Dressing the part, but keeping your style: Internship Overload Live with Jenna Johnson

Jun 30, 2011

The first challenge of an intern's day often involves opening the closet door and trying to figure out what to wear.

During the school year, most college students don't think twice as they throw on jeans, sweat or yoga pants, t-shirts or simple sundresses, sneakers or flip-flops. Then summer internship season hits, and they are expected to own a professional wardrobe.

But, wait, what is a professional wardrobe? And how do you put one together on a meager student budget? What are the dos and don'ts of workplace fashion? If you are an unpaid intern, are you allowed to dress more casually? Are jeans ever okay? Is it acceptable to wear the same thing everyday? And as D.C. summers get muggier and muggier, is it okay to wear less and less clothing?

We will discuss the intersection of fashion and interns (along with college students with "real" jobs) on Thursday at 1 p.m. Jenna will be joined by Katherine Boyle, the assistant styles editor at Washington Post Express and Fashion Washington and Rachel Cothran, the voice behind the popular blog Project Beltway.

Campus Overload's Jenna Johnson chronicles national college news, drinking fads, admissions buzz and the latest exploits of interns on her blog each day. In her live chat, she answers your questions about life on campus -- and life off campus, too.

Happy Thursday, everyone!

Whenever I chat about interns, I usually get at least one question along the lines of, "What in the world do I wear?"

So, let's devote an entire chat to the topic! (And this advice isn't just for interns. It applies to anyone starting a new job or simply trying to navigate an office's unspoken dress code.)

I am so lucky to have two fabulous (and fashionable) guests with me today: Katherine Boyle of Washington Post Express and Fashion Washington, and Rachel Cothran of the popular blog Project Beltway.

And hopefully chat producer Ryan Kellett (also, very fashionable) can jump in with a guy's point-of-view.

Hi, everyone! Rachel from Project Beltway joining the chat today to help answer your burning fashion queries. Thanks to Jenn and Katherine for hosting me.

Oh, and a question for all of YOU to answer: What one fashion faux pas did you commit at your first internship or job?

(Mine would be dressing up too much for a newsroom internship. After getting laughed at by train engineers for wearing a skirt to a rail yard AND walking miles along a parade route in heels, I learned that sometimes it's okay to wear jeans and sneakers.)

So much of intern fashion advice centers on the ladies -- but how about some general tips for guys? I know that this is Washington, but what simple things can they do to not look like Hill drones in blazers?

This tip will serve you well as an intern and as a well, working drone: fit! Take this opportunity (ladies AND gents) to build a wardrobe on someone else's dime (making probably a big assumption that many interns still get help from the parents). Get yourself a nice summer-weight suit and then get thee to a tailor. Fit is possibly the MOST important thing for men, in my opinion. Other than that, some simple ideas: a thinner tie, a tie bar to go with it, a snappy checkered shirt in a color like purple.

Agreed with fit comments. I'd add that it's okay to be adventurous so long as you establish a baseline. For many guys it means a "fit" set of shirts and pants. Then you can get creative with ties, shoes, belts, vests, etc.

The epic pantyhose debate. I think we all know pantyhose are a must on the first day or for important meetings, but are they still a must for a business casual office on a daily basis?

They’re definitely not a must. Pantyhose is always tricky. Two years ago wearing nude pantyhose, even in very serious professions, was a fashion faux pas. Then, black sheer became popular in Europe, and now, with the help of those beautiful Middleton girls, sheer tights are popular again. I see it turning around here, too. It’s definitely not a must-do in the office, more a matter of personal preference. For pale women like myself, I think tights and pantyhose always give legs a better shape.


High heels - how high is too high?

This is one of my favorite questions! It’s not about the heel, it’s about how you walk in them. If you can walk in 6-inch heels, by all means, wear them. But I’ve never met a woman who looks fabulous walking in 6-inch heels. For the office, I wouldn’t wear anything higher than three inches. What if you need to carry heavy boxes? You’ll fall over in platforms. Nothing is less fashionable than a woman who looks uncomfortable in her stilettos.


