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Grad Guide: Workplace Wardrobe
Dress Up Like a Grown Up

Suzanne D'Amato
Sunday Source columnist
Tuesday, April 11, 2006 12:00 PM

No, your old college shirts and sweatpants aren't going to cut it when you walk in the door of your first post-graduate job. In this chat, Sunday Source columnist Suzanne D'Amato takes questions about how to dress appropriately, affordably -- and with personality.

For a visual view of some of her suggestions, check our Grad Guide, an interactive collection of stories, resources and information aimed at easing the transition of the Class of 2006.

The transcript follows below.

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Suzanne D'Amato: Hi everyone, thanks for joining me. I'm here to answer your questions about getting outfitted for the office, and I'd love to hear from you too. Is there any time you feel you absolutely must wear a suit? Do flip-flops ever work at work? Let's get started!

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Washington, D.C.: I've got an interview tomorrow morning for my second job out of college with a company that dresses very casually (at most, business-casual -- at worst, cargo shorts and t-shirts). The typical wardrobe is jeans and a polo or jeans and a t-shirt.

I feel like it's excessive to wear a suit to the interview, even though there's the school of thought that says it can't hurt. Is business casual, which I currently wear to work, appropriate when interviewing in this situation?

Suzanne D'Amato: I agree that a business suit is probably overkill. On the one hand, it shows you're taking the interview seriously, which is a good thing... but it sounds like you'll look pretty out of place, which might make you feel more nervous than you probably will already. I'd go with a twin set and slacks instead -- conservative but not overdone.

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Falls Church, Va.: Suzanne, how many suits does a recent male grad need for corporate life? Is it enough to have one and mix it up with different shirts/ties/etc daily, or is it necessary to have more? The most dressed up I've ever needed to be is shirt/slacks, so I'm a little hazy about more formal dress. Thanks!

Suzanne D'Amato: I'd start with one suit. Some grads are surprised to find that they end up wearing their blazer and suit pants together fairly rarely -- that total look is too dressy for most offices. So it's best not to blow your whole budget on three suits the week after graduation... buy one, and spend the rest of your money on collared shirts, chinos and shoes instead.

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Attire on TV: I was laughing at the lead woman on the TV show "Numbers." She is an FBI agent and one day at work she was walking around in a tight spandex-y shirt that was off of her shoulders and revealed much of her upper chest and back.

All of the other women in the background in the office had dress suits, etc. She looked ridiculous.

Suzanne D'Amato: By and large, television is not the best indicator of what one should wear in a professional setting... as anyone who ever saw "Ally McBeal" can attest!

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Bowie, Md.: I want to wear a skirt (skirt suits) and high heel pumps to work. Should I always wear pantyhose? Is sheer suntan or nude pantyhose OK? Also is there a general limit to the heel height in the workplace? Thanks!

Suzanne D'Amato: Some Washingtonians might disagree with me, but I don't think stockings are always necessary, particularly in the summer. But if you do choose to go bare-legged, a calf-length skirt and closed-toe shoes will help you look more professional.

As for shoes, anything higher than two inches is better saved for off-duty hours.

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DC 20007: Is it acceptable to carry a bookbag/backpack to a workplace that uses a suit/tie dress code?

Suzanne D'Amato: Yes, I think so. The trick is to look for a backpack that's a bit more streamlined than what you'd take on a camping trip -- something in a dark color, without too many pouches and zippers, etc. Tumi offers some nice options.

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Northwest D.C.: I buy one suit per year. So far I have black, navy blue and charcoal gray. With the basics finished, what color makes the most sense to get next? Dark/Light Brown? Light gray? Polka dot?

Thanks so much.

Suzanne D'Amato: Rather than branching out in terms of color and pattern (there's only so many choices that work, really -- I just wouldn't feel right suggesting polka dots!), I'd try a new fabric. So if you already own a black wool suit, say, try one in polished cotton -- the weight is great for summer, and the look is a bit more casual.

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Capitol Hill: Thanks for this forum. As someone who has worked on the Hill for more than a decade, I have seen more than my fair share of wardrobe malfunctions.

Ladies, please -- I realize that you probably aren't making a lot of money and that you haven't had time to build a professional wardrobe but that is no excuse for looking like a Vegas cocktail waitress.

While I am sad to be leaving the Hill this month, I am relieve to know that I never again have to take an intern or junior staffer aside to tell her that it is NOT professional to wear anything that exposes your underwear or, shudder, ratty thong.

Suzanne -- you should win a World Peace Prize for having this chat.

Suzanne D'Amato: Oh, I think I'm totally deserving. This is hard and very important work!

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Washington, D.C.: Okay, so I figured out how to dress nicely in the winter time (with some help from Santa Claus) for my internship (which will hopefully turn into a job) -- but what about as the weather warms up? My turtleneck sweaters and wool pants with boots just aren't going to cut it anymore.

I am a tank tops and flip flops girl... which doesn't seem to mesh with conservative Washington. How can I be warm and springtime happy and also professional in this stodgy town?

Are open-toed shoes ever OK?

Suzanne D'Amato: Tank tops and flip-flops are too casual (not to mention, bare) for most offices. I'd cover up your tank with a cardigan, or substitute a short-sleeved blouse instead. As for the shoes, pretty ballet flats can be every bit as comfortable as your beloved flip-flops.

As for open toes, they can be quite chic at work. But look for peep-toe pumps rather than strappy thong sandals.

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Glendale, Ariz.: I'm very petite. How I can dress well without looking like an imp in a suit?

Suzanne D'Amato: All of the cropped jackets that are out this spring are perfect for you. They're a bit shorter at the sleeve and nipped in at the waist, so you won't look like you're playing dress-up in someone else's clothes.

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Fairfax, Va.: Is there any rule of what color dress shirt not to wear to work for men? I despise white shirts and have a collection of shirts ranging from tomato red to purple stripes to turquoise. People never say anything bad, just "that's a bright color."

Suzanne D'Amato: It sounds like you've got a sense of style that's all your own, which I applaud. If you don't like white shirts, don't wear them! Sure, you can play it safe in pale blue, light pink and the like, but it sounds like what you're doing is totally appropriate, just a bit different. Not everyone's going to get "different," but sometimes that's a good thing.

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Bel Air, Md.: When I graduated from college in the 1980s we had the "Dress for Success" book as a guideline, but it seems that today, with the "casual" office, it seems that younger workers are at a loss as to how to dress. To me, trendy clothes (at least current trends for women) are not very appropriate for a business setting -- I have always avoided flowery, feminine, ruffled, etc. -- thinking you CAN'T be taken seriously, but I don't think most twentysomethings recognize this. Comments?

Suzanne D'Amato: I think it's possible to dress in a way that's both current and appropriate. The white blouse, for example, was a big Spring runway trend, and it's easy enough to see how that could translate to the workplace.

Depending on where you work, avoiding trendy attire entirely may not be the best idea: Certainly, in some businesses (say, advertising), being aware of what's trendy (and looking the part) is considered part of your job.

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Columbia, S.C.: It's very hard to find summer shoes with closed toes, except for mules. They seem almost as bad as sandals -- and there's that flapping sound when you walk!

Suzanne D'Amato: I don't like mules myself, but round- and pointy-toe flats are everywhere this season, and at all price points. We featured a really cute version from Target in the Grad Guide: it has some of the style elements of huaraches but is still plenty conservative. And a pair costs all of $18!

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Washington, D.C.: Do workplaces that require business attire of their employees bear any responsibility for the financial burden this can place on them -- especially young ones? I can't afford a half-dozen suits, and won't be working in front of clients for the most part anyway as my job is a research position.

Suzanne D'Amato: I'm not aware of any companies that subsidize young employees' wardrobes -- not that it isn't a lovely idea. Chatters, has anyone heard of this?

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Denver, Colo.: We work in a fairly casual office (business casual). Last fall, we hired an intern to help us out. He REFUSED to adhere to our dress code! He would wear baggy hip-hop type clothes, shorts, flip-flops, ball caps, etc.

We sat him down several times and told him specifically that these were not acceptable. Sometimes, we had to send him home or not take him out in the field with us. He still did not get it, and was actually huffy when we did not offer him a job or agree to give him good references. It's too bad for him -- he is actually a very smart guy on paper, but he was pretty willful about disregarding our dress code.

New grads -- it DOES matter how you look! You have to be presentable to clients. Also, the old adage, "dress for the position you want" is true. Had he bothered to put on a pair of khakis and a button-down shirt, he'd probably have a job with us now.

Suzanne D'Amato: Thanks for writing -- I agree with you. Like it or not, dressing inappropriately for work can have a real impact on your career, just as dressing appropriately can really help you.

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Alexandria, Va.: I agree! This town is stodgy! Brown suits, blue suits, black round toe shoes! AHHHHHHH! What's a fashionable girl to do?

Suzanne D'Amato: Wear those trendy pieces you love -- just in moderation. (And keep in mind that "trendy" and "revealing" are not synonymous terms). Maybe you try the brown blazer from your suit with wide-legged slacks and metallic flats. Or your black suit with a bold cuff bracelet and a funky bag. Use classic clothes as your starting point, but don't be afraid to mix it up.

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For the no-white-shirt guy: If you need to have something classic and conservative for those occasional meetings with the big client, get a good pewter or gray shirt. They look wonderful, and lend you some extra gravitas that cranberry and purple lack.

Suzanne D'Amato: Great suggestion -- thanks!

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Southern Maryland: I work for a defense contractor where almost everyone is over the age of 40 and dresses pretty conservatively. That said, I'm finding it hard to strike a balance between dressing young and trendy (I'm 23) and dressing to earn respect. I don't want to wear heavy, pleated pants and dowdy sweaters, but I also think my current choices of flared black dress pants and sequined tops look, well, too young.

How can I "dress for success" without looking too old or too young? On a side note, I'd like suggestions of places to shop -- we don't have a Nordstrom's or a Banana Republic here, for example.

Suzanne D'Amato: I do think sequins are too "evening" for work. If you really, really love that look, I'd try a top with a discreet matte sequin trim at the hem (at most). If you want something new and stylish, tuxedo shirts for women are a huge trend this Spring -- and they're conservative enough for any office.

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Alexandria, Va.: What about leather thongs (as in footwear) or are all backless footwear out of the question? And what about polo t-shirts with business pants during the summer?

Suzanne D'Amato: It does depend on the office, to some extent -- when in doubt, look at the higher-ups around you and follow their lead. But to my mind, a stylish leather thong sandal, worn with dress pants and a covered-up blouse, can be perfectly appropriate at work.

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Arlington, Va.: Suzanne:

I am a little older (36) and have been a practicing attorney in this town for over 10 years. I don't think young women need to concern themselves so much with "ruffles", "flowery prints" etc. as creating a non-professional look -- I wear ruffles and prints in my wardrobe and have never had a problem being taken seriously.

I think the focus for younger women should be on "appropriateness" for the office -- nothing too short, nothing that shows cleavage, and nothing too tight. If in doubt, always go a little more conservative -- think about an outfit that you wouldn't be embarrassed wearing in front of your grandma!

Suzanne D'Amato: Indeed. I think many people equate fashion with flash, but it's possible to dress stylishly without looking like Jessica Simpson.

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Howard University: So what are some appropriate colors for an interview suit? I assume you can't go wrong with navy and black, but how about khaki? I once wore a khaki suit for an interview back when I was a sophomore, I felt sort of cruddy about it afterwards. Was my guilt justified or is a khaki suite appropriate for a summer interview?

Suzanne D'Amato: A khaki suit is fine, but if you don't feel comfortable in it, you shouldn't wear it. When in doubt, navy, black, gray, cream and chocolate are all but fool-proof. (Say no to red: That "power suit" idea is a bit tired).

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Suzanne D'Amato: Thanks for all of your great questions! I enjoyed answering them, and I hope you had as much fun as I did! If you have more questions, please email them to me at styleq@washpost.com.

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