by Kristin Armstrong
Illustration by Heather Sundquist
When I was in my twenties, broke and inexperienced, trying to look like I knew what I was doing in my corporate job, I thought style meant “expensive.” I coveted anything with a brand name or a pricey price tag, because to me it meant that I was going places. I was somebody. Respect me, dammit. Do you know how much this handbag costs?
I have a memory of myself from that time, driving through traffic (or what we thought was traffic back then—ha!) to get to the ACC Pinnacle campus to give a big marketing presentation for work. I worked for a videoconferencing company at the time and gave sales pitches over video. I still drove my first car, a red Jeep Wrangler. It felt a lot better to have a car with no windows or doors back at Miami of Ohio than it did in Austin in August. I wore a jewel-toned Ann Taylor suit with shoulder pads. I wore nude-toned panty hose and sensible pumps. My car was overheating and the clutch was making weird noises, and I was sweating my young ass off in my hose sitting on black leather seats. I kept having to pull over and let the car rest, with the late afternoon sun beating down on me and sweat trickling down my back. I was running late and getting nervous.
I wore a jewel-toned Ann Taylor suit with shoulder pads. I wore nude-toned panty hose and sensible pumps. My car was overheating and the clutch was making weird noises, and I was sweating my young ass off in my hose sitting on black leather seats.
My car finally sputtered and died just as I turned into ACC, which you may know is at the bottom of a giant hill. I looked at my watch. I had no cell phone, because I’m old and no one had cell phones yet. I think the Internet was just being unveiled as a mysterious thing. I had no choice but to make a run for it. I wasn’t even a runner at the time; I did occasional step aerobics in white Reebok high-tops with a Velcro strap, but running was out of the question. Nonetheless, I took off my sensible pumps and ran up that hill in my royal blue Ann Taylor suit with my Coach briefcase (that I didn’t really need, but thought made me look professional) banging against my hip.
I showed up with minutes to spare as my salesperson was making small talk and killing time, waiting on me. “Where the hell have you been?” he hissed at me. Then he did a double take, eyes widening. I must have been a sight. Shoes in my hand, toes sticking out my ripped, snagged nude pantyhose, drenched in sweat, tomato-red face, pit circles on my blazer, wet hair sticking to my cheeks, panting.
My usual young self would have been apologetic, embarrassed by the wreckage of my appearance, and utterly terrified of being fired. Looking back, I guess I was too hot, too tired, and too pissed off to play small.
“I’ll tell you where I’ve been. Busting my ass to get here for you, that’s where. Now give me a second to pull it together and I’m on,” I growled. I made a run for the nearest bathroom, splashed cold water on my face, tried to dry my pits under the hand dryer, pulled my wet hair into a ponytail, threw my ripped hose into the sanitary napkin trashcan in the bathroom stall, stepped into my pumps, and strutted out.
The room was ominously quiet and my salesperson looked nervous. I straightened my 22-year-old shoulder-padded shoulders and did what my Dad always told me to do when I was nervous about a speech—pause, breathe, smile, and start with a joke. I stepped up, looked around the room of executives, took a deep breath, smiled, and told the story about my car troubles and afternoon hill sprint before I launched into one of the best presentations of my high-tech career.
That was the day I learned about real style.
Style isn’t about what you put on—it’s what shines through. It isn’t what kind of bag you are carrying—it’s the way you carry yourself. It isn’t the gorgeous outfit that makes you confident. It’s the confidence that makes the outfit gorgeous. It isn’t how much everything costs. It’s how much you know you are worth.
Read more from the Style Issue | September 2017