20 February 2008

The other side of Volvo-style

For parents who always expounded the virtues of not just proper grammar but beautifully constructed proper grammar, my Mother and Father sure did stick me with one hell of pronunciation pickle when it comes to my given name and the nickname by which I was exclusively known until the age of 24 when my graduate school adviser advised me to "select" something else.

"Anything else," I believe he put it.

But well before I arrived at that rather humbling moment, it was at the tender age of eight when I confronted the more tell it like it is half of my parental unit using my already seasoned brand of passive-aggressiveness for advice on how to remedy the frustration that was my constantly mispronounced names:



"Can I ask you something? It's important."

"Of course, what is it?"

"How would you say the word, 't-a-n-n-i-n-g'?"

"The word, what? Uh...tanning. Why?"

"How would you say, 'p-i-n-n-e-d'?"


"What about, 'r-u-n-n...'"

"Is there a point to this exercise, Johanna, and if so, are we nearing it? I have exams to grade and..."

"The point, Dad, is that I don't understand why the second syllable of my given name and the first syllable of my nickname are pronounced with a short 'o' when every other word with that vowel/consonant arrangement has taught me to use a short 'a'."

(turning away from his desk and toward me, lowering his bifocals, smiling)

"Good grief, you. I've created a monster."

What does this dilemma -one for which a satisfying resolution wasn't reached until my teenage years when I finally discovered "Johanna" and "Hannie" were originally assigned to me with traditional German pronunciations and thus not meant to be held to the same phonetic rules as their American counterparts- have to do with what happened to me at the airport on Monday or the Volvo-style epiphany to which I alluded in yesterday's post?

Plenty, actually.

Due to my parents' insistence I assume a name with an affectation unnatural to those in this country, people will more likely get my name wrong than right. Over time, I've trained myself to let the "Joannas," the "Johannahs" and the "Hannees" slide right by, correcting only those with whom I knew I would have a close and continuing relationship and being sure to do so in an almost self-deprecating manner so as to preempt any unnecessary apologies that might follow.

Likewise, now that my hair is at a length more commonly associated with the opposite sex, people are much more likely to misidentify my gender. Big deal. Sunday was not the first time, and I don't expect it will be the last. As with the name situation, I don't see any real benefit to my raising the issue with the Dereks of the world other than to boost my own sense of "I'm right/you're wrong"-edness, which frankly, by the end of the day, smacks more of pathetic than victorious.

And now, finally, the epiphany.

In the past two months, I've had encounters with three women, all of these women extremely well-intentioned and all of them brazen enough to approach me, a complete stranger, at a party, on the street and in a department store for no other reason than to pay me an "I love your _____" compliment.

But the thing was, unlike the majority of admirers who offer their "I love your _____" praise and move on, this trio of women took their liking of my shoes, bracelet and coat a step further by unknowingly misidentifying them as items they just plain weren't.

And let me be clear, when I say misidentify, I mean really, really misidentify.

If you'll recall, a woman with something I like to call "Volvo-style" is a woman who dresses no less luxe than her Lamborghini lot-mate but does so in a much less overt, much less attention-whoring manner; she's the one in Jil Sander and Calvin Klein, not Cavalli and Fendi. Not surprisingly, I aspire to the idea of the former, and up until a couple of months ago when I had my first of the three aforementioned interactions, I thought I had been well on my way.

Thought would be the operative word.

I was wrong, for a Volvo woman, I have come to realize, is much more than just her sleek paint job and minimalist high-end stereo system, she is also the embodiment of fashion humility, someone who, even when given a gift-wrapped opportunity to sit alone atop braggart butte prefers the view down below where she can comfortably mingle with all models and makes. She owns a room gradually, quietly, more effectively.

A Volvo woman is the type who, when asked by an unobservant but awfully sweet woman at a formal event if she, too, purchased her "awesome" patent leather pumps at Ross for $29.99 would smile and either falsely acknowledge she had, or if white lies aren't her thing, avoid the question altogether by offering up a compliment on what a fantastic bargain her new acquaintance had found in her admittedly "very similar" shoes.

