Clothing culture shock: getting a woman from the lab to Capitol Hill
October 20, 2012 2:43 PM   Subscribe

Business clothing for female scientist working in Washington DC.

After reading this Jezebel post, I'm channeling my stress over finishing my dissertation into worrying about what on earth I'll wear during my post-doc, which is a science policy fellowship in Washington, DC. I've been a graduate student in southern California for the past 6.5 years, which has meant ratty jeans & graphic t-shirts.

I'm 5'4" and a curvy size 14 (40-34-44, about a 36DDD bra). For conferences and talks, I wear a lot of the Banana Republic Mad Men-style dresses and the occasional pencil skirts with top & cardigan. I am not usually able to wear button-down shirts or jackets due to my bust - I am too big in the bust for non-plus-size, and plus-size is too big on the rest of me. I like the idea of heels but have no idea how to walk or stand in them for more than a hour, so I end up in ballet flats or my one nice pair of flat boots. I usually wear my hair in a ponytail & no makeup, and I have no idea what the heck I should do with my hair and makeup in a professional setting.

I've read some of the fashion blogs here, but I'm both time- and money-poor right now. I don't have the money for a shopping spree or the time to go thrifting, and due to my larger size thrifting is rarely successful for me anyway.

Can you recommend stores, resources, or strategies that will help me look professional in political circles next year?
posted by ilyanassa to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (15 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Ha! Did you see my AskMe about transitioning from SoCal grad student to DC postdoc here?

Also check out Corporette.

I just left DC for a tenure track position, but a few words of wisdom for DC dressing:

- people tend to stick with grey/black/navy/brown.
- when I wore colorful dresses, it stood out.

- get your pants (especially) dry cleaned, as nothing says INTERN like wrinkled pants.

- don't buy a lot until you get to your office and see what everyone else where.

- at my government office, I wore suit pants/dress pants/suit skirts with a sweater most days, on casual days sweater and dressy jeans and boots (but suit pants in closet at work just in case). Blazer/suit coat for meetings.

- try Nordstrom to find a fit of affordable dress pants that fit you well and buy a few.

- I did Lands End canvas for sweaters.

- Sweaters and jackets - can you try a plus size store maybe?

- shoes:

I wore the hell out of these black leather ankle boots - pretty much daily wear. I didn't mind being in them all day (I took am not a fan of heels) and they looked dressy with suit pants. (Black ankle boot round up on Corporette here:

And in the warmer months I wore Tsubo (super comfy) black or tan peep toe slingbacks (here - looks sold out now.)

The shoe I'm rocking now as a tenure track type is the Frye Regina pump. I wouldn't wear them all day long marching around the city, but they work for me for a few hours at a time.

In the summer I'd wear flip flops on the metro and change once I got to work. In the winter I'd wear boots and change once I got to work. That made things better.

FWIW, my friend is a postdoc at NIH and they dress a ton more casually there, so again, wait and see what people at work are wearing and then go shopping after you get settled.

- makeup

I hate it too, but it is considered much more professional. I went to Sephora and told them that I don't love makeup but needed some that wouldn't take more than 5 minutes to put on. They found foundation, eye shadow, eye pencil, mascara, lip gloss, and blush. I still don't love it, but it is a DC thing.

- hair

I have crazy curly hair, so I don't have many options.
posted by k8t at 3:08 PM on October 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

Express makes pants (Editor pants) that are good for work and machine washable. They don't really wrinkle and come in different cuts/colors. I have a curvy bottom and they are flattering on me. I don't like any of their other clothes though. I just grab pants from there and head to other places for tops.

After lots of trial and error, I have accumulated a bunch of dresses that can be dressed up or down for my work uniform. Lots of them are from J Crew sales and I have been loving the Boden line of clothes too. I am also pressed for time and have gotten used to shopping on-line and returning what doesn't work. A wool dress can look as sharp as a suit with a crisp button up and it is only one thing to worry about.

I work at an environmental non-profit and have never felt pressured to wear heels. I can wear other shoes like loafers, boat shoes, Mary Janes or nice ballet flats and those are all ok for my workplace. Zappos is good for this.

