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Dressing Professionally in the Workplace

At this point in your life, you and your friends are probably accustomed to wearing sweat shirts, skinny jeans, nose rings, and flip-flops. And as a young adult, this is perfectly acceptable apparel for the college campus or for hanging out on the weekends. But this laid-back, student-style is not okay for the workplace! Let’s take a moment to learn about acceptable professional attire in the office environment. Here are some “dos and don’ts” and general advice about how to dress in Washington D.C.:

  • Recognize that the east coast and Washington D.C. in particular, have a more formal dress code than most regions of the United States. Compared to the western states, D.C. tends to be dressier and more formal. For instance, you rarely see a person walking down Pearl Street in Boulder in a business suit, but in Washington D.C., wearing a suit is commonplace for both men and women. And in Denver, for example, you might see someone wearing their nice Patagonia fleece jacket in the office, which is pretty conventional apparel in outdoorsy, laidback Colorado. But wearing a fleece is not considered appropriate ‘business-casual’ dress in Washington D.C. So do not use Colorado as your clothing gauge for what to wear in D.C. In the workplace, and even when attending social events, you will see people dressed more formally in Washington D.C. than you will see them dressed in Colorado. And if you grew up outside Colorado or on the east coast, you may already have a good sense of how casual the dress code is out west as compared to other regions of the country. So, unless you grew up in Washington D.C. or in an east coast city like New York, you may not be used to more formal attire and will need to formalize your wardrobe.
  • Understand that the workplace is made up of people from diverse cultural, political, generational, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds. What may be normal and acceptable for one particular group may be perceived as offensive and distasteful to another. So keep this in mind when you get dressed each day and err on the side of classic, middle-of-the-road clothing. In the workplace, you’re trying to get people to notice your professional skills, and so you do not want your appearance to be an unwanted or unintentional distraction. You want to be perceived as respectful and professional, and you want others to focus on your capabilities and talents.
  • Most offices have an official dress code policy. When you first arrive at your internship, ask a colleague to point you to the dress code policy so that you can read it and become familiar with what is expected of you in the workplace.
  • Remember a few key catch-phrases when you get dressed for an interview or when you get dressed each morning for your internship: “Dress for the job you want, not the job that you have.” “Dress for business, not for pleasure.” “If your grandmother wouldn’t approve of your outfit, then you probably shouldn’t wear it.”
  • Here are some “dos” for women when getting dressed for an interview:
    • Do wear a classic suit that is a solid, neutral color like navy blue, black, or brown
    • Do wear jewelry that is simple and timeless
    • Do wear your hair in a clean, neat style
    • Do wear clothing that makes you feel comfortable and confident
    • Do wear shoes that coordinate with your suit, are neutral in color, and that are clean and tidy
    • Do wear professional loafers, low heals, or flats
    • Do wear a blouse that fits nicely under your suit and that is pressed and attractive
    • Do wear deodorant and be well-groomed
    • Do wear natural, light make-up and shorter, neutral-colored nails
    • Do conceal tattoos and body piercings
    • Do carry a small, professional-looking briefcase or portfolio
  • Here are some “don’ts” for women when getting dressed for an interview:
    • Do not forgo the suit! You are trying to sell yourself, so a suit is in order
    • Do not wear a suit that is too trendy
    • Do not wear overly flashy or trendy jewelry
    • Do not wear very high heels, open-toed shoes, sandals, flip flops, or sneakers
    • Do not wear anything that is wrinkled, has stains, or is torn
    • Do not wear any bold patterns or bright, off-putting colors
    • Do not wear perfume or heavily scented grooming products
    • Do not wear anything that is too short, tight-fitting, sheer, low-cut, provocative, or strapless
    • Do not reveal spaghetti straps or expose bra and underwear lines
    • Do not wear unusual, brightly-colored, or fishnet stockings
    • Do not display tattoos or body piercings
    • Do not wear an overly trendy or extreme hair style
    • Do not carry a purse, backpack, or every-day bag to your interview
    • Do not wear heavy make-up or overly long, brightly-colored nails
  • Here are some “dos” for men when getting dressed for an interview:
    • Do wear a well-fitted suit that is a solid color like navy blue or grey
    • Do wear a classic/traditional two or three-buttoned suit
    • Do wear your hair in a clean, neat style; shorter hair is preferable
    • Do wear clothing that makes you feel comfortable and confident
    • Do wear leather business shoes and a matching belt
    • Do wear shoes that coordinate with your suit, are dark in color, and that are clean and polished
    • Do wear a solid, light-colored, button-down shirt that is pressed; a white shirt is the best option
    • Do wear a medium-width, traditional-patterned, silk tie; tie it so that it falls just above your belt
    • Do wear dark, inconspicuous business socks that coordinate with your suit
    • Do wear deodorant and be clean-shaven and well-groomed
    • Do conceal tattoos and body piercings
    • Do carry a small, professional-looking briefcase or portfolio
  • Here are some “don’ts” for men when getting dressed for an interview:
    • Do not forgo the suit! You are trying to sell yourself, so a suit is in order
    • Do not wear casual loafers, sandals, flip flops, or sneakers
    • Do not wear anything that is wrinkled, has stains, or is torn
    • Do not wear any bold patterns or bright, off-putting colors
    • Do not wear cologne or heavily scented grooming products
    • Do not wear a three-piece suit or a suit that is too trendy or bright-colored
    • Do not wear a bow-tie or wear a tie that has a bold or bright pattern
    • Do not wear white socks or socks that are so low that your legs are exposed when you sit down
    • Do not display tattoos or body piercings
    • Do not wear an overly trendy or extreme hair style
    • Do not carry a backpack or every-day bag to your interview