She would not, however, scrunch her face into a mess of hurt, insult and fury, and without thinking, launch into a story of how she'd bought her MARNI pumps at SAKS and how they'd been her SPLURGE of the Christmas season and how even though they were EXPENSIVE what was the point of owning well-made DESIGNER SHOES if one didn't wear them out every chance one got?

Believe me, no sooner had the words tumbled out of my mouth than I was looking for a hiding spot and an Opus Dei cilice. I might've been wearing a simple black dress with small onyx studs but my outburst made me feel as tacky, overaccessorized and logo-emblazoned as Eve circa 2002.

The subsequent interactions concerning my bracelet and Winter coat were not nearly as regretful as the one with my shoes, but all three incidents forced me to recognize I'm very much a Volvo in training at this point, because even though it may not be overt, it may not be exclusive and it may not be frequent, there is no denying I still flush with misguided pride over the enhanced status wearing a higher quality bit or bauble affords me.

In sum, I've let my dentist call me "Joanna" for years, and I laugh it off when airport security mistakes me for a man; it's only fitting the next time a nice stranger calls my ____ "awesome" and compares their ____ to mine -whether there is or isn't a several hundred dollar difference between the two- I will be much more careful not to let the little bit of Lamborghini I have inside of me creep its way down the driveway again.


C said...

So you're saying my response in situations: "Why yes, they are from Forever 21. Your mother sold them to me," is undignified? Pish posh.

Anonymous said...

I don't get this post AT ALL

Anonymous said...

Of all people to be spouting the virtues of humility...I'm shocked.

Kate said...

I really admire you for writing this. I am sure that you knew you would be opening yourself up to criticism - perhaps more than with any other post - but you did it anyway, and with aplomb.
This was by far the best you have ever done.

Anonymous No More said...

Great Post. I think class and manners are wildly underated in DC, but fixing that would be bigger fish to fry than ending square toed pumps and crocs. However, a reminder every now and again keeps us all in check.

Johanna said...


It's all in the delivery. As long as your tagline isn't followed by a hair flip, hip jut and full-body eye-scan, you're safe.

Or in your case, completely UNsafe.


Anonymous said...

About the name pronounciation thing, those of us without the "h" in our names have similar issues. I have the British version of the name and my personal pet peeve is when the "a" is completely dropped from my name and replaced with an E. That's just unacceptable :-)


Anonymous said...

you should have just bought ross's version.

Caroline said...

something very similar happened to me a few years ago when I was standing with my younger sister at one of those knock-off bag stands in Georgetown. this nice woman who was definitely an out of town tourist commented on how she loved my bag and could I believe some people actually paid "a hundred dollars" for these things?

how I wanted to scream back that I'd saved for months to buy my precious Chloe satchel and that it wasn't in the same league or even sport with these other plastic pieces of crap! I didn't, I just bit my lip.

there are very few women who get rid of that feeling, Johanna, but it's like you said, how you deal with it is more important.

confused said...

let me get this straight, you're telling us it's more correct to lie about our nice items than to come out and own them? what kind of advice is that??

Anonymous said...

C - really? You're going to make fun of someone for having a job? Perhaps a second job? To put food on the table or pay for education? Maybe a second job to just be able to sock a little away AND buy designer goodies without the guilt?

I can't wait to get out of this stinkin' city and back to Texas where even the millionaire next door wears blue jeans...and not necessarily designer ones at that. Austin, I'm coming baby. Ten years is too long to be apart.

Anonymous said...


J's shoes and Caroline's bag ARE in the same league as their knock-off counterparts. Sure, the designer versions hold up a lot longer, but in the end, it serves the same function -- something to cover your feet, or something to put of all your crap in.

