The Guess Jeans Fight of 1984

A source of inspiration as my tween lobbies for LuLuLemons

Even when he said no, my dad was an easy flip. All it took was a lot of smiles, a head tilt, and a minor concession of some sort, like taking out a bag of trash. Consequently, I learned to wait until he got home from work to discuss the ten dollars I needed for a new Pappagallo bag or the upcoming unchaperoned pool party at Anne O’Hara’s. But after one too many “Sure, why nots?,” my dad learned to stick to the script:

“It’s up to your mother.”

Unlike my dad, when my mom took a stand, which she often did, I don’t remember her ever backing down. Her fortitude looks like love to me now, but at the time, I was sure my mom was trying to ruin my life.

My mom was formidable on points of fashion, hair, and makeup but she really dug in her heels when it came to cars. It was her near-pathological anxiety about driving at night that led to The Guess Jeans Fight of 1984.

That fall, when I was a senior in high school, Denise Warner drove me to school every day in a car she bought with wages she had saved from her job at Thrift Drugs, the one next to the Acme in Wayne. Not only did she have her own car, a “vintage” Dodge Dart, but she also had a stockpile of Guess jeans—black ones, white ones, striped ones. (Do you even know how many pairs you have to have before you start buying patterns?)

Day after day, I tried to come up with a more persuasive way to get my raised-by-Depression-survivors mother to cough up $52 plus tax for one lousy pair of Guess jeans. That was all I needed. With that upside-down red triangle on my ass, I could do anything. Like, hello Homecoming Court.

“You have two pair of jeans already, Kelly. Perfectly good jeans with no patches,” my mom said, like we lived in Frank McCourt’s Limerick and should be thankful that in high school, we weren’t wearing Toughskins with iron-on patches over the knees.

It seemed hopeless until one day, while buying three pairs of socks for $8 at The Limited, I saw a framed help wanted notice on the checkout counter.

On the way home, I calculated that at $3.35 an hour, it’d take five four-hour shifts to net $55 after taxes. At that rate, I figured I could be in Guess jeans by the first night game of the Radnor High School football season. And I already had the socks.

Guess what, Mom?” I said, maybe a little smugly, when I got home.

“What?”

“I applied for a job today.” I paused for dramatic effect. “At The Limited. In the mall. So I don’t need you anymore. I can get my own Guess jeans.” I was empowered.

She looked across the table, holding aces. “How are you gonna get there?”

“Well, I’m gonna need a ride. Or I can just take the car. The open shifts are from four to eight, so you don’t even use the car then anyway, and it’s only three nights a week,” I said, trying to tone down the teen-power vibe.

King of Prussia Mall

“Kelly, if you think I am going to let you drive home from the King of Prussia mall at night, you’ve got another thing coming,” she said, as if I had asked to get my own apartment in West Philly. “And I’m not driving out there six times a week. End of conversation.”

“That sucks,” I said, sort of under my breath as I pulled my bag off the table and headed toward the stairs.

“What did you say?” my mom said, burning a hole in my back with her stare. Although my brothers had thrown it out a few times, I had broken new personal ground with sucks.

I had a choice now, retreat with nothing or turn back and fight.

“I said, THAT SUCKS. That REALLY SUCKS.” I could have lifted a bus over my head, for all the adrenaline I had flowing. “You say I can’t have Guess jeans because they cost too much, so I go and get a job so I can pay for them myself and THEN you say, you can’t have the job, you can’t drive to the mall. I am SEVENTEEN years old, Mom. Denise Warner has been working three shifts a week at Thrift Drugs since she was a FRESHMAN.”

“Good for Denise Warner,” said my mom, never one for comparisons.

“Yeah! Good for Denise Warner is right! At least her mom is supportive and understands her and wants her to succeed in life!” I screamed, creating a causal relationship between success in life and Guess jeans. “Why can’t I drive to the mall? I’ve had my license for a year. Have I ever had an accident? A fender bender? A speeding ticket? NEVER. But I might as well have run over an old lady—on my way home from a bar—the way you act. Why don’t you trust me?”

I had elevated the argument from designer jeans to matters of trust and understanding. If I could get it to love, I could seal it.

“First of all, you better stop screaming this minute, missy. Second of all, I do trust you. I do not, however, trust other people. I am not going to let my teenage daughter walk through a dark parking lot after the mall closes, get into a car alone, and drive down deserted roads. I don’t care if you wanted to go feed the poor or join the Latin Club, it is not safe for you to drive a car, at night, alone. And that’s final. Now get upstairs and stay there until I call you for dinner.”

I might have been softened by her single-minded devotion to my safety, but instead I stormed silently to my room, where I scratched out a long note in which the words “I hate living in this house” and “I wish Denise Warner’s mom was my mom” punctuated a longer diatribe about the inhuman way I was being raised.

About a month later, just before the night football game, my mom said, “So if you want, I’ll take you out to King of Prussia today and if we find a pair of Guess jeans, you can try them on.”

“Seriously?” I asked in amped disbelief, as if she had handed me a brand-new Walkman II.

“Yes, but this is an early Christmas present,” she said, “so just remember that when December twenty-fifth comes along and you don’t have as much under the tree as your brothers.” I promised to remember. Of course I would remember. I’d probably be wearing them.

My daughter and I now do this same dance, mostly over screen time but sometimes sweets and sometimes staying up late, lately LuLuLemon yoga pants, which, after four months of hearing pitches, appeared on Christmas morning. I giveth, I taketh away, but mostly I giveth. It’s hard work: holding your line. This girl of mine, she’s a relentless and clever negotiator and I often lose stamina for the fight before she does. And like my mother did that afternoon when I threw my arms around her in gratitude for the jeans, I accept Georgia’s big, luscious thank-you begrudgingly, not sure what lesson I just taught.


This story is from The Middle Place. The follow up, Glitter and Glue comes out Feb. 4 and can be pre-ordered now at a nice discount. Kelly will talking about Glitter and Glue on The Today Show on Feb. 6.