Style, Power, Poverty & Identity

Ann Marie Houghtailing
4 min readApr 17, 2023

My mother grew up in poverty on a sugar plantation in Hawaii. She worked hard her entire life just to survive. We never had money when I was growing up, but we always had style and a clean, well-appointed home. Poverty was not a barrier to finding beauty in unexpected, humble places. Style didn’t require money. It required imagination. It was a way to express individualism, creativity and even power.

My mother’s Hawaiian upbringing meant that our lives were always bursting with color and pattern. No one just wore black, not even to a funeral. They wore bold Aloha prints saturated with color. The first time I attended a funeral where everyone wore black, I was struck with how a color changes the way we mourn. There was nothing somber or bland about my mother’s approach to style.

My mother never dyed her hair. Not even once. Her long hair fell to her waist and was always coiffed in a perfect chignon and sprayed into obediance with a cloud of Aqua Net. Her clothes, as well as ours, were pressed so that sleeves popped when we pushed our arm through them. These were things that my mother could control in the chaos of poverty. We had dignity and thanks to never having much materially, we developed the ability to dress ourselves for the life we wanted.

Thrift stores and garage sales were not the domain of the hip or sustainably minded, they were how we clothed ourselves. Sometimes my mother would take me shopping for school clothes at K-Mart and put things on lay-away and pay a little bit every week until we finally got to claim these items as our own. These were special, infrequent excursions.

My mother talked a lot about how to carry oneself. My mother would instruct me to stand tall and keep my shoulders back. Good posture was free so there was no excuse. My mother always had low paying hourly jobs, but always showed up on time and immaculately dressed.

Today I can afford to buy retail, but rarely do. Much of my wardrobe is vintage, thrifted or deeply discounted. I still love the thrill of the hunt and the creativity of putting an outfit together that no one else has. It’s magic and reminds me of how my mother gave me so much with so little.

My mother died a couple of years ago at the age of 86 and she was still sewing patches on to vintage blazers for me and ironing her outfits. She wore lipstick to the senior center where she worked out and made sure to lay her clothes out the night before, the way she taught me as a school girl. Being able to prepare an outfit was a ritual and a pleasure.

I was a small kid who got bullied a lot and beaten up upon occasion. Clothing was a way for me to claim my own power. I have always made unapologetic, bold sartorial choices and have never been seduced by what’s trendy or “in” style. What I wore might have made me a target of derision, but it also set me free.

I was never on trend and don’t generally suffer from wanting what others have. I’m fascinated by the concept of trends but can’t resist rebelling. I’m astonished by the desire to have something from a singular point of view and the way these desires for uniform self expression create a profitable marketplace.

Trends prey on a yearning for sameness, as if there is some strange safety in something as banal as a handbag or jacket. Trends hold the faint promise of belonging or acceptance. I could never quite understand paying a lot of money for something that’s everywhere. How does owning something expensive and common make anyone feel powerful?

I own lots of things that have been discarded or left behind. I love imagining the life these pieces had before me and I love giving them a new life. We are quick to reach for things that are new and abandon what is old, but I will always be enamored by the storied past of a vintage brooch or an old tweed blazer. I’ll take your grandmother’s silk scarf that she wore when she kissed a boy that made her heart beat faster or the jacket your dad wore for his first job interview or the tie your uncle bought on his first trip to Italy.

I don’t own any heirlooms from my own family. But I cherish the skills my mother imparted. Because of her teachings, I will always have enough.

You can follow Annmarie’s sartorial choices, artwork and home style on Instagram at trailsnotpaths



Ann Marie Houghtailing

Ann marie Houghtailing is the co founder of Story Imprinting, a communications firm that teaches clients the art and science of storytelling.