While other kids my age put themselves through college by tending bar or waiting tables, I spent my formative years selling men’s suits back in my native England. Years spent selling formal apparel have taken their toll, and now I cast a critical eye on the sartorial judgment of job-seeker and interns.
Do clothes matter in this age of open-necked shirts and casual Fridays? Put simply, yes. Granted, captains of industry, and even some politicians like to dress down (step forward, Barney Frank) but when you are at the bottom of the pile, you have to look like you are heading for the top. Even if the business you are hoping to work for has a casual dress code, only those who look polished will likely get the attention of management.
If you dress like you are applying for a job in Buffalo Wild Wings, do you know where you’ll probably end up working? You guessed it, Buffalo Wild Wings.
If you are looking for employment, you should dress as if you are ready to start your dream job. If you are interning or just embarking on a new career, you should dress as well as, or better than, your boss. These are not personal preferences, but established strategies for advancement.
With that in mind, here are ten quick tips to give your image an important makeover. There are many more pointers for success, which is why I urge you to attend the Leadership Institute’s Intern Workshop and Conservative Career Workshop – perfect finishing schools for people looking to embark on a successful career in the nation’s capital.
1) Own at least one good suit. And take note guys, the navy blazer and khakis combo is not a suit, it is the uniform of the perennial intern. You need an outfit with matching jacket and pants. Try and find a suit with a neutral color with which you can match many different shirt and tie combinations (if you are a guy) and different blouse and jewelry combinations (if you are a girl).
2) Learn to love Goodwill, or any other Charity Shop where you can pick up a nice outfit for little money. Washington is full of well-paid lawyers and lobbyists who cast away last seasons’ garments without compunction. You should be ready to cash in on their mistakes. Looking for a job, and interning, can be a long process which requires frugality. A trip to Goodwill will not only bolster your wardrobe but provide some much needed retail therapy.
3) When picking your shirt and tie combinations, following the Two-out-of-Three rule. You can match a striped suit with either a patterned shirt or patterned tie, but not both. On the other hand, feel free to wear a patterned shirt and tie, but only if the suit you are wearing is plain. Two out of the three components of your outfit can have a stripe or pattern, but never, ever all three. Trust me, your outfit will be so loud the interviewer won’t hear a word you say during the job interview.
4) Ladies, when putting together an outfit, you don’t have to dress like your grandmother. But you do have to dress like you are about to go visit your grandmother. Washington is full of seedy politicos with bad intentions, so to be taken seriously, dress seriously.
5) And don’t forget the 13-point rule, girls. That is, from the waist up your outfit should have (at most) 13 points of interest. For example, if you wear a jacket with three buttons in the middle and two on each sleeve (for a total of 7 points) you have 6 points to use on jewelry. A necklace is worth 2 points, as is a pair of earrings. Of course, you don’t have to reach 13 points, many women don’t, but you should never go above this magic number. Like the poor guy wearing too many stripes, your outfit will be louder than a Michael Bay movie.
6) Wear outfits of that show off your skin tone at its best. People with olive and dark skin look great in light colors, and people with pale skin look good in dark colors. Women, wear makeup by all means, but please remember point number four.
7) Here’s one I wish I had know during my adolescence: guys, cologne is intimate apparel. If anyone other than your wife or partner tells you how nice you smell, it is not a compliment. You’ve put on too much cologne.
8) A note on shoes. Ladies, getting to the metro sometimes takes a lot of walking, and cabs can be pricey, so wear something that reflects this reality. Guys, rest assured, girls look at your shoes. So when next you head home without getting that girls number from the bar, take a look and see what you’ve got on your feet. You don’t need to wear white patent leather next time you go watch the Caps play, but make sure you’re wearing something that matches the new suit you just bought.
9) Happy Hours and other events where you can meet the next potential employer are a minefield of potential social faux pas. With so many people in town with big egos and even bigger stories about how they have President Obama’s cell phone on speed dial, you might be surprised how far a handshake and a smile can get you. When starting conversation, stick to something non-controversial, like transport or the weather. From these tentative beginnings, you can take the measure of the kind of person you are speaking with.
10) Lastly, a note on bearing and how you present yourself to others. Looking for a job can be soul-destroying, but keep a positive attitude at all times. People are far more inclined to support a job seeker who keeps upbeat. If you look like someone who is going places but who happens to be without a job, you will be treated like someone who is going places. If you instead use the local happy hour or worse, facebook, twitter, and gchat to complain about how the world is against you, don’t be surprised if offers of support start to dry up. People don’t want to spend their valuable time helping Debbie Downer.
Dan Whitfield is a faculty member for the Leadership Institute and a copywriter at Eberle & Associates, one of America’s largest conservative direct mail fundraising agencies.