You perfected your resume, you pored over your cover letter, you rocked the interview…and you got the internship of your dreams. You lined up your housing, you talked to your advisor about getting credit, you even mapped out the nearest Starbucks to your new office. Nothing else to worry about, right? Not exactly. There’s still one crucial question burning at the back of your mind: what on earth do I wear?? An internship is a sticky sartorial situation: you have to look professional and put-together, but maintain a college student’s style—and budget. And don’t forget, you’ll have to be able to take your look straight to after-work dinner, drinks or fro-yo with your co-interns! But don’t give up and head to your mom’s closet for some stuffy skirt suits just yet. HC has the scoop on what to wear to any job this summer, from a high-powered corporate internship to a casual research gig. With a little creativity your intern wardrobe will be as kick-ass as the work you’ll do!
Internships in banking, finance, consulting, HR, law, and government:
If you’re working at a law firm, investment bank, consulting firm, government agency, big-time company, or any serious, corporate work environment, you’ll see a lot of people in suits. As in almost everyone. But suits are really usually pretty stuffy…and totally unnecessary for an intern. Since you’re not a full-time employee, you don’t need to walk around looking like Hilary Clinton every day. You can still look sharp and professional without sacrificing your personal style! Instead of buying a three-piece suit, mix and match polished separates and keep your accessories simple and professional.
This leatherette skirt from Forever21 is a fresh take on the classic pencil skirt, and the red jacket adds a pop of color without looking too garish. As long as you stick with simple cuts and solid colors, don’t be afraid to mix it up a little! But don’t go too crazy with your accessories—choose a classic pointed pump, neutral satchel and polished gold watch to keep the bold jacket under control.
Don’t be afraid to try a dress, either! As long as it’s simple, chic and appropriately cut, a dress looks just as polished as a suit in the boardroom. This plain white shift is the perfect length for the office—right above the knee—and its brown belt adds a touch of polish.
If your dress is a neutral color, you can play with color and texture with your accessories, as long as everything is simple and structured. Always make sure your shoes are closed-toe (no, not even peep toe—better to play it safe!). This croc-embossed pair from Nine West adds a little sex appeal but is still office-appropriate. Always wear a structured bag—no hobos or crossbodies—but don’t be afraid to try a bold color, like this bright orange satchel. And simple jewelry, like a structured gold cuff, always amps up your sophistication factor.
A few more tips for corporate dressing:
- Avoid sequins, metallics and loud prints.
- Never wear a miniskirt or minidress. If you put your arms at your sides and the tips of your fingers hang lower than your hemline, it’s too short. And no cleavage!
- Don’t wear pantyhose unless all the women in your office are wearing them—it’s usually not necessary.
- No denim, cargo pants or skinny cropped pants. If you do wear pants, they should be classic, tailored trousers in a neutral color.
- Even if they’re super-tailored, shorts are never okay for a corporate setting.
- Flats are okay as long as they’re simple ballerina flats or oxfords.
- Invest in a few classic buttondowns in cotton, chiffon and silk—they’ll be your best friends!
Anna, a student who interned in the HR department of the Ganesvoort Hotel in New York last summer, says the key is to keep it simple: “I wore a suit to my interview, but for my internship I just rotated a few basic professional separates. I wore a pencil skirt or tailored trousers every day with a button down and switched up my accessories!”
Internships in marketing, PR, management, nonprofit, advertising, or education:
If you’re not interning in a super high-powered corporate environment, chances are your dress code is business casual. This applies to almost any internship in marketing, advertising, PR, nonprofits, education…the list goes on and on. Unlike in a corporate environment, a business casual dress code really gives you the chance to display your personal style, and there’s lots more wiggle room for what you can wear. But that doesn’t mean you can waltz into the office in your denim cutoffs and an American Apparel V-neck! Business casual is all about taking things you wear at school and giving them a professional twist.
This chiffon midi dress, for example, works perfectly for class or a party now, and for your internship in a few weeks. With a black belt and white blazer it looks professional but not stuffy, and a great pair of heels, fun necklace, and slouchy bag keep it cool. Adding a polished jacket allows you to play around more with accessories without looking too casual. For any intern, a well-cut blazer in a neutral color like white is an amazing investment for the summer—you’ll wear it at least twice a week, and it goes with a dress, skirt, or pants!
Some more tips for business casual internships:
- Shorter skirts are okay, but stay away from minis—and definitely stay away from tight skirts. Leave your bandage skirt for the club!
- A colorful scarf is a great way to add some flair to a plain white button-down—and it’s a lot cheaper than a necklace!
- Stay away from jersey. It’s a little too casual and clingy for the office. Try cotton, twill, chiffon, silk, or linen instead—a change of material will make your outfit much more polished.
- Stay away from tight shirts and low-cut tank tops.
- Floral sundresses are too casual on their own, but perfect with a tailored jacket.
- Flat sandals? Totally okay. Flip flops? Not at all.
Nicole, who worked as a marketing intern for Sushi Samba, suggests buying a few classic separates and spicing them up with accessories to add your own personal flair. “I wore really classic clothes, like floral skirts with summer blouses and blazers or khakis and silk buttondowns, and added my favorite shoes, bags, belts and scarves to make them more interesting,” she says.