I am worried about being sexiled. I want my room to be a haven (and will respect my assigned-roommate's presumably similar desires), and I am not willing to be denied access to my room and space OR ELSE be considered uncooperative. Additionally, I would feel totally violated if my roommate were to engage in any sort of sexual activity in my presence. Is this perspective very minority on most campuses?

You are not alone -- most college students are totally uncomfortable lying in bed and hearing a roommate go at it in the next bunk. This is a college dorm, not a porn set. (Actually, Tufts University recently banned sexiling your roommate.)

So, you shouldn't hesitate to bring this up with your roommate. Usually colleges require roomies to fill out and sign a contract that spells out room rules. Use this as an opportunity to tell your roommate your concerns.

Realize that you can't prohibit your dormmate from ever having sex -- but come up with a strategy and plan that works for both of you, perhaps "reserving" the room via text message if things get hot.

Remember, you don't ALWAYS have to be in your room. One of my best friends in the world was a girl on my floor whose room I sometimes escaped to while sexiled... and vice versa.

I just had to respond to your intro . . . being a poor intern or entry level or LT employee doesn't excuse not dressing appropriately for the office. A couple of basics will see you through a summer.

For a woman, think mix and match and think basics. A tan suit (jacket and skirt) and a black suit, a couple of white blouses and t-shirts, a pair of slacks (again, neutral) and several scarves will get you a long way. Maybe a shirt dress if you are going to go crazy. They can mix and match. Tan suit. Black Suit. Tan Jacket and Black skirt. Black Jacket with tan skirt. You get the drift. just keep it all neat and clean and pressed, and make sure your shoes aren't worn. you will sparkle. At this stage you don't have to buy top of the line - even the cheaper stuff will last you a year. But don't ever plead poverty to get out of having to dress appropriately.


And I need to write myself a reminder for the holiday season when people start to ask me what to buy a college student: Professional clothing basics or gift cards so students can buy some!

Rachel from Project Beltway chiming in here. My first job was at a non-profit, so not super-scary in terms of dress code, but as someone who is/was really interested in style, I just really didn't know how I *wanted* to dress for the office, ie look professional and style look like me. I was looking to my older colleagues to get a sense of what to wear, and I just looked boring.

Is it ever appropriate to wear open-toed shoes, such as summer sandals?

I think open-toe shoes are fine, as long as they're dressy enough for the office (with a small heel or a peep-toe). But it does depend on the office.  Look at the other women in your office and see if they ever wear them. If they do, you can. If they don't, try not to wear them. Some offices are very traditional about appropriate footwear. But please! Never wear flip-flops unless you're at the beach or dressed like you're headed to one.

I have this super cute JCrew seersucker strapless dress that is fitted through my torso with a full skirt. Is it appropriate to wear strapless dresses to the office sans sweater?

It sounds darling, but no. You always need to cover most of your shoulders in the work place. Even in relaxed environments, I can't think of a time when strapless is appropriate. But! You can put a white oxford over it and roll up the sleeves a la Jenna Lyons and look even more like a J. Crew model. Tie it at the waist and you're on trend and modest enough for a Washington cubicle.

Our air conditioning is so cold I have to wear pantyhose to be comfortable!

haha -- I hear ya. I sit near an AC vent that seems to pump in air straight from the Arctic Circle, so I have a large collection of cardigans on the back of my desk chair.

Additional Reading: Last summer, Rachel wrote up a great list of tips for interns. Some of her advice included: No exposed bra straps! Don't get caught in a flip-flop-flap! And keep your button-down G-rated!

Love the comments on men's style. For some inspiration, check out one of Bill Cunningham's latest photo spreads for the New York Times. The pocket square is back in style and it's one of the easiest way the men can add life to their ensembles.

Summer means sundresses. But are sleeveless sundresses okay for the office? Any rule on just how much of a strap is required before ditching that stuffy cardigan and going all Michelle Obama?

Yes! Sleeveless dresses are fine, great. But not strapless, please (if you must, keep the cardi ON). Hard to issue a blanket requirement for width, but it should look like part of the dress, not a "strap." Notice that Michelle's are thick and are a seamless partof the overall look of the dress. This is called a sheath dress, and you should invest in multiple. They are absolute staples.

