First, congrats on your internship! I hope it pays, because D.C. isn’t cheap to live in, from what I’ve heard.
Decoding dress codes are always hard, but I’d say you want to tilt more toward the business side of that equation. Here’s what I’d recommend you pick up for a five-day work week:
- Five spread-collar dress shirts, in any combination of blue or white. Just makes sure you have at minimum one of either color and they are all 100% cotton.
- Three dress slacks in various shades of grey (or all the same shade, if you prefer). I’d try to find pairs that are mid-weight, 100% wool, plain front and tailored for little to no break and tapered to your legs.
- One navy blazer. Again, midweight wool, maybe only half lined since it’ll be summer. Of course, get it tailored to fit properly.
- One navy or dark charcoal suit. Yes, a midweight wool, too, and tailored.
- Navy or grey socks.
- One pair of brown wingtips and one pair of brown loafers.
- One quality navy silk tie (knit or grenadine), one club-stripe tie (stick with navy/red if you want to be safe) and maybe one more solid, striped or Churchill-dot tie that’s predominately navy, red or burgundy. If in doubt, go conservative on the tie.
- One white linen pocket square.
You can kind of see where I’m going with this, right? Basic, standard uniform that doesn’t draw attention to itself, is extremely conservative and not filled with loud colors or patterns.
On a daily basis, you can just turn to the navy blazer, dress shirt, tie, grey slacks and either wingtips or loafers. On days you need to step it up (maybe you get a job interview!), then you can don your suit and wingtips.
The point is that you don’t want to be the intern who wears the untucked oxford and baggy chinos with tennis shoes. And while it certainly couldn’t hurt to wear a suit every day, that might put you awkwardly in the situation where you’re dressing better than your bosses.
If you discover after your first day/week that no one wears ties or jackets in the office, then you can ease off a bit from the uniform. Maybe one day wear the blazer, but not the tie. Another day, wear the tie, not the blazer.
Regardless, I would wear the blazer to work (you can always take it off) and bring a necktie with you every day (or keep one in your desk). You never know when you’ll need to look your best, so having those on hand can be helpful.
The upside to all of this is that on day one you can establish how you’re going to dress for the entire internship as long as you do it consistently after the first week. If people know you as the intern who wears a tie and jacket every day, that’s hardly a bad thing.
Hope this helps!
EDIT to add: Oh, and if you can find a briefcase (leather) and not wear a messenger bag, even better. I see them on craigslist all the time. A Filson canvas bag isn’t bad, either.
And, if possible, get some business cards — and not just from your employer. Get some nice ones done up for yourself with your name, cell, email. Keep at least 5 or so in your suit jacket and blazer interior pocket along with your wallet. Exchange business cards as much as possible and network the hell outta that down.
Remember, everyone you meet is a potential opportunity and you already have a step up by not looking like a sloppy college student, but rather a young professional.