Many of my interns that are just starting out go to H&M for a starter wardrobe. Their sizing is kind of weird, so trying on before buying is a must.

As an intern supervisor (undergrads and grads), I don't care if my interns wear make-up or flat iron their hair as long as they look like they are trying to present themselves professionally and do good work.
posted by dottiechang at 3:45 PM on October 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

A surprisingly nicely cut suit is the Anne Klein everyday value one at Macy's. sold as separates, so you can have different sizes in the jacket and skirt/pants. Pretty cheap. Slight stretch. I have nicer suits, but those are some quality, comfortable basics that I pull out much more often than I thought I would.
posted by atomicstone at 3:47 PM on October 20, 2012

Consider finding tailors in your area, like the ones in Chinatown NYC. Not expensive and perfect fit.
posted by raphael19 at 4:08 PM on October 20, 2012

If you have long enough hair to put in a ponytail, you probably have long enough hair to put in a french twist (tutorial).

A french twist is super easy once you get the hang of it - under a couple minutes to do - and it looks polished and professional. (I do mine with tuck combs instead of fussing with bobby pins - just tuck one or two right in the seam once you roll up your hair. You might need to lightly hairspray it to stay in place either way - bobby pins or tuck combs - but you might not.)

If you want to invest in button-downs, these companies make shirts specifically for large-busted women (all have your size available as far as I can tell):
Carissa Rose
Campbell & Kate
The Shirt by Rochelle Behrens
Rebecca & Drew
posted by flex at 4:40 PM on October 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

Re: hair and makeup

HAIR: The secret to hair that looks good most of the time with minimal effort is a good haircut (be willing to spend more upfront, but you'll need to go less often). Be honest with the stylist about how much effort you are willing to put in to styling your hair. I tell mine that I am lazy about it and want a cut that requires the minimum of effort and product. I also ask for something that grows out nicely.

If your hair is long enough to put in a ponytail and you want to do something more professional looking but almost as easy, put it in a chignon/French twist (here's a good tutorial). When my hair was long enough, I used to put it up like this all the time. I am not great with styling my hair, but with a little practice, I could do it in under a minute with as few as 4 bobby pins (I found u-shaped hairpins didn't work for me)--one at the top, one at the bottom, two middle pins crossed in an X-shape.

MAKEUP: As others have noted, you don't NEED to start wearing makeup if you don't want to. Groomed and well put together is important; makeup is not. However, IF you feel like wearing makeup, there is a way to do it quickly and cheaply.

After bursts of makeup enthusiasm in my teens, as an adult I've been relatively barefaced (for years I didn't regularly wear anything more than tinted lip balm). However, as I get older I find myself wanting to wear a little bit more. So here is what I wear, and I think it gets me by OK. I have two routines that I have actually timed (yes I am nerdy); one is the one minute version; the other is the 5 minute version. They are minimalist, but I think they look surprisingly professional for that little effort:


- Sheer lip colour in a berry shade. 5 seconds.
- Jumbo eye pencils as eyeshadow (I use the Sephora 12 Hour Waterproof ones--they are excellent quality and good value because they last a long time). The woman at Sephora showed me how to apply and blend them with my fingertip. It takes me 35 seconds maximum to do both eyes.
- I lightly fill in gaps in my eyebrows with a brow pencil. 10 seconds.


Occasionally I do the above and add mascara and a pressed powder to even out skin tone and get rid of shine from my moisturizer. This takes another 2 to 4 minutes.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 5:02 PM on October 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

k8t - No, I missed that other relevant thread. Apologies, thought I searched thoroughly.

Many helpful suggestions here - thanks for soothing my stress over the clothes & putting it back into the dissertation, where it belongs!
posted by ilyanassa at 6:32 PM on October 20, 2012

My scientist girlfriend went to Nordstrom in Tyson's Corner a lot.
posted by princelyfox at 7:01 PM on October 20, 2012

DC definitely skews more conservative, fashionwise. In more recent years it has lightened up, though; the recommendation to see what the women in your office are wearing is a good one. No flip flops or Uggs, obviously. I quite like the Filene's on Connecticut by the Mayflower for hidden suit bargains, and the consignment shop Secondi in Dupont Circle for jackets and