No one gives a crap if your version costs 10 times as much. Except you. Good-bye, ASJINE, you're just too much.

bff in chicago said...

anon 10:06 makes me laugh out frickin' loud.

buh-bye, don't let your self righteousness hit your ass on the way out!

people are allowed to take pride in the art they collect, the house they buy but apparently not the clothing or accessories they wear. stupid, stupid, stupid.

tess said...

since anon 10:06 missed J's point entirely, I think we're in good stead to be rid of her.

this was an honest and thoughtful post, one of my favorites.

Get Over Yourself said...

Anon 10:04 - I live in Austin, and we're doing just fine without you and your sanctimonious holier than thou attitude. Try someplace else?

sycophants and haters are equally awful said...

This is why I never ask anyone where they bought anything.

kerrie said...

A woman I work with, who is extremely wealthy (and lovely) had complimented me on my handbag and flashed her own similar bag in my direction. Mine was $30 from Commander Salmanders. Her bag was most definitely not from Commander Salamanders, and the price tag not remotely comparable to mine.

She now hates me.

Anonymous said...

get over yourself - "holier than thou?" Really? Sticking up for the little guy instead of making fun of hard-working individuals means I think I'm better than someone else? I just don't get that. Sorry.

Oh, and I'm a native Austinite so, tough cookie...I'm coming home. If you aren't a native then maybe YOU should take your yankee booty and scoot on out of my town. Worse than a yankee...someone from Cali.

first time commenter said...

saying that a bag is a bag is just any old bag is such a frustrating attitude and one of the main reasons I left the city I did for NY. I don't have a problem with you not loving and appreciating fashion with the same intensity J and I do, but where I think you've gone off track is when you equate a piece of designer art with something that came off the assembly line. regardless of price difference, I'm talking about design and construction, and sorry, but Marni and Chloe are NOT the same as Ross shoes or a PVC knockoff.

if you really think so, why not take a little of J's humility and keep that thought to yourself instead of insulting the values of most of the readers of this blog?

georgia said...

While a deal is great and is to be applauded...there's nothing that compares to the feeling of splurging on something decadent and loving every minute of using/wearing it. Those who like to talk deals at social events bum me out. :(

K said...

This was beautifully written, and not just because it contains my new favorite phrase, "braggart butte."


Anonymous said...

Yes, this was VERY well written....beautiful. Nice job tying it all together. :)

Noel in Austin, TX said...

I don't think there's anything wrong with buying trendy items from a "discount" store like Ross or Forever 21. Many people like to follow trends, but don't have the money to burn on the designer item.

Having said that, I also think it's fine to take pride in the high-end items you own. When I save for weeks to buy a nice piece, I want to be able to enjoy it.

Bottom line: A true lady never makes anyone else feel small whether their belongings cost $20 or $2000.

Right on, Jo.



Teek said...

I love that you can slyly stick in references to Eve and Opus Dei in the same paragraph. Opus Dei!

And I'm one of those horrible bores at parties who loves to talk bargains. I should probably be more aware that not everyone thinks a dress at 70% off is innately more fabulous and exciting than the same dress at full price.

philly fan said...

I think we've all had that encounter where someone genuinely mistakes one of our favorite lower end pieces for something much more expensive. Remember how good that felt? Now take that and put it in reverse. Any of these commenters who say they wouldn't be wounded if one of their higher end pieces were taken for a discount item is full of it.


brown rowergirl said...

I don't know which I enjoyed more, "braggart butte" or imagining an 8 year old Johanna having a serious discussion about phonetics with her professor Father. I think it's a draw ;)

Anonymous said...

I had to read it twice, but I agree that this is one of your best. The way you put yourself out there as an example of how *not* to act is admirable and a good lesson for those of us who tend to get caught up in the prettiness of upmarket fashion on a very regular basis.

I also aspire to the goal of achieving Volvo style but it's a tough road!

Fellow DC-er with a serious job and a serious love of fashion said...

Yes, it's nice that you'll let slip comments from the fashion proles... but the real problem here is that you feel somehow superior because you paid a lot of money for an item. Paying a hefty pricetag for a shoe, a bag, a bracelet is not something in which you should take pride. It's not an accomplishment. It doesn't set you apart as a better person. And the fact that you seem to think it DOES -- whether you express that or not -- is troubling.

