Building Your Wardrobe for a Summer Internship

picture-2We’ve had a number of requests for how to build your wardrobe for a summer internship, so ladies, this one’s for you!

Suits. Yes, you will need more than one suit, but not as many as you think. For example, readers asked if they needed 10-15 suits (and we’re hoping the person asking if they needed 100 suits either made a typo or was exaggerating). We would say you need about 3-5 suits, to be worn whenever you know for sure you’ll be seeing a partner, executive, or other VIP that day. Keep an extra suit in your office if at all possible. Your basic suits should be:

1) Your standard interview suit in black, navy, or gray. Hopefully you took our advice and got it in a seasonless fabric, and you bought a suit that had multiple matching pieces (e.g., a jacket, pants, skirt, and a dress). Get them drycleaned as soon as they begin to smell, or approximately every 4-5 wearings.

2) As many other suits that your budget can afford that are like your interview suit, but in other colors — these suits will last you for several years, so it’s well worth it to invest $500-$1000 in suiting. If you can’t afford suits as nice as your interview suit, check out sales as well as:

  • outlet stores — Filene’s, TJ Maxx, Nordstrom’s Rack — all frequently have suits available for anywhere from $60-$200. These will typically be suit sets (not mix-and-match pieces the way Theory or J.Crew are) and will be in polyester blends. Try to get the most conservative suit they have that fits you well in sedate colors (black, navy, beige, gray). Watch out for details that date the suit, like puffed sleeves, Peter Pan collars, and ruffled skirts
  • large department stores — Macy’s has a huge suit selection, for example, with tons of Tahari suits available for under $150
  • outlet malls, like Woodbury (in upstate New York) or Leesburg (outside D.C.) — they frequently will have outlet stores of Banana Republic, Kasper, Tahari and Brooks Brothers, as well as larger department store outlets (like Barney’s and Off Fifth) that will have discounted suits.
  • mall stores, like Express, Limited, Victoria Secrets — they will have lower-quality suits that should at least last you a summer, although the fabrics might not wear well during the summer
  • We would advise avoiding eBay and consignment stores unless you know exactly what you’re looking for.

Other pieces. Now that you’ve got your suits, we would advise getting a few other pieces to wear as separates throughout the summer. This may sound weird (and please debate in comments!) but we would advise buying other separates — intended by the retailers as separates — for everything by below because fabrics and colors are often hard to match. For example, a pair of gray Gap pants and a black jersey sweater blazer look fine together — but a pair of gray suit pants worn with a black suit jacket just looks like you’re trying to mix things that don’t match. This may seem like a boring list, but it’s intended to be a skeletal one — your personality and tastes should fill in the rest of the picture; these are just the building blocks to get you started. Our list of these basic separates:

  • 2-3 pairs of nice trousers (not too tight, not too loose; they can be as simple as Gap or Old Navy as long as they fit well)
  • at least one pencil skirt in a basic color like black or gray
  • 5-10 nice tops to wear beneath suits or on top of trousers in flattering colors — again, they don’t have to be fancy, but they have to fit well and look nice (not washed out). If you want to be very efficient here, buy tops in the same color range as your suits — for example, if you’ve got a black suit and gray trousers, buy t-shirts in cool colors (blue, purple, green) to compliment those accessories. If you’ve got a brown suit and some nice beige slacks, get warmer colors like reds and oranges.
  • a black fitted blazer (look for one in a stretch cotton or jersey for versatility — keep it at the office to throw on in emergencies)
  • a neutral sheath dress in a flattering shape
  • at least one twinset in a good fabric (possibly in white so you can wear the sweater beneath brown/beige/gray/navy suits, and wear the cardigan over sheath dresses and trousers). If you look for a twinset that does not have a ribbed, banded bottom, you’ll have more options with it.
  • Another cardigan, possibly, in black or white

Accessories. The summer job is really more about avoiding inappropriate accessories than buying fabulous ones — as you go forward in your career you’ll want to invest the most heavily in shoes and bags. For the summer, we say that a pair of black leather pumps that you can walk in is really all you NEED. Otherwise, don’t wear:

  • open-toed shoes
  • sandals
  • any shoes that look too sexy (heeled gladiators, platforms, etc)
  • shoes you can’t walk in
  • overly blinged-out accessories (e.g., brooches with sequins)
  • bracelets
  • earrings that noticeably dangle (they should be as close to your earlobe as possible)
  • anything that makes sound when you walk down the hallway carrying or wearing it (slingbacks and mules, we’re looking at you)
  • athletic accessories — sneakers or flipflops are fine if you must for the commute, but the second you get inside you should change to work shoes — we’d also advise women to avoid backpacks and other gym bags. If you don’t have something, check out our recent suggestions for good bags.

These seem, to us, the bare basics for a working wardrobe. A final piece of advice — never walk in the hall with your arms uncovered — wear your suit jacket, sweater, or fitted blazer. Readers, what say you?

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  1. Anonymous :

    Wait, what? What’s this about never having your arms uncovered? Do others agree with this?

  2. Great advice – I will add one more thing – this is not the time to be creative or remembered for your clothes.

  3. Yes, no open toes. It annoys the h*** out of me when my summer interns prance around in open toe shoes. It says to me, “I don’t care to be a lawyer, I just want to marry one.”

  4. I’d say also to make sure to scope out the clothing culture of the firm when you’re there for your interview. None of the women (literally) that I interacted with at my 2L firm wore a suit unless they were going to be in court, and I would have felt like I had wasted a lot of money if I had bought 5 suits just to feel overdressed when I wore them.

  5. Two things…

    1. I find it hard to believe that dangly earrings are so verboten. They give a spunk to the outfit and if they are not very shiny or large, I think they are perfectly appropriate.

    2. What if you are going to intern at a “business formal” place? What then? Does that mean a suit 5 days a week?

  6. Summer associates at law firms should wear a suit *every day.* Partners often grab summer associates at the last minute to go to a deposition, hearing, mediation, etc – and the summer won’t have time to change into a suit and will end up looking unprofessional and out of place at just the type of appointment at which they want to look like they blend in. I recommend having 7-8 suits in neutral colors and always wearing tops with sleeves on them to extend time between dry cleanings.

  7. This seems too suit-heavy to me – unless you will be working somewhere where a suit is required nearly every day, go for 2, tops. If you stick with basic colors (gray, black, navy) and vary what you wear underneath, no one will remember the repeat. Perhaps some firms are so conservative that it would be embarrassing to have to see a partner while wearing business casual, but not mine (East Coast biglaw). For those days when I know I’ll be particularly visible, I wear my most business-y business casual (nice slacks and a blouse, or a tailored dress, pearls…. as opposed to a still-professional but not quite as dressy cotton top and pants, for example).

    Save the money for extra “separates” pants/skirts and tops, which will get worn much more often (100% of the summer after day 1, in my case) (I guess you could say you could wear the suit pants as “normal” pants, but then they would get over-dry-cleaned compared to the other pieces of the suit, so I just save mine for the full suit ensemble).

    Correct advice on bare arms! But modest peep-toes (with a pedi! and with an otherwise-modern, sleek look) and slingbacks (if not noisy, as C mentioned) are usually ok, and as long as you avoid big “statement” jewelry, I don’t think any category is off-limits (bracelets, brooches, whatever… just please, no anklets!).

  8. What about nylons? When is it necessary to wear them?

  9. I’m in San Francisco. If a summer thinks they have to put a suit on every time they see a partner, they’re going to 1. go crazy and 2. be thought ridiculous. Maybe in New York you’re expected to wear a suit any time you’ll be in a partner’s office, but definitely definitely not out here. Otherwise, great list.

  10. Anonymous :

    Thanks! This is super helpful. I second the nylons question.
    I’m totally surprised that open toed shoes are out! Peep toes even? I guess it’s a great excuse to shoe shop for me then.

    Just to be sure- a nice t-shirt (I’m looking at you Ann Taylor Loft!) under a suit is A-OK?

    Let the search begin!

