Skip To Content

    8 Ways To Dress To Impress As A D.C. Intern

    Dressing professionally is a difficult task. This is especially true for us interns in Washington, D.C. - where everyone from K Street to Capitol Hill lives, eats, and sleeps in a well-tailored suit - but I'll make it easy for you with these 8 simple tips.

    With the summer intern season in full swing, it's a perfect time to talk about the dos and don'ts of professional attire. This is an important topic because studies have shown that your outfit is the first thing someone notices about you. This is especially important to remember going into any kind of interview!

    Business Professional vs. Business Casual

    Let's start with the basics. Many people confuse business casual with business professional.

    Business casual, in one word, is neat. On the bottom, khaki pants, trousers or a skirt is acceptable. NO DENIM. On the top, women can wear a nice top with a cardigan or a plain button-down, just nothing sleeveless; men should wear a collared shirt but a tie is optional. For shoes, basically any close-toed shoe is fine besides tennis shoes.

    Business professional is more straightforward. Men should wear a full suit with a tie and dress shoes, while women should wear a business dress or skirt/pant suit with heels. Your color palette should remain rather neutral with blacks, browns, greys, blues and whites. This kind of attire should also be very conservative. If you're walking somewhere and have to be in business professional, wear flats and carry heels with you. Also, tons of women in the city wear athletic shoes on the way to work and put on heels when they get there.

    This spring I interned through The Washington Center for Internships and Academic Seminars, where business attire was expected throughout the program. At one of our leaders series events, I saw several interns who I thought were not dressed appropriately. I wish the staff at the event had been more strict about this, because I think it's downright disrespectful. We are fortunate enough to have guests (such as well-known former congressmen) take their time to speak to us, and people express how little they care by wearing denim jackets and tennis shoes. Don't be one of those people! It's not uncool to care about your appearance and have respect for others. Okay, rant over.

    Dos and Don'ts

    When I'm up on the Hill, I see a lot of DON'Ts that make me cringe. Most of the offenders are women, but I attribute this to the fact that there's more room for mistakes in women's professional attire because we have so many options.

    That being said, here are my 8 tips for professional women to keep in mind:

    #1 - Your skirt should be no shorter than 3 inches above the knee. This is a big one.

    #2 - Iron your clothes. Wrinkles look bad and make you look like you don't care.

    #3 - Put away your low-cut tops and 6" heels. It's just not the time or place.

    #4 - Stick with solid colors or simple patterns.

    #5 - Own multiple pairs of slacks in different colors, and more than 1 black pair.

    #6 - Lint rollers are a beautiful thing - use one.

    #7 - Brush your hair. I shouldn't have to tell you that.

    #8 - When in doubt, keep it conservative.

    Here's an illustration to give you a visual of what I'm talking about:

    Purdue CCO / Via

    Capitol Hill is a bit more old-fashioned when it comes to style. On the first day of my internship, my supervisor told us that it's almost a faux-pas to not wear pantyhose with a dress or skirt. Personally, I don't see the issue in going without, but I see enough women wearing them that I don't want to be the odd one out.

    I don't necessarily agree with the idea that you shouldn't be trendy in professional attire. I tend to err on the trendier side to spice things up, and I can appreciate when a guy can successfully mix patterns with his tie and shirt. However, I'd recommend starting out minimal, then take it up a notch if your work environment permits it.

    I have this one pet peeve when it comes to professional attire. I absolutely hate when someone's jacket doesn't match their pants, especially if they're both black. There are infinite shades of black, so you have to make sure they match. Even better, buy them as a set to ensure they go together.

    If you're unclear about what to wear for the first day of an internship or job even after asking your supervisor, show up overdressed and then take cues from others and tone it down as needed.