I'm a West Coast girl who's been plopped into an East Coast internship, and I've learned that the style here is very different - but I can't quite figure out what the appropriate style *is*. (I could get away with nice jeans back home. I see hardly any of them here.) What's normally expected of a woman at the office on this side of the country?

It does depend on where you're working. If you're on the Hill, you have to wear some version of a suit. That can be Michelle Obama's style: a sheath dress with a cropped blazer, or a traditional suit. The thing about summer though is you shouldn't always match your skirt to your blazer. A solid blazer over a variety of dresses goes a long way. Check out Kate Middleton today. This is a conservative look that would work anywhere in Washington. I'd love to see that blazer over a bright magenta sheath.

What is wrong with pantyhose? I find wearing them to be just fine. Of course, no one can tell I am wearing them, what with me being a guy.

Uhhh... thanks for sharing. (And, along those lines, any woman who says she has never needed Spanx to squeeze into a sexy cocktail dress or optimistically ordered bridesmaid dress is likely lying.)

Wait, have you read about spanx for men?

When is it appropriate to sport a bow tie at the office?

Personally, I think it's toolish. This is a workplace, not an a cappella rehearsal.

As a person who sings acappella, I am expressing my mild disappointment with Jenna's comment. Not all acappella groups are the Warblers from Glee...

Still, a bow tie in the office is standing out in a way you probably don't want to. BUT, I have met the occasional person that really can pull it off and it works for them. It becomes their signature. And that's great... but they generally know who they are. If you are unsure, then you probably should not wear one.

Reponding to the earlier poster, I think anything you'd classify as "super cute" you can assume isn't appropriate for work. This is an office, not a wedding/club/party/picnic or anything else where "cute" really works!

Totally. And watch it with the pink. And the bowties.

I work for a firm where the dress code is business casual. On 4th July, the owner is hosting a picnic at his home "on the James". Usually, I wear a scarf when I'm outside just to keep the hair from blowing all over the place; but I'm told not to do that - wear a baseball cap instead. I haven't noticed a trend or anything. Is this nuts, are scarfs really "out"?

NO! Scarves could never be out! They are my favorite accessory, particularly silk square ones you can find at any vintage shop. I can't imagine why you wouldn't wear one, except some people think scarves are formal. (But they're not!) I'd take one with you. Unless the host tells you to wear a baseball cap, you should definitely wear the accessory you feel most comfortable wearing.

One of my best friends, who works in the media industry here in DC, is a West-Coast-transplant and has some additional advice for those trying to adapt to the less-colorful East Coast:

"Depending on the office, jeans may or may not be acceptable. If they are not, since it is summer, you can easily get away with summer dresses that have bold prints or designs. Just remember inside the office to pair the dress with a jean cropped jacket or complimentary cardigan because offices are always cold. Look for cropped fitted pants and pair them with loose tops that are either bohemian or printed."

So, you have a totally awesome job -- but do you feel pressure to always look put together? What's your personal style?

My job, at the Corcoran Gallery of art and College of Art + Design is indeed awesome. I have serious freedom to wear the things I like, and my colleagues and I sometimes find ourselves theming outfits to the exhibtitions we're working on. My personal style starts with clothes that look best for my body type: anything nipped at the waist, or otherwise suitable for my hourglass shape. From there, I jump off to what inspires me. Right now, it's polka dots (see Marc Jacobs's Fall '11 show if you love 'em too), color (today I'm wearing a really cool flowy orange dress with gold jewelry), and strong shapes in jewelry like big cuff bangles.

Flawlessly fitting, quality staples are key to building a solid personal wardrobe. Once you get them, you can focus on the fun stuff. You build from a foundation.

Fit is just as important for the women. We have a couple of interns with pants that don't fit and they not only look terrible, but they are constantly oversharing in the back. This also goes for tops that gape or are too low cut for the office. You don't want your wardrobe to distract from the great work you are doing!

Yes, yes, yes.

Is it ever appropriate to wear an ascot?

I don't think it's *inappropriate,* because it's a tie and unless you plan to wear it with a t-shirt, it's a pretty dressed-up look. If you work in a creative field, ie graphic design, art, photography, or fashion/retail, I'd say go for it! In a law office or on the Hill, people might not know what to make of it, to be honest.

