A few weeks ago, I wrote about graduating from college and the intense hope I hold for young women like myself as we get ready to set sail for the real world. While I am still about 7 weeks away from truly beginning life as a young professional, I know that many of my peers have either started their first jobs, or are getting ready to do so. Many of you may have seen on my recent @feminequity Instagram post that I am taking the next 6 weeks to travel in the Netherlands, Spain, Greece, the U.K., Indonesia, and Norway (in that order). Although I fully intend to make the most of these next 6 weeks, focusing more on immersing myself in my surroundings and giving myself over to adventure than contemplating all of the tough women-in-the-workplace issues out there, I have found that I simply can’t tear myself away from this interest. Whether it’s reading British Airways’ Business Life on the flight from London to Amsterdam and discovering Henrietta Thompson’s intriguing article about the rising trend of British mothers turning to entrepreneurship, or listening to the #girlboss and Skimm’d from the Couch podcasts during a stroll around Rotterdam’s charming Kralingen Lake, I am constantly drawn to this topic of women at work – especially when it relates to young women, like myself. And so, while I will be sure to share my experiences abroad and the lessons I learn through travel (there will likely be many connections to key feminequity topics, just as my time in Marrakech, Morocco taught me much about women in negotiating roles), I will also take the time during layovers and morning downtime to continue writing about the feminequity factor – the element of embracing femininity, owning your life, and revolutionizing what it means to be a young, successful woman in today’s working world.
That brings me to today’s topic: what to wear, where. With recent graduates networking, interviewing, and gearing up for full-time jobs, and college students starting summer internships, the sartorial anxiety is in the air.
We’ve all been there. The corporate info session, the casual coffee chat, the first-round interview, the first day of work. Whether they call for business formal, business casual, or the even more confusing “smart casual”, women everywhere fret about this critical choice. Unlike our male counterparts, we don’t have the luxury of “just wearing a suit” or throwing on a pair of slacks and a button down. Recently, my boyfriend told me about his friend’s “Pants Theorem” – a man only needs 3 pairs of pants, and when he adds a fourth, one will just get ignored and so he will still only actually use 3 pairs. Further, people just don’t pay as much attention to men’s dress as women’s. This is especially true when it comes to typically male-dominated industries, such as banking and politics. In fact, in politics, women aspiring to be candidates are even expected to adopt a specific uniform of “muted colors, long hemlines and covered shoulders, and perfectly coiffed hair.” While the expectations for women’s dress are at times outdated and unfair, that’s a topic for another day. What I want to do today is provide my own personal advice, gained through internships at a startup, a consulting firm, and a bank, about what to wear, where (and how to get it on a budget).
Ironically enough, the first info session I ever attended and the first official interview I ever had were both over 2 years ago with Deloitte Consulting – the company that I will be beginning my career with in just 7 weeks. At the time, I was attending an info session for a Sophomore Leadership Conference, and later it was an interview for that same conference that first sparked the sense of anxiety that comes with dressing to impress, while not overdoing it. When I heard I got a first-round interview, which was to take place two days from the moment I received the call, I panicked. How was I going to get a business formal suit in the next 48 hours while also studying for business cases? I hastily texted an older friend who proceeded to ask all of her friends if they had a spare skirt or dress suit in my size that I could borrow for a business formal interview. Luckily, someone pulled through, and I went into that interview in a navy blue Theory matching dress and blazer that had me feeling like I was on top of the world. The power suit had some serious power.
A few days later, I was thrilled to hear that I had passed the first round of interviews and would be flown to Atlanta for round 2. Once again, I needed something to wear. This time, I had 2 weeks to prepare, so I naturally checked out the Theory website. While I don’t quite remember what I found at the time, a quick look at the site today shows that even with their mid-year sale, you’d be lucky to find a dress and jacket for less than $500. As a sophomore in college who had never done more than work at a day camp and assist at a wedding venue in the summers, and I was about to head out on Spring Break, $500 wasn’t going to work. Theory was out of the question for me. So what was I to do? I had a Super Day (a long day of interviews) coming up, and I needed to look my absolute best. I knew at the time that while this was only an interview for a Sophomore Leadership Conference, I’d be going through the same interview process as the juniors who were vying for internships. (I was right to be concerned as I ended up going to the conference, getting an offer for a summer internship the following summer, and eventually accepting an offer to return to Deloitte full-time after graduation. This one set of interviews during the February of my sophomore year turned out to be quite influential.)
After an afternoon spent in the mall with friends, running from Banana Republic to Ann Taylor to Nordstrom, and constantly questioning whether what I was choosing was appropriate enough without giving off a boring vibe, I found a black blazer, black skirt, and white blouse that worked out. But I wish there had been somewhere to go for this type of advice. So that’s why I’m here! Here’s my go-to guide for what to wear for every type of work occasion, and where to get it. Enjoy!
The Coffee Chat
So she wants to get coffee. Let’s say you reach out to your dream company, and the recruiter replies, “Why don’t we get coffee?” Or, knowing the type of go-getter girls who read this blog, you inquire about a coffee date yourself. What do you wear? I’d say this is typically where the tricky “smart casual” comes into play. The first time I heard that phrase, I went full-on business casual down to the J.Crew cardigan and pearl earrings. When the other person showed up in stylish dark washed jeans and a black blouse, I felt a bit lame. “Smart casual” is quite ambiguous, and I’m not sure that anyone fully understands what it means to everyone else. But what I have gathered is that it’s casual attire that is neat and sophisticated. This might mean dark jeans and a blouse, or it could be a particularly colorful dress that you might not wear in a typical business casual or business formal setting. It helps me to think of it as what I’d wear on a first date. You wouldn’t want to look too over-the-top, but you’re definitely there to impress.
