Dress Code: The Quick And Easy Intern Wardrobe


Summer-intern season is in high gear, and it seems everywhere we look, someone’s complaining about their interns’ inappropriate workwear. So, being servicey, we figured we’d devote this week’s Dress Code to that thorny issue. Interns, this one’s for you!

Let me say right now: I don’t believe it. I don’t think any of you are coming to the office in flip-flops and saggy jeans and cleavage-baring tops. Of course you’re not. Nevertheless, there’s no question that summer internships are hard to dress for. Your role is ambiguous and often lowly; you’re often at a point in your life when you don’t have a work wardrobe and certainly aren’t getting the salary for one; you’re of the office, yet not a part of it. Plus, you don’t know what you’ll be doing from day to day: I’ve had internships where I’ve worked at a desk one day and the next was cleaning out a storeroom. Once, I had to go around Manhattan and buy 50 assorted jock straps (don’t ask.) The main rule of thumb, I’d say, is to look appropriate while buying as minimal a work wardrobe as possible. No one’s going to expect you to wear a suit – or, if they do, presumably they’ll say as much. A few ideas:

Interns, here’s your to-do list:

When you’re hired, shoot your contact an email asking about dress code. They’ll know that you’re not part of the office culture and will be able to give you some pointers, even if it’s as vague as “business casual.”

While no one’s going to expect you to dress like a senior partner (and no one wants to be that one weird intern who does, even though for whatever reason that’s usually a dude), you can certainly get an idea in the first few days of the general feel of things. Err on the side of “too conservative” your first day and work from there.

(But! Keep in mind that there are always office eccentrics who, themselves, dress inappropriately. People in a senior position have this luxury. Or, you know, everyone’s just scared to say anything.)

When in doubt, overdress.
Like I said, it’s probably a good idea if you’ve never been to the office before: at worst, you’ll look serious and committed.

Mix and match — carefully.
This is actually a good rule of thumb, I believe, for any kind of business-casual situation, but especially useful when you want to mininize your business-wardrobe expenditures. Here’s what I mean: if you’re wearing something casual, pair it with something a bit more tailored. Wearing jeans? Add a tailored jacket. A less structured top’s probably fine – with tailored slacks or a skirt.

Steer clear of your super-casual stuff.
Just to be safe, avoid overly casual jeans; flip-flops; sneakers; printed tees. Again, this may not even be the case at your office, but as a general first day guideline, it’s useful.

Go with solids.
Not only are solid skirts and tops more versatile, they automatically look a bit more serious. (Plus, let’s face it: an H&M print is recognizable a mile away. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it can be distracting.)

There are always few pieces that can be combined with your existing wardrobe to good effect in most business-casual offices (and if the office is more or less casual than that, there’s no problem anyway.) Obviously these are mere suggestions; adjust according to what you find in your workplace.

  • A tailored jacket. Inexpensive versions can be found at most fast fashion retailers in the work sections – or of course at a J.Crew or Banana Republic if you want to invest a bit. You can pair this with jeans, with trousers, with skirts, or with dresses. A short-sleeved version is cute and youthful – albeit less warm in an AC situation.
  • A couple of blouses. Again, these can be gotten cheap and automatically smarten up your look.
  • Trouser jeans. These are a lifesaver; I don’t know what people did before the Limited Editor Pant arrived and the casual-pulled-together puzzle was temporarily solved. Nowadays a trouser jean – a more structured, tailored denim pant with a wider leg, in a dark wash – can be found all over the place, and it’s a casual-workplace staple for those of us who feel unnatural in suiting.
  • A plain skirt. Pencil or A-line; if you’re a skirt-wearer, this will be a versatile godsend. For summer, you can find them in cotton and khaki. Dark denim can be a good option, as long as the shape is tailored.
  • Good flats or low heels. Just cutting out sneakers or sandals makes you look so much more professional. Don’t feel you need to wear heels – you still have the right to be comfy, and who knows what walking-heavy tasks you might be assigned – but something closed-toed and polished will take a lot of guesswork out of your look.
  • A plain cardigan. Many offices are cold; plan accordingly.

Whatever happens, have fun and don’t worry about it too much. A competent and useful intern, no matter what she or he is wearing, is always preferable to a well-dressed nitwit.

For all of our handy Dress Code guides, go here.

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