Internships in media, magazines, design, fashion, and fashion PR:
A creative internship in TV, newspapers, magazines, web, design or fashion calls for a creative dress code. No need for shapeless jackets and tailored trousers here; at a creative internship, the goal is to look as cool as possible while remaining put-together. You still want to look like you’re ready to tackle any task in front of you with confidence, but it’s important that you let your personal style shine through, too. Don’t be afraid to break out that romper in your closet, or that crazy pair of bright orange wedges—where at a corporate internship your bold fashion choices would earn you some shifty looks, in a creative environment you’ll win your colleagues’ admiration! If you don’t have a closet full of designer duds, don’t worry—your best bet is to mix your favorite basics with bolder pieces and interesting accessories. A simple pair of cropped pants, like these khakis from J.Crew, are a perfect backdrop to a fashionable printed blouse and cool, modern accessories. Here, the structured bag dresses up the more relaxed espadrilles, while stacking rings makes the outfit more funky and grown-up. Trade in structured cotton buttondowns for more relaxed, sheer chiffon or silk versions—they’ll make your outfit more relaxed while keeping your look professional. And don’t be afraid to play with textures—a floaty floral dress looks awesome with a denim jacket, for example, or a pair of white jeans with an open-knit cropped sweater adds a laid-back but professional vibe.
Some more tips for creative dressing:
- Wedges are your friend—if you’re going to be running around a lot as a creative intern (Starbucks runs, anyone?) you’ll need shoes that mix style with comfort, and wedges are a lot less hard on your feet than stilettos.
- Just because you can be fashionable doesn’t mean you can dress like you’re going out: low-cut tops, miniskirts, and totally see-through stuff with no tank under are still not okay.
- Denim is totally fine—just dress it up with a pair of heels and a cute top!
- You can even rock sequins at the office—try a sequined blazer or cardigan, but leave the sparkly sequined dress or skirt for going out.
- The best way to make a plain outfit like jeans and a white tee pop is adding a statement necklace or scarf—and an awesome pair of shoes!
Jen, who worked as an intern at Harper’s Bazaar last summer, says your best bet to keep it cool at a fashion internship is to hold on to your own style. “I didn’t try to compete with the fashionistas at my office, but I wore my own clothes with cool heels or trendy flat sandals every day, and bought a couple cool, put-together blouses, dresses, printed skirts and cropped pants to rotate.”
Doing research, working with kids, or internships with casual Fridays:
If you’re lucky, you’ll be in a casual work environment this summer. Maybe you’re working with kids; maybe you’re at a relaxed web start-up, maybe you’re doing research with a professor. Or maybe your office does “casual Fridays” and you’ll get a chance to dress down once a week. Dressing down gives you a lot of freedom to experiment, but it doesn’t mean you can arrive to work in your ratty boyfriend cut-offs and a stained sorority T-shirt. Casual doesn’t mean sloppy, ladies!
A casual office is the only place where it’s okay to wear jeans, but even in the most relaxed work environment it’s important to stay polished. Don’t wear faded, ripped, or baggy boyfriend jeans, and stay away from embellished, studded and acid-wash styles. Instead, go with a dark-wash, boot cut or wide-legged pair. These trouser-style jeans from James Jeans are super-flattering and work perfectly with a tucked-in white blouse! If you’re doing research and jewelry can get in the way of your projects, opt for a scarf instead. Flat sandals and a cute leather backpack are casual but chic alternatives to your usual flip-flops and canvas tote.
Micro-mini is still not okay even if you’re dressing down, but don’t be afraid to go long! A classic maxi (don’t do strapless or anything with too many frills) can be easily polished up for the office. A preppy cardigan, gold studs, and a polished black satchel add some relaxed class to this gray and white striped dress, while a braided belt, chunky wedges and a fedora give it a funky touch. Don’t be afraid to play with accessories in a more casual office, as long as you keep it appropriate—you can try out your new fringed crossbody bag, but leave the hooker heels at home.
Some more tips for casual dressing:
- Never assume your office is casual. Even if your boss tells you beforehand to dress casual, dress “business casual” your first day and observe the people around you. Are they in skirts and wedges? Your boss is probably a little confused.
- Even if you’re in a casual environment, keep the girls under control. Cleavage is never okay for the office—we’re not playing Joan Holloway here.
- A belt goes a long way in polishing up a pair of casual pants.
- Shorts are usually okay in a casual office, but only if they’re longish and tailored. When in doubt, ask your supervisor!
Melissa, a psych major who did research with a professor at Georgetown this summer, was conscious not to go TOO casual: “I wore jeans and summer dresses a lot, but I never came in in short shorts or a low-cut top, and I never wore flip flops. Making sure I wore nice shoes and appropriate clothes forced me to try harder to pick out a cute bag and do my hair for work, too!”
No matter where you’re working, the most important thing is that your clothes allow you to do the job ahead of you in the best way possible. If you’re helping with big-time presentations at a corporation, you’ll want to look the part, but if you’ll be running around getting coffee every morning, your clothes should be just as comfortable as they are put-together. So don’t stress! You don’t have to look like it’s Halloween and you’re dressed as a sexy secretary every day at work. The employees know you’re a college student, they know you’re on a budget, and they know you’re constantly on the run, both at your job and outside of it. So if your feet hurt, wear flats! If you’re gasping for air in tight pencil skirts, try a pair of trousers! And break out your favorite accessories, as long as they’re office-appropriate. Combine office-ready duds with your own personal flair, and you’ll be ready to rock your internship with style!
Anna, a student at Cornell University
Jen, a student at George Washington University
Melissa, a student at Cornell University
Nicole, a student at Syracuse University