Anonymous said...

I think it's all about confidence and wearing what suits you. I think that's the definition of style. You can't deny that a more expensive shoe or dress will be of a higher quality and be better-designed, but I've also seen women wearing an obviously expensive mess of an outfit. Then again, a beautiful understated classy outfit, while less noticeable at first glance, is ultimately much more of pleasure to look at and wear than a bunch of trendy articles thrown together.

I'd also add that a well-made shoe is worth its weight in gold. Linda Grant has a quote on her blog, The Thoughtful Dresser, that reads: "Only the rich can afford cheap shoes." I agree 100%

Prêt-à-Porter P said...

a well written post
i think we all have our foot in the mouth moments

Anonymous said...

Oh my god people. Are all of your sarcasm detectors in the shop this week?

Anonymous said...

You can get expensive, well-made items for less, always. With coupons, sales, discount stores that carry high-end items, NEVER PAY RETAIL! Take the money you save and do something great with it--put it toward your savings, your retirement, donate it, buy your grandmother a birthday present. Yes, invest in some pieces, but you can always find high quality for less, always.

Johanna said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Johanna said...

Whoah, hold up, I've never felt superior to anyone simply because of something I was wearing -- that was not why I blurted out what I did about my more expensive shoes. My little outburst at the party was motivated much more by my selfish desire to have this woman appreciate the detailing and the quality that went into their construction than the fact I was wearing them. It's tantamount to how my friend who loves firearms and trucks gets when I mistake a Glock for a Smith & Wesson or a classic Ford-150 for a Toyota Tacoma. When you love something and love it for all its uniqueness, to be confronted by someone -nice as they may be- who doesn't get it...well, it's inevitably going to be a little frustrating.

The second incident may prove my point more. I have a carved black coral and yellow gold dragon-head bangle (a gift from my Indonesian Oma), and when I was in Zara a few weeks back, a woman approached me and said, "Hey, I have that same one! Kenneth Jay Lane, right?" Now, I immediately knew to which KJL bangle she was referring, and frankly, the two have similarities in that one has a tiger head and one has a dragon head, but other than that, they look and are completely different pieces of jewelery. When I explained mine was actually an heirloom from my Oma, I got total attitude! It was almost as if she thought I had made the whole thing up to make her feel inadequate.

Maybe I wasn't clear, but what I meant this post to impart was that no matter how much you cherish something, expensive or inexpensive, new or vintage, to have someone misidentify it, especially in a way that degrades its value -monetary or otherwise- can present a social challenge.

that's all. really.


Nicci said...

Great post Johanna (incidentally, I have a class with a Johanna of the same pronunciation, who has to correct our professor at least once a week). I'm proud of you for being willing to show that we're all human. To all those who say a Payless is a Candies is a Prada - that's cool, you're entitled to your own opinions and priorities for what you spend your money on. But for those who've given up the Friday-night movies, traded eating out for sack lunches, and taken the bus vs driving all in a quest for that One Item, you've got every right to feel proud of your accomplishment!

Johanna said...

p.s. to anonymous 1:09, I have to disagree with you. aside from the occasional "Holy Sh*t!" find, it is extremely difficult to find clothing that has the quality of construction, the originality of design and attention to detailing that most designer clothing is known for. Stores that have to mass produce can't afford to churn out clothing that meets all three of these criteria for a low price. They just can't. There's vintage, of course, but I gathered from your mention of "coupons" you were speaking about new clothing.

dc lawyer said...

this reminds me of my friend who went to WashU in St. Louis for undergrad and always lets people get away with the common mistake that she went to a public school in Washington State. It sounds awful and I'm not bashing public schools at all, in any way, but I know after working as hard as she did to get in there, I could never be so humble as not to at least correct someone when they assume I went somewhere else.

And for the record, I'm from TX as well (Dallas) and we DO NOT all wear jeans.

new to the crowd said...

You're a beautiful writer, J.

Elle said...