The Info Session
Just like not all companies are alike, not all info sessions are either. However, the general rule is to wear what you’d wear if you worked there, that way worst case you’ll just look like the employees in the room. If you aren’t sure what they wear at that company, do your research. The worst thing you can do is show up to an info session entirely ignorant about the company, including its culture. You don’t need to know everything – you’re there to get information – but you should have a general idea about the company. I’ll usually wear a pair of neutral flats with a dress and a sweater, or slacks and a blouse. Nothing too over-the-top, just tastefully appropriate. Generally, I’d go with “business casual” for this one, which usually means closed toed shoes, a sweater, and either a dress or a skirt/pants with a blouse. If you’re attending an info session for a Wall Street investment bank or a startup, the dress code could clearly be more formal or casual.
Interviews are hard. Not just in the dressing sense, but also in the I-am-so-nervous-I-can-barely-breathe sense. Interviews are usually where I’m the most formal. Unless otherwise specified, I pretty much go all out business formal for this one. That means I’ll typically wear a black blazer with black heels and a black dress. That being said, while my interview for Sharecare was over the phone due to my being in Nashville and the job being in Atlanta, I would not have worn a full suit to an interview at a startup. Even though Sharecare is quite a mature company at this point, I knew from my research – which included reaching out to former interns on LinkedIn – that a full business suit probably wouldn’t be appropriate. While the senior leadership might wear that every day, I knew that wasn’t what interns or other employees wore. I still kept it to business casual most days because I genuinely feel more comfortable when I’m a bit dressed up, but a blazer was never part of the mix. For interviews, you’ll want to dress nicer than you would for a typical day of work, but you also don’t want to come off as too stiff, so make sure you know what’s appropriate.
The First Day
First days are also anxiety-inducing, but they’re usually quite exciting, as well. At this point, you probably know enough about the company to know what its people wear. If you don’t, I’d suggest reaching out to a recruiter or an employee who is on the same level as you and ask. Similar to interviews, first days offer the opportunity to make a first impression, so you’ll definitely want to look nice. I’d air on the side of overdressing without overdoing it. For example, if it’s a company where smart casual is the norm and most people wear jeans, maybe wear a skirt or dress on that first day just to look extra nice. Think of it as presentation day in class – you’re still in the same place, but there’s more pressure on you now, so you’ll typically dress nicer.
Where to get it
While you’ll likely face more business environments through your internships and jobs than the four described above, these are what I’ve found to be the most common amongst young women entering the workplace. At the beginning of this post, I talked about my struggle with wanting to look good and feel good, but not quite enough to dish out $500 for one day’s look. After multiple internships wearing smart casual, business casual, and business formal, I am here to say that you do not need to do that. My go-to for work attire has always been White House Black Market. Whether it’s the main store or the outlet, they always have the best clothes at the best prices. I recently got 2 dresses, a jumpsuit, and a pair of pants for less than $200. All of my work pants are from there, and they never fail to have modern, professional clothes that make me feel just as confident as I did in Theory. Another brand that usually has great options at a good price is Banana Republic. Ann Taylor tends to be more expensive, but I have found some great pieces on their sale rack. One thing I would recommend doing is investing in a nice blazer because it can really complete your look. Mine is from Ann Taylor and when I got it years ago when preparing for that Deloitte interview, I slightly cringed at the price (it was just under $200), but now I’ve used it for 3 summers and it’s certainly done the job. I’ll also note to be sure that your black blazer is the same material as your black skirt/pants, otherwise your “suit” might look like a mess. It’s generally advisable to try to get the blazer and bottoms together, but I prefer WHBH’s pants, and I’ve never had a problem pairing those with my Ann Taylor jacket. You can also check out the big department stores like Nordstrom and Dillard’s, although I tend to get overwhelmed in these large stores. (But I do swear by Sam Edelman flats that you can get at Nordstrom or usually Nordstrom Rack.) As for heels, my 5’ 3’ self wants to love them, but I hate them. Even Naturalizers leave me with blisters after only an hour or so of wear. If you have any advice for heels, please send it my way! If you’ve got a bigger budget, I’d definitely recommend the aforementioned Theory (the quality is amazing), or MM.LaFleur, which is also on the pricier side but has beautiful pieces and is currently all the rage amongst professional women. They claim to be “a wardrobe solution for professional women”, and by the looks of how often they are praised in the media, I’d say they are well on their way to being just that. Finally, one brand that I haven’t yet tried, but I am dying to order something from, is Everlane (pictured above) which is an ethical fashion company that sells work appropriate clothing at a great price. While I appreciate the brands that I use, I still think there’s a gap in the market for modern, stylish, work appropriate clothing at a reasonable price for young women. Everlane seems to be starting to address this, so I can’t wait to try their products.
When it comes to dressing for work, there’s no one right answer. At every company, there will be people who overdress and underdress, and there’s always some confusion about what’s appropriate at first. My best advice is to play it safe, do your research, and don’t stress too much. While people might notice something completely out of the ordinary, it’s not like you’re running for office (or are you? If so, you GO girl!), so your outfit probably won’t be scrutinized as much as you may think. That being said, I’ll stick to my WHBH pants for now, but when the time comes – maybe when I get my first performance bonus or promotion – I’ll definitely be treating myself to a Theory power suit.
Power to the pantsuit, ladies.