Frumpy adolescent baffled by real world
September 18, 2011 6:35 PM   Subscribe

What's the dress code for a formal visit among top government officials?

Hello Mefites -

My Econ class is going to Brussels and Frankfurt for a week, to the European Central Bank. My professor used his old contacts to swing us an all expenses paid, week-long educational trip where they're giving us talks on the crisis in the EU and where we'll mingle with government officials. So, all in all it's a wildly exciting trip, but I have no idea what the hell I'm supposed to wear.

I guess my concern is whether I should look just sharp or expensive or both. I haven't had to dress formal much, and even then, mostly just weddings, job interviews at food chains and a few events in high school. At any rate, what's the scale of formality and how noticeable is price? Where should I shop for clothes?

I'm only going for a week, so I think I can get by rotating a few nice garments and mixing-and-matching. Where should I shop? Is it okay to shop at the upper price limit at a place like Target or should i be renting a suit for the week? Most of the clothes at department stores and places like Ann Taylor, JCrew, Banana Republic, etc. are out of my price range, but I need to step up an income bracket to look appropriate I will work something out.

Thanks! I appreciate any input. I'm trying to forget about what I have to wear and get excited for my first trip to Europe! (Also, if you know any cool places in Frankfurt or Brussels, let me know..)
posted by mmmleaf to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I think you would be ok with 3 outfits to rotate/mix. In general, conservative colours, especially as you are not there to be noticed but to learn. I think high end Target will be ok, think black, tan, grey for pants. White, button shirts, or other muted colours. Perhaps a jacket or two. Look nice, somewhat formal, but shouldn't have to worry about looking expensive, you are a student after all.
posted by edgeways at 6:44 PM on September 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Are you university students?
posted by k8t at 6:46 PM on September 18, 2011

Yep, undergraduates.
posted by mmmleaf at 6:47 PM on September 18, 2011

I doubt that anyone is going to expect you to look like James Bond. Purchase a decent suit if you don't have one.

And, in reality, they won't notice one way or the other as long as you're dressed in an appropriate manner.
posted by tomswift at 7:08 PM on September 18, 2011

If you're in need of nicer clothes for internship/job interviews WITHIN THE NEXT 2 YEARS (no later than that - the cuts may change, your body may change), then it might be worth it to get something at Ann Taylor, JCrew, Banana Republic. You could also, if you have the time, go to consignment shops (if you're in a business-y city) and hit the jackpot.

For better or for worse, H&M, Target, and Old Navy dress clothes, unless you're extremely savvy about choosing them, are very noticeably from Target or Old Navy.

But for the purpose of this trip and basically not sticking out, that look would be fine. Everyone knows that you're undergrads and you're not expected to dress up.

A price point between those would be Express or Ann Taylor Loft or Nordstrom's less expensive lines. But, in my experience, while these look slightly nicer than Target or H&M, they're not that much cheaper than J.Crew or Banana Republic and they won't hold up as long.

Other alternatives -- TJ Maxx/Marshalls/Ross may have some nice stuff... it is worth a dig!

The ladies at Academichic do a nice job of putting things together from cheaper stores, FWIW.
posted by k8t at 7:10 PM on September 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Keep it simple. This visit is not the time to express yourself with your clothing. Wear classic basics -- the plain white button down instead of the one with the ruffle down the front (for example). I can't believe I'm saying this, but if you wear a skirt, you should probably wear some tasteful hose or tights.

I would bring a pair of well fitting dark pants, conservative black pumps that you're comfortable in, a few basic blouses, and a cardigan and jacket that match the pants and blouses. You can start wearing the jacket, and depending on the level of formality you might feel more comfortable swapping it out for a cardigan.
posted by telegraph at 7:46 PM on September 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Incidentally, I would add, it may be a good idea to have one outfit a step or two above everything else. Not talking super expensive, but something that will make you look sharp. Just in case you end up going to something more important, or your class ends up with an unexpected opportunity.
posted by edgeways at 8:29 PM on September 18, 2011

Be sure to have at least one jacket, button down shirt & tie with good slacks and shoes.
posted by Heart_on_Sleeve at 8:39 PM on September 18, 2011

I think you can rest assured that many of the women you'll see in Eurocrat jobs do their shopping at H&M, Zara and other cheap-chic boutiques, but they'll be buying from the simple, functional formal aisles: blouses, skirts or trousers, cardigan or a jacket. (Frankfurt's a little bit more formal than Brussels.) And I'd agree with edgeways that it might be worth packing a "reception" outfit just in case.
posted by holgate at 8:49 PM on September 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

I would go with a mix and match. Europeans just don't have the same size wardrobes as Americans- you'll be able to get by fine with three outfits and some accessories to mix them up.

