A professional wardrobe in DC is distinctly different from the professional wardrobe of an academic. Certainly I fall on the more formal end of the spectrum for an academic since I normally wear blazers and dress pants except for Fridays, but working in the Senate has exposed me to a far more formal set of norms.
One observation I had made on previous trips to Washington was the large number of women who wear skirts. Indeed skirts and dresses are probably more prevalent here than trousers for professional women. Those skirts also tend to be short and straight; long skirts or full skirts do not seem to make the cut. The second observation I made for Senate staff is that when the Senate is in session, suits are the norm. For men, that’s not even a sport coat and pants. It’s a matching suit. The options seem to run the full (?) spectrum from navy to gray, sometimes with a pin stripe for the extremely stylish. Women also tend toward solid neutrals, although they are more likely to have a dash of color by adding a scarf or colored blouse. Patterned jackets, such as those I wore regularly as an academic, are somewhat unusual, and I have yet to wear my red blazer. Women Senators wear pretty much whatever they want, but there is more uniformity among the female staffers.
I can probably summarize the level of formality in the Senate in two words: cuff links. I remember finding a few sets of cuff links in my father’s dresser drawer when I was young, but I don’t recall ever seeing him wear them. Senate staff are rarely seen with cuff links, but they are de rigueur for some of the high powered lobbyists who come for meetings.
(Yes, de rigueur. I picked up some interesting phrases from a stint reading romances set in the English Regency period some years ago, and I like to keep all of you on your toes.)
A number of years ago, I got a behind-the-scenes look at how exclusive boys boarding schools work. I had figured that these lads learned at a young age how to accomplish lofty skills such as tying a necktie. Thus I was quite amused to learn that often the boys arrive at school with all of their ties pre-tied by their fathers, and the boys would simply loosen the ties to put their heads in and then tighten them up again for class. I find that the male Senate staff have similar tricks up their sleeves. My sense is that after dry cleaning, trousers go home, but jackets all go straight to the office, often still in their protective plastic. If all the suit jackets are already at the office, then it is easy to pull out the match to the trousers of the day. Jackets are donned specifically for meetings and are often shed as rapidly as possible thereafter. There also seems to be an extensive collection of ties in our office, but I have yet to identify to whom they belong.
Inevitably, women’s clothing with all its nuances is far more challenging. The most important wardrobe piece for me is a jacket, since it serves two purposes. First, it elevates my outfit to business formal. Second, all of the thermostats everywhere are set to make sure that the men in their jackets and ties are not too hot, so my jackets are a vital temperature control device. I favor suits for days when we are in session, but I’ve also been enjoying wearing skirts lately as well.
One of the greatest challenges with this level of formality is shoes. On some days, I walk quite a bit, so comfortable shoes are vitally important. Of course, fashionable and comfortable are mutually exclusive, which is problematic. I’ll often wear sneakers to work and then bring dress shoes to change into. Apparently I am not alone with this problem, because I’ve heard of women who have a collection of shoes under their desks to rival the guys and their collection of jackets.
For days when the Senate is not in session, the dress code will depend heavily on the office. For Colorado, we tend toward the casual with the whole office staff wearing jeans and boots or casual (comfortable!) shoes. If I have a meeting on one of those days, I’ll often try to add a jacket to dress up a little. The guys just grab a jacket from their collections, and they are ready to go!