  11. Wow, these comments really highlight how much variety there is between workplaces. At my firm, a summer who wore a suit everyday would look totally ridiculous. Wear a suit your first few days until you can check out what the other women at your office wear.

  12. My med-large firm is business casual (every day, all year ::sigh::). And it’s in Florida. When I was interviewed (on a Friday in the early fall), the most formal I saw on anyone was a pair of grey slacks and a pink twin set. Does this change anything?

    Also, re: peep toe shoes– even under a suit? And if they’re Cole Haan Nike Air Pumps in a neutral color and I’m a little obsessed with them?

    Would love any insight :).

  13. At my law firm, suits everyday would’ve been over kill, and I’m sure there are many other firms that don’t require suits everyday, or have a “business casual” dress codes.

    My personal preference was to wear sheath dresses and pencil skirts with nice tops, sweaters or tank/cardigan combo. Remember, its often freezing in the office (air conditioning) when its hot outside.

    As far as shopping goes, I think the (lower) quality of Old Navy and Gap is very apparent in their fabrics and cuts, so I would advise summer associates to invest in better pieces from Banana Republic, J Crew, Theory, Nanette Lepore and Diane Von Furstenberg (as your budget allows).

  14. Anonymous :

    Wow, things are different all over. My big-law firm has varying dress requirements in various offices, but here in NY you’d be dismissed without question if you didn’t appear in a suit 4 days a week. Even “casual” fridays call for “dressy casual”–i.e. Ann Taylor separates, some Banana pieces, etc. I would definitely “second” whoever it was above who suggested buying ONLY enough for a week, and then purchasing AFTER you’ve got a sense of the firm’s culture.

  15. I think the best advice I’ve gotten on how to dress as a summer associate was from an R&W prof. She said when you first start out go conservative – full suit, simple close-toed heels, and minimal jewelry. It’s better to be over dressed than UNDER dressed. As you spend some time in the office and get the feel for how other people dress, feel free to adapt appropriately. Last summer I worked for a prosecutor’s office and, probably to the surprise of some readers, found myself wearing a suit almost every day. This is because the attorneys I worked under were in court almost every day and I would frequently accompany them.
    Ultimately, I think it just comes down to the atmosphere of the office you’re working in and what you will be expected to do while there.

  16. I disagree w/ the open-toed (by which I mean peep-toe) shoes prohibition – at my east coast biglaw firm, I wore open toed-shoes almost every day and a lot of the other female associates did as well. I’d look around for a few days and make a judgment call. The one thing that I would like to reiterate is that if you wear open-toed shoes, you CANNOT wear nylons. I don’t understand why people think this is OK. In my mind, pantyhose manufacturers put the seam at the toe to remind you that it is not cool to wear a pantyhose/peep-toe combo. Also, your toes should always be pedicured – if you don’t want to spring for a pedicure, you can’t wear open-toed shoes.

    I also disagree with the suit requirement – I don’t think I wore a suit ever as a summer. Wear one the first day and look around. Keep one in your office, but unless everyone’s in a suit, you don’t need to be. And if you’re in a suit and the partner is in khakis, you’ll just feel silly.

  17. No bracelets, really? I wear bracelets all the time! As I try to teach my 2 year old (who would wear every necklace in her jewelry box if I’d let her), one good accessory is quite enough. As long as accessories are kept in moderation, I can’t imagine much that is off limits.
    (That said, I would never dream of wearing open-toed shoes in my business casual firm.)

  18. I’ve worked in NY, London, SF. Here’s my take:

    If you are in banking or a more stuffy corporate law firm in New York or London:

    1) Nylons should be worn most of the time (if it’s crazy hot, you are excused)
    2) You should put on a suit jacket in you’re roaming the halls
    3) Peep toes are OK in London (it’s more fashion forward), but you should steer clear in NYC.
    4) Avoid man-made fabrics, particularly in NYC–it’s way too hot in summer to wear anything that doesn’t breathe
    5) Believe Corporette when she says you should be able to walk in your shoes. It’s true. What if you’re barhopping with co-workers and you’re teetery in too-tall heels? Don’t do it unless you can carry them off!