View these helpful video clips that are posted on the Career Services website for more information about how to dress for an interview

  • When you are getting dressed each day for your internship, you can follow the “dos and don’ts” you would follow when dressing for an interview. Of course you do not have to wear a suit every day at the office and can wear business-casual attire for typical work days. For important meetings and special events, you may want to get out your suit and dress for the occasion. But on most days, you’re fine to wear normal business clothes. Just remember to look clean, professional, and respectful.
  • Many Washington D.C. offices have ‘Casual Friday’ policies where employees are permitted to wear jeans every Friday. If everyone at the office is wearing jeans on Fridays, then it is appropriate for you to wear jeans too. But do not interpret casual Friday to mean that all of the office decorum is out the window and you are now free to dress with reckless abandon. For example, causal Friday does not mean you can wear sagging jeans with exposed boxer shorts or wear your favorite mini-skirt with a tank-top. Casual Friday just means that you can wear nice, clean jeans with a nice, clean shirt. Just pay attention to what others are wearing in the office on Fridays and follow suit.
  • As a college student, you probably have a limited budget for clothes shopping and for purchasing a professional wardrobe. But if you are wise about your purchases, looking professional and presentable in the workplace does not have to be overly expensive. Here are some ideas for minimizing clothing costs:
    • Select some classic, staple items that you can mix and match with ease. For example, both men and women can buy a few pairs of dark pants that will coordinate with multiple shirts and blouses and that they can wear on a regular basis. Choose a pair of shoes that has a neutral color that will coordinate with multiple outfits. Avoid overly trendy clothing options that will only give you one outfit to wear once in a while.
    • Instead of shopping at high-priced retail stores at the mall, explore discount clothing stores like T.J. Maxx, Marshall’s, or Nordstrom Rack. There are also many clothing consignment stores in the area that sell lightly used professional clothing at discounted prices. Some clothing consignment stores located in Boulder are: Common Threads, Rags, Goodwill, Plato’s Closet, Hip Consignment, and Buffalo Exchange.
    • If you do not want the extra expense of dry-cleaning or pressing, try to purchase clothing that is easy to clean and iron on your own. Avoid clothing that will require expensive dry cleaning and try to stick with clothing that you can care for yourself.
    • Ask your parents or your parent’s friends if they would like to clear out their closets and give you some hand-me-down items. This could be an easy way to acquire a free business suit! Many adults have professional clothing sitting in their closets that they seldom wear. They may welcome the opportunity to clean out their closets and give you some of their professional clothing.
    • Try to look for ways to save money on clothing, but still invest in a good quality, well-fitted suit. You can find a high-quality, name-brand suit at a discounted price somewhere, but do not make the mistake of buying a cheap looking suit that makes you look like a second-rate, shoddy intern.
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