Me. I would definitely go with the bowtie.. a pink bowtie :)

This person is a bow-tie person... and knows it.

hahaha -- Okay, you are allowed to rock a bowtie. But no one else!

Could you recommend specific brands/styles of non-shiny skin-tone hose? I've heard that DKNY and Calvin Klein are good, but it would be helpful to have the style name. Thanks.

Calvin Klein are often my favorite, but I had to run to an event last minute on Monday and I picked up a pair of Hanes Silk Reflection pantyhose in nude. I was stunned at the quality. I also recommend Givenchy pantyhose, but only when they're on sale at Filenes. Never splurge on pantyhose!


TV styles are VERY racy (Wifes of Orange county, etc)--so a lot of young girls think that since the disco look is the height of reality show fashion, it's suitable for the work place. We have one woman who wears short short skirts, skin tight pants, low cut shirts and clingly dresses with no underwear. And regardless of what ONE intern did, NO THONG whaletail sticking up! i saw that in a public hearing in my office on a new hire!!!!!

Ahhhhh! Really!?! Yes, when it comes to underwear: Always wear it. But make sure no one sees it. Seriously.

I'm from Chicago, so I'm not used to the extreme heat of this swamp that you guys call Washington. I'd like to wear shorts and sandals, but that seems inappropriate. Do you have any tips for looking good but surviving the heat?

Wait, wait, wait -- you think THIS is humid? Give yourself another couple of weeks. It only gets worse!

Think light-weight, breathable fabrics. Breezy skirts and sundresses. Ponytails or short haircuts.

Usually the downfall to a great summer outfit is the commute to work. You might look great when you leave the house but after a bus ride or long walk, you are gross and sweaty.

I know some people who commute to work in gym clothes, then change in a company bathroom. At the very least, throw some deodorant and make-up in your bag so you can freshen up at the office. 

And remember: Everyone looks melted. It's not just you!

Anyone else have tips?

I second the lightweight, breathable fabrics here. And white will always keep you cooler. If you're a lady, keep the dress simple and body-skimming - not hugging - and pile on interesting jewlery or a bag in a bright color. These are ways to add visual interest without sacrificing comfort. Guys can roll up their long-sleeves (pleaseplease no short-sleeve button-down shirts!) to create a cuff. It's a nice look.

Oh, and in the summer I NEVER leave home without a pack of blotting tissues. (I prefer the ones with a light film of powder, but guys...you can use them too! Get the tea tree ones).

As an intern who works as a messenger delivering messages across the nation, and who hates warm weather, I am glad US Airways let me fly in just my underwear.

(For those of you who missed that story: Days before saggy pants arrest in California, US Airways lets man fly wearing women’s panties.)

Just remember: It can get chilly on airplanes, so bring a cardigan.

What do you think about wearing necklaces with religious symbols to an interview or even in the workplace?

This is such a great question, especially since religious symbols (rightly or wrongly) can often become trend items. There are valid arguments for both sides, but my rule is this: if you practice a faith and you would wear a religious pendant normally, you should wear it in the workplace. You shouldn't feel intimiated or take off a religious symbol if it's meaningful to you. 

I intern at an office that is considerably more casual that they typical DC scene. (No full suits or pumps.) However, are sleeveless blouses generally considered acceptable in an office environment?

Chances are it will be okay -- as long as it's truly sleeveless and not a tank top or cami.

And I would wait until you see a staffer whose style you respect wear one before you do it yourself. Or ask her if it's okay.

It should be wide enough to completely cover a bra strap. (1) Do not show bra straps. (2) Do not go braless.

I'd also chime in that for a strapless bra, go with a band-width that's smaller than the one you typically wear. If you're a 34 in your everyday bra, for instance, try a 32.

What stores can you find reasonably priced, and good quality, work wear? What is considered reasonably priced?

Workwear is different in every environment, so you might find a really cool top you love from ModCloth you can pair with a pencil skirt from Ann Taylor (hate if you want, but they've got a good new designer) or J. Crew. The UK site asos has nice options. Locally, check out boutiques if you have a little more money to spend: Treat and Hysteria in Old Town/VA, Julia Farr in DC, any of the zillions of options in Georgetown. On a budget, your options are myriad. How about some of the consignment shops like Current (there's one on 14th Street off the U Street Metro), Secondi (in Dupont Circle) or even some vintage offerings like Pretty People Vintage or Treasury?