One of my proudest moments, Johanna, was when you asked me if my $98 Guess pumps were Louboutins.

Anonymous said...

I don't really get the argument here. This was a very well written post about a moment that many people (at least I have) experienced, one way or another. I enjoyed it, J, so thanks.

Anyway, if I may share a foot in my mouth moment, a while ago I had lunch with a stylish client. I noticed she was carrying a new bag, so I asked her "Is that new?". Unfortunately, she thought I asked "is that real?" (which I would never have asked. I also, at that moment, did not have a clue what kind of bag it was, except that it was clearly high quality). I was mortified. I still think she thought that was really what I asked. And when I later saw it at Saks and realized it was YSL, I felt even worse. Sometimes, you end up with your foot in your mouth through no fault of your own... just crappy acoustics.

-another aspiring Volvo girl

blast from the past said...

the "when I was little" label is so much fun to look through. I still see so much of the high school you, even with that super chic cut and serious job!

Anonymous said...

"I've never felt superior to anyone simply because of something I was wearing."

Your original post acknowledged that you felt "enhanced status" when you wear designer things. Whether the status you're talking about is monetary or aesthetic, there's more than a whiff of superiority about it.

I'm conflicted about the post. It's refreshingly honest, but at the same time I don't think anyone should be thrown a parade just because she's made the command decision to accept compliments gracefully.

Johanna said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Johanna said...

When I said "enhanced status" I didn't mean relative to the company I was keeping but rather relative to how I would have felt had I not been wearing the item in question.

Anonymous said...

I get what you are saying - it's brave to admit to this streak of vanity, and it's a fine line to tread. As a man, I DO understand there is genuine value in "expensive" fashion items, especially when the extra cost translates to better cut, fabrics, tailoring, and fit, because those are functional aspects of clothing. I still don't understand how that value translates to a $2000 handbag, as the functional point of diminishing returns is quickly reached on something designed to hold your lipstick and ID when you go out... there's only so much you can do to about $75 worth of fine leather to enhance its functionality. The rest of the cost must therefore be attributed to "design beauty." It is at this point - calculating the actual value of beauty that should be passed on to the consumer- where my Y chromosome generates a fatal logic error and I am left scratching my head.

Dave said...

The mean people are picking on Jo-Ana, Jo-Hannah, Jo-Ha-Nah

brown rowergirl said...

your Milanese twin has top billing on The Sartorialist!

l.a. woman said...

This was so honest and fresh. I really enjoyed reading it and passed it onto several of my fashionable friends. You'll definitely have a few new readers in L.A. which is good considering how little manners seem to matter in this town among women.

Anonymous said...

If their powers of observation are that skewed and if the gap between the aesthetic idea and the actual execution of the "similar" fashion items is something they don't get, they obviously cannot acknowledge the distinctions were you so inclined to try to communicate them.

Righteous (re)Style said...

Interesting discussion, if even some if it was (again) used for pointless attacks on Jo. Honestly, is it really that important to share your negative opinions in this forum? Anyway, just wanted to add a thought: unfortunately, a lot of designer items are now manufactured in the same factories that make the cheaper versions. Since many of the fashion houses are no longer private companies owned by families, but are public entities that have to respond to shareholders, the bottom line has become very important. Consequently, fashion houses that may have previously made products in Europe, have now been forced to find cheaper manufacturing. There is a really good book out called "Deluxe: How Luxury Lost its Luster" that talks about this. So, although one would assume that a designer item should last longer, it may have the same life as a cheaper version. I think what you often pay for is a combination of unique, interesting design and branding, but the quality is probably less than what is should be. Like the book implies, luxury really isn't as luxurious as it used to be.

Sandra said...

I just discovered your blog. Bookmarked. I appreciate your honesty. I can totally relate as I have stuck my foot in my mouth many, many times.

I have to admit, I am not much of a label bragger though. I am pretty damned tacky. I will brag about how little I paid. I told everyone I knew I bought my wedding dress on eBay for $112. My affluent cousins from Mexico were mortified.