    In CA, never wear nylons except to an interview. Suits are rare, unless you work in litigation in downtown LA or are going to Court or a client meeting. Keep a jacket nearby, but you will be laughed out of the building if you are too formal. Also note that Californians wear less makeup! Californians wear brighter colors, always, than New Yorkers. It’s true.

    My general dressing advice when you are building a wardrobe is to stick to VERY basics. You need to have a foundation before you add a flowered, orange blouse. Avoid stores which can make you look older with dowdy suits (Brooks Bros., Talbots), but it’s OK to buy separates there. Hit up JCREW, Tahari, DvF, Banana (if it’s not to fashion-forward). Think neutrals and “can I wear this more at least twice in two weeks?” when you go shopping.

  19. Bracelets:

    Classy tennis bracelets are OK. Cuff, bangles, charm bracelets are not. Also, if you have an officemate, PLEASE don’t wear bracelets–all day when you bang them against the keyboard, your officemate is cringing. Believe me.

  20. At my old NYC biglaw firm it was business casual every day – which led to quite a few fashion disasters. I basically lived in nice separates (including lots of jackets) and twinsets. I found the jacket plus shell or twinset thing especially practical as my commute was boiling hot on the subway but inside it was freezing cold.

    I have a question – is it ok to wear a ‘nice’ t-shirt under a suit jacket? I have a large bust and can never find ‘shells’ which have v-necks or scoopnecks and high necklines look terrible on us better endowed women. I have a couple of nice suits and jackets which would look great with a coloured t-shirt underneath but I’m afraid of looking too casual. Unfortunately I live in a hot climate and commute via public transport and foot so I’d have to wear just the t-shirt when outside work but would add the jacket when inside.

  21. Here at my firm in the south, there is a big disparity between men and women. A lot of the men wear “business casual” – ie button shirt and slacks and keep a jacket in the office. the women, however, usually wear suits every single day. For our summers, the guys wear suits the first few days and then drop to just a tie every day. once again, the women are different. they wear a full suit every single day. it is just how it is here. most the women don’t wear nylons with skirt suits, however.

  22. I summered at a large law firm in Minnesota – suits were a must four days a week, and I think that’s fairly typical of Midwest firms. I agree with Corporette, 3-5 suits should do it, especially if you have both skirts and pants for some of them. I bought most of mine at the Limited; they don’t hold up forever, but they were fine. I also agree that you should start with a couple suits, scope out the womens’ fashion at the office, and then make purchases.
    Two more additions to the list of necessities. First, proper underwear. You should have modest bras and camisoles in colors that complement the tops you’re going to wear. Second, a real wallet. It’s embarrassing to watch a fellow summer dig through her sparkly pink coin purse to get her ID at a bar.

  23. I’m at a small firm in Madison, WI, but worked at a larger firm here before I moved. Most firms here are business casual, but I would advise a summer associate to wear suits the first few days and see how the other women in the firm dress. And then either dress the same as, or slightly better than, those women. Because you, as a summer associate, are not a full-time employee there yet and people DO judge you by the way you dress. So unless a partner asks you why you keep overdressing, then I guess I’d err on the side of more formal than less. You want them to remember you for your work, not for something else.

  24. @Kat – I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a nice, non-ribbed-collar tee under a suit jacket – BUT I would wear pearls or other traditional-style jewelry like sterling silver beads, and know you would lose the option of removing your jacket (I prefer to wear collared shirts with suits for that reason).

  25. Anonymous :

    ok, so I thought I had summer figured out. Firm is East Coast, business casual all the time. So I am thinking suit for the first day, and after that it lives in a garment bag in the office, and the rest of the time, combos of nice pants/pencil skirts, twinsets, sweaters, and button down shirts, with a couple conservative dresses for variety, shopping the JCrew/Ann Taylor/Nordstrom line of stores.

    But now y’all have got me worried- can I wear a Brooks Bros button down without a jacket? If I am wearing a nice, non T-shirt short-sleeved top am I barred from walking the halls with my elbows exposed? Do I really need to resist buying the wonderful Cole Haan Air pumps just because they show a little neatly manicured modestly painted toe?

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