You might say she took an idea and ran with it or, in this case, pedaled. Either way, neighborhood resident Maryon Van Gilder “accidentally” created a fashion sensation that has lasted five decades. Who knew coining the phrase “pedal pusher” would literally have done just that — pushed clothiers into a new design realm. Even with contemporary offshoots like gauchos and capris, the retired designer is still surprised by her creation’s legs.
How did you come up with the idea for “pedal pushers”?
In 1951, I became first designer at Stockton Manufacturing in Dallas and created a clothing line of “coordinated groups.” The groups consisted of three to five pieces that could make up one’s primary wardrobe. During production, we had a bunch of jeans spread out on our tables. Somehow, the paper marker used to measure hemlines was placed too high, and we ended up with 100,000 pairs of really short pants. Thankfully, it occurred to me the pants would be excellent for bike riding because they wouldn’t get caught in the spokes. I told one of my assistants to go ahead and put in a hem, and we’d call them “pedal pushers.”
Did the concept catch on immediately?
It was a buyer’s market at that time, and the big department stores were places such as JC Penney and Sears. When their buyers came to look at our designs, they absolutely loved them and the volume went up pretty quickly. At first, I remember having to hide some of my “pedal pusher” designs in a closet for some of the big buyers to secretly view. I was one of the youngest designers and wanted to make sure I was fully compensated for my work before anyone else got a hold of the idea.
How did you market the trend?
After the pants caught on locally, I began traveling about five a times a year to New York to meet with textile designers in order to diversify the line. Back then, to locally find fabric other than denim, you usually had to turn to the black market. The only thing manufacturers were making were blue jeans, so I’d go to the East Coast to have floral, plaid and solid prints made. The traveling also helped expose the concept to new markets.
Do you like the direction your original creation has gone since the 1950s?
Yes and no. There aren’t a lot of manufacturers left in town these days, and designers don’t seem to be coming up with anything different. A lot of manufacturing jobs have been shipped overseas, and there’s a cap on creativity, which I think is a tragedy. I’m very fortunate to have worked in the place I did at a time when designing was fun. I was able to be creative and come up with new concepts. That whole scene has changed.
Does it make you smile when you see derivatives of the “pedal pusher” design in clothing stores?
That was such a fun time in my life, and I really enjoyed it. When you’re young like that, acceptance and admiration of your work is always exciting. You definitely get a lot of self-confidence out of being able to say, “Hey, this is hot.” I was always proud to be the first one to put something new in a store window. I’m always seeing stuff that I did back then, and it’s a great feeling. Fashion is a seven-year cycle, and I’m proud to be a part of it.