I'm somewhat familiar with the dress code there, and I would go with nice slacks (or a skirt, if that's your thing, but I /think/ you'd need hose in that case), neutral top, and jacket. Keep the accesories simple as well, and keep your shoes classic- plain black pumps are fine. I'd try to get the most comfortable ones you can, just in case you wind up doing a lot of walking. IMHO, you'd do well to take a simple black dress as well, just in case. I think the Merona range from Target has some good ones. Keep your palette neutral- I don't know about the rest of Europe, but France for one just doesn't /do/ colour, except maybe in the accessories.

On preview, telegraph has pretty much nailed it. Follow their advice, it's solid.
posted by Tamanna at 8:50 PM on September 18, 2011

Hey, I'm in your class! If it makes you feel any better, I was planning on doing pretty much what edgeways and telegraph suggests. (Except I'm bringing nice flats and low heels because due to a bad knee, I can't walk around much in pumps.) And believe me, my clothes aren't exactly high-end either.
posted by myelin sheath at 12:31 AM on September 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

American living in Europe who works with many senior European leaders from financial and non-financial organisations.

In terms of the dress code:

Pantsuits - Ideally black or dark blue. Charcoal is fine. No ruffles. The white pressed button-down shirt is always a safe option.

Skirts - Hosiery is recommended if not required. The bare-leg look is too informal for business meetings. Pair with a blazer and pressed shirt.

Dresses - Suggested for evening events. Suggest keeping it simple and classic.

Shoes – The Europeans are quite into the appearance of one's shoes in terms of finish and repair. Prefer closed-toe with minimal noise. Comfort on cobblestone is highly recommended.

Makeup – Minimal.

Jewellery – Classy, not flashy. (Diamonds and pearls)

Handbag – Appropriately-sized.

See example:

As mentioned, you'll find many of the people at the organisations wear suits from Zara/H&M. The difference is less about the overall appearance and more about the quality. If you foresee a future in formal environments for yourself, perhaps make 1 purchase a proper nice purchase and the others fast fashion. If you are dedicated to a life in the boardroom, may as well start taking the leap now.

European cuts tend to be tighter in general and more form-fitting as well.

Whilst we are mostly men, on a typical week trip to the continent, my colleagues and I take:
2 suits (black, dark blue)
4 button-down shirts
1 blazer
1 sweater
3 pairs of shoes (business, evening, running)

In any event, when in Europe and in doubt on anything, always goes more conservative/less expressive.
posted by nickrussell at 4:43 AM on September 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

You can also wear the same skirt or slacks every day if the color, material and cut is classic (and you don't spill your coffee). Then you can alternate blazers, sweaters and tops in different combinations as long as they are in the same color scheme.

And don't forget you can find amazing suits at secondhand / thrift stores for next to nothing. You can even get things altered in a few days for as little as 10 or 20 bucks.

Anyway, as a student, nobody is going to expect much or really care if you are dressed like a goofball so just have fun with it.
posted by mr.ersatz at 5:49 AM on September 19, 2011

Anyway, as a student, nobody is going to expect much or really care if you are dressed like a goofball so just have fun with it.
(sadly, it is hard to overstate the potential negative impact of this advice in Europe.)
posted by nickrussell at 6:29 AM on September 19, 2011 [3 favorites]

Anyway, as a student, nobody is going to expect much or really care if you are dressed like a goofball so just have fun with it.

For the love of whatever you hold sacred, do not, DO NOT follow this advice. Perhaps it's that way in the US, I don't know. But there is very little that will create a negative impression of you faster than being shoddily dressed. No one expects you to be a fashion plate or clothed head to toe in high fashion, but at the same time, dressing like you don't care is the fastest way to ensure negative impressions at the very, very least, especially give that you're a woman. Just... don't. Please.
posted by Tamanna at 8:33 AM on September 19, 2011

Yes, please do dress up in Europe, especially for what is in essence a formal series of events!

My background when I went to Europe was more hippie/nerd chic and when I interned at a multinational company in Madrid, I felt super out of place. Clothes matter, and you need to talk your level of formality up at least one and (especially if you're from the West Coast) potentially several notches.

The listing of clothes (dress pants, skirt if female, hose, heels if female or dressy flats, button down or otherwise formal blouses/dress shirts, all of this in neutral colors and classic cuts) rings a very loud bell.

If you despair of finding all of this at Target, look for Ross, Marshalls, or TJ Maxx in your area. They will carry good brands at an amazing discount. You need to be able to set aside about two hours per store and you'll benefit if you drag a fashionable friend or family member to give you honest feedback on your choices.

Finally, have fun! At some point you'll feel out of place and young and oh-so-American/Canadian/etc and then you have to remember that you're in Europe and that's awesome.
posted by librarylis at 7:36 PM on September 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

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