arguably more choices than in the cereal aisle.

I went to Kohl’s to look around. I didn’t realize that one needs to devote the entire morning/afternoon/evening to buying jeans, but sure enough, 30 minutes later, I was still staring at the racks, trying to pick a brand. Then came the trying-on, followed by the hunger and exhaustion, followed by the giving-up.

“I’ll come back tomorrow.”

Back home without any new pants, I reflected, thought and mulled.

“I think I’m going to get Levi’s,” I told my husband, Hugh. “They’re classic. I don’t like jeans that have weird things embroidered on the back pocket, probably in pseudo-ancient runes or languages I don’t understand. Suppose they mean, ‘kick me’ or ‘put a popsicle in this pocket’ or  ‘Bob’s your uncle’ and I don’t know it?  I’d hate that! And just suppose…”

“Do we have any cookies?” he asked.

Back at Kohl’s the next day, with a downloaded 20-percent-off coupon, I examined the extraordinary number of Levi’s. Skinny, straight leg, boot cut legs. Well, the word “skinny” no longer obtains, and “boot cut” seems like been-there-done-that-bell-bottoms under a new name. Next: #505 Straight leg, #512 Perfectly Slimming, #525 Perfect Waist, #550 Relaxed Tapered, #542 Tilted Flare (huh?) in colors Daydream, Meteorite, Pitch Black, Night Streak, Sky, Blue Ice, Indigo Rinse, Light Rinse, Clean Rinse, Broken Dark Rinse, Vintage Dark, Starlight, and/or Moonray. More choices: low-rise, medium, high-rise, in my lady’s chamber rise, short, medium or long length.

Are they pre-shrunk, or do I have to sit in a bathtub of hot water again? I’m a busy woman, and it’s not so easy to climb out of a bathtub nowadays.

But I had a 20-percent-off coupon, so I had to buy something.

Hungry again, I thought. “I’ll just buy some and try them on at home.”

I bought four pairs, somehow spent $94.35 and saved $54.01.

“Hugh, do you have time for a fashion show?”


I modeled. He said, “Well, #1 fits better in the back, but #2 fit better in the front, #3 is awful, and #4 is pretty good.”

I stood in front of the full-length mirror and tried on all the pants again. Even though in my mind’s eye I saw my young self, I tried to step back from what I thought I saw and be objective. I looked like my mother in dungarees.

I didn’t care. I am a BABY BOOMER — entitled to look fab in cradle-to-grave denim, no matter what reality said.

Later, I modeled all four pairs for my sister-in-law, Gilly.

“Don’t worry, Jan; there are still traces of cuteness left.”

Good enough. I’m going with Levi’s #505, straight leg, broken dark wash, short length, with one percent spandex, because a little stretch never hurts. I’ll throw them in the washer and dryer and let ‘em shrink if they want.

Then again, maybe I should check and see what jeans the Gap has before I cut the tags off.