I’ve always been a fashion-conscious person, not that you could always tell by looking. I grew up in suburban Iowa (although, can it be a suburb if there is no urb?), and Seventeen Magazine didn’t push me far enough, so I turned to the hard stuff. I devoured every issue of Vogue starting at age 12.
Not having access to the things I saw, both because of where I lived and because I was poor, I tried to recreate the $1,000 outfits with $2 thrift store dresses, Army Navy surplus sweaters, and homemade stuff. By the time I moved to New York to work in the fanciest salon with the most fashionable people (and most of the fashion industry), I knew my Dior from Donna Karan at first glance.
But that knowledge was worth almost as much as the tips I got for washing hair. My interest in fashion was still more or less theoretical. For the people I met in the salon, it was a definite way of life. I made a lot of rookie mistakes, but I learned to mitigate them by a combination of self-imposed and salon-enforced uniform.
After a couple of months working as an assistant, I had narrowed down my wardrobe to my most practical, least risky pieces. But I still had to be thrifty. I thought the details could be compromised, but it turns out that everyone can tell a knockoff shoe from the real thing. Synthetic fibers actually offended the upper crust.
I’d also figured a few things out about what worked, practically speaking, in the salon. We were allowed to wear a virtual rainbow of black, white, and beige, but I opted for all black, since white always got ruined by hair color (or soup). At least bleach-marked black could be colored in with a Sharpie -- there were stashes of markers all over the salon. Between bending over, washing hair, stashing clips, and standing all day, my style choices were limited to short sleeves and high necks, knee-length skirts or pants, and no accessories. All black, of course. Thank goodness it was the ‘90s and minimalism was de rigueur.
My favorite pair of pants was unlined polyester that I thought looked pretty riche. They fit well, draped well, didn’t wrinkle, and stayed clean looking. They were my go-to choice and I wore them at least a couple of days a week.
I’d been working really hard to be the best assistant in the salon. I was always on time in the mornings and I stayed late to close up. I was cheerful (without crossing the line into chipper or perky), did everything before I was asked, and tried to anticipate every stylist’s needs before they even knew what they needed.
I gave killer shampoos, massaging each head as though a genie might come out, and the clients really seemed to like me. I mostly got along with all the stylists and colorists, and some of the receptionists. Alicia, the salon manager, loved me (which was a little problematic since everyone hated her), and her tight-ship style suited my anal tendencies.
One day, when I was bustling around the salon feeling pretty darn good in my best pants, Alicia approached and said “Heather, I need to speak with you when you have a moment.”
My mind went into overdrive. I went through every single client for the last week, wondering where I’d screwed up. Could I have mixed a color rinse wrong? Did I spill coffee on anyone? Did I give the wrong coat out? Was I too chatty?
I couldn’t think of a single incident that was “need to talk” worthy, so my mind swung the opposite direction. Was I being promoted already? Had I been such an asset to everyone that they wanted to see what else I could do? I would be the youngest -- and first female -- stylist that salon had ever had!
I finished up what I was doing, and Alicia met me out in the waiting area. I sat perched on the edge of one of the plush velvet club chairs and Alicia took the one diagonal, perched the same way. She folded her hands in her lap. I matched her pose. She smiled. I smiled back.
“LaVerne thinks you’re doing an excellent job,” she said. I smiled bigger. I was getting promoted! Ohmygodohmygod, would the other assistants finally like me, or would they revolt? How much would I be able to charge at first? Would Allure feature me right away? I guess I’d have to learn how to do updos.
Alicia continued, “And he thinks you have a panty-line issue.”
My smile stayed on my lips, but fell from my eyes. I did a mental check. I KNEW I was wearing the right underwear with my pants. I had a special pair, advertised as “seamless” and made of the thinnest cotton. I’d asked my roommate if I had any lines the first time I paired them. Curse her! I tried to look as though this information was totally normal to be hearing, pleasant even. I’ve never been good about faking it. My face shows all my thoughts.
Alicia saw my reaction and closed her eyes to collect herself before plowing forward.
“He says you have three choices,” she said before opening her eyes. “One: You can get really buff really fast. Two: You can wear a thong. Three: You can go without.”
She looked really embarrassed to be ticking these options off on her fingers, but not nearly as embarrassed as I was to be considering them. Salons don’t have an HR department to tell people not to have these conversations. My boss, the greatest hairstylist alive, was thinking about me not wearing underwear, and the salon manager was suggesting that I not wear underwear. They’d all been looking at my butt. They’d been talking about my butt. They’d been talking about ways to make my butt look better. And all along, I’d thought my efforts were a success. Underwear betrayal!
I don’t have the best ass in the world. It probably doesn’t even rank in the top half. I was never an athletic kid, and my figure suggests ancestors who spent a lot of time squatting, tending to fires and low, shady crops. The best thing about my ass was how I busted it making life easier for everyone at work, but clearly that didn’t matter.
I didn’t even know what getting “really buff really fast” would entail. I imagined foregoing brownies for breakfast in favor of Buns of Steel workouts and immediately ruled out that option. Going without sounded like really awkward conversations with the dry cleaner, so I guessed I was left with the thong, the underwear I'd imagined only masochists and strippers wore.
Well, if LaVerne didn’t like my ass now, he sure wasn’t going to like it without an extra layer of coverage over it, but I didn’t suppose this was the kind of conversation he’d be willing to order twice. He’d get what he wished for. Maybe I could leverage my dimpled derrière into a clothing allowance so I could afford lined pants.
Beyond wading into unknown underwear territory, I was double-crushed, thinking about what an idiot I must be for thinking I’d be promoted. One “I need to talk to you” and my sights were in the skies. Was my ego really so inflated that I thought I’d be given a huge jump in position just because I swept the floor better than anyone else?
Two massive reality checks in one simple statement humbled me beyond where I thought possible. But I stopped at Bloomingdale’s on the way home to buy my first thong. It was a lot less uncomfortable than I thought it would be, and definitely better than knowing my squishy butt was up for discussion over my skills. And come to think of it, I’d never seen one single panty line in Vogue. It was a small step for me, a giant leap for everyone who checked out my butt.