What's "reasonable" is your call...

I tend to think about menswear in the long-term. Sure, you can get something cheap just fine at Target. But meanswear can get a lot of use, if you buy quality to begin with. Take shoes, for instance. A pair of cheap dress shoes will last you the summer. An expensive pair will last you ten years (that's way past your college years). I realize not everyone can deck out a wardrobe all at once, but consider picking a few really quality items that will last beyond the summer.

How short is too short? Also, I have seen many fellow interns who wear extremely tight-fitting clothing to work; the length of their skirts/cut of their shirts is appropriate, but how tight is too tight?

My rule: if I can see lines of any kind, it's too tight. You're trying to get a job, not a date!

Skirts are harder, but here's something to remember: there's a slit in the back of most a-line skirts. You need to measure from there, not from the front. I think every skirt should aim for around the top of the knee. A few inches either way is fine. After that, you're pushing it.

We had a recent grad who was sent home for wearing white pants with NO UNDERWEAR!!!!

Noooo! I want to hear how that conversation went down without breaking any HR rules...

Getting sent home by a middle school principal for poor clothing choices: Kinda edgy and a great story to tell in the future.

Getting sent home by your employer for poor clothing choices: Wake-up call that something is majorly wrong.

Help! I'm in desperate need of some new dress slacks, any advice for places to go?

Not sure what your work environment is like, but you might go to a high-end department store and try on a bunch of brands. Figure out what looks good, take down the brands and sizes and then look for the same thing on eBay (for less!). Theory is known for having great-fitting pants for women. Aaaand as an aside, these wide-legs from Asos are pretty cool.

Depends on the workplace.

I agree. I tend not to like short-sleeves but have seen plenty of 'em around the office here. Then again, journalists have never been the best dressers...

I went with my mother at Christmas to buy an "interview suit." I chose a nice conservative grey skirt suit -- in wool. During my second interview -- in Washington DC, in June -- my future boss said, "Please, for the love of God, take off that jacket. I'm stifling just looking at you."

Awww! Well, at least you didn't wear something that got you sent home!

A couple of my friends have gotten jobs in DC and splurged on a bunch of suits -- which now hang in their closets with the tags still on. Not every office is a suit office, but you can't go wrong with a suit for interviews.

LL Bean's online sale catalog.

Good advice.

I had so much fun chatting with allof you! Stay cool, and read me/email me any time at www.projectbeltway.com. Thanks, all!

I'll be honest. I was totally not qualified to talk about men's fashion for this chat. Men, you'd be much better off going to: puthison.com.

Thanks for a fun chat!

Thanks so much, everyone! Loved the questions! Feel free to email us follow up questions at Fashion Washington or me at Katherine.boyle@wpost.com

Oh, that was a really fun hour! Thanks to Katherine, I now want Kate Middleton's shift and blazer look. And Rachel has reminded me of my love for polka dots.

Thanks to everyone who sent in questions and stories.

Next week we will be chatting with Dior Toney, McFadden's "first minister of hospitality," who has lots of advice for interns on how to act in bars. 

Have a fabulous (and fashionable) holiday weekend!

In This Chat
Jenna Johnson
Jenna Johnson writes about college students and campus trends for the Post. She also runs the blog "Campus Overload," which chronicles national college news, drinking fads, admissions buzz and the latest exploits of Hill interns.
Rachel Cothran
Rachel Cothran is the voice behind Project Beltway, one of the District's longest-running fashion and style blogs. When she's not blogging (which is more often than she'd like), she's spreading the word about art exhibits at the Corcoran Gallery of Art and College of Art + Design. She loves polka dots, the mastery of a great tailor, and scoring a great vintage find.
Katherine Boyle
Katherine Boyle writes about fashion and culture for the Washington Post Express and Fashion Washington. Her column "Speaker of the Blouse" examines the intersection of fashion, politics and pop culture and runs every Wednesday in Express. She?s also a regular contributor to the Post's Arts Post.
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