Summer internships often mean long hours and tedious assignments for little or no pay.
But just because you’re low on the totem pole doesn’t mean it’s OK to assume nobody cares how you look.
As many work environments — and young people’s tastes — get more casual, answering the question of what to wear for that summer job can be a tricky task.
“I always tell my assistants, ‘Dress for the job you want, not the job you have,’ ” says Regina Gardiner, senior accessories editor for the magazine People StyleWatch. “You think people aren’t looking at you, but when entry level jobs open up, you never know” if you might be considered.
Dress in an inappropriate way, however, and your name could be left off the potential hire lists.
We asked style experts, workplace managers and former interns about what tips they can offer — and in some cases, what they learned the hard way.
• Before your first day, find out as much as you can about the company’s style culture. If you go for an interview, take mental notes about how people dress. If you’re not sure, err on the side of going too formal on the first day.
“If it’s a super corporate environment where every single guy wears a suit, I would do the same,” says Marie Claire accessories director Kyle Anderson. “If everyone wears T-shirts, I would go that route as well, but always look extremely groomed and clean. I’d say stand clear of any kind of ‘distressed’ clothing even if you are interning in fashion.”
• Consider investing in a few basics. Regina Gardiner of People StyleWatch recommends four basic wardrobe staples for women that can be dressed up or down for practically any workplace and found at practically any price point: A shift or A-line dress with plenty of coverage in a neutral color, a cardigan or blazer, a great pair of pumps, and a handbag roomy enough to carry a change of shoes or an umbrella.
Sheon Wilson, the Durham, N.C.-based stylist behind “Refresh Your Style,” gives this list for men: A sports coat in a lighter neutral, a suit in charcoal or navy, a lace-up shoe or Oxford, and a button-up or dress shirt in white or cream.
If you don’t go too trendy with these staples, you’ll get plenty of use out of them even when the summer is over.
• Sweat the small stuff. If you think nobody notices your bra straps, mismatched socks or that nasty old belt, think again.
“We had an intern that showed up wearing a black suit, black shirt, black tie, black shoes, then white socks,” says Jay Brown, assistant producer at a Charlotte radio station. “He didn’t last long.”
• If someone in a position of authority pulls you aside to talk fashion, LISTEN.
Amanda Dittloff, 32, of Charlotte, N.C., can’t believe how clueless she was when her first boss tried to talk to her about appropriate work outfits, even going as far as offering to take her shopping.
Dittloff saw nothing wrong with her Colorado hippie wardrobe of torn khakis, tank tops and feather earrings when she took that job as a receptionist at a construction company in Charlotte 10 years ago, even though co-workers politely tried to steer her toward more professional outfits.
“Looking back I see how they very nicely tried to educate me on it, and it escalated more and more because I just wasn’t getting it,” she says.
• The company cookout is not a frat party. Pay attention to what you wear to company social events outside the office.
Mike Condrey, a managing partner at Northwestern Mutual’s Raleigh, N.C., office, says his office’s 60 summer interns have no trouble dressing professionally in the office. “The greatest faux pas is that people would literally show up with a suit that still had the tags on the sleeves,” he says.
But it’s at the company’s annual garden party or cookout that interns in years past have let their fashion guards down a little too much. “They’re thinking, ‘Hey, this is a fraternity party,’ ’ when golf shirts, nice shorts or appropriate summer dresses are more in order.
• Consider those tattoos, piercings and hair colors. In extremely creative workplaces, displaying tattoos, Technicolor hair or multiple piercings might be fine. “But 80 to 90 percent of the time, it’s not looked upon to have any of that,” says Gardiner of People StyleWatch.
Think about removing piercings and covering tattoos that could be distracting. And this might not be the time to try out the latest pink hair color. In the end, you want supervisors to focus on your work, not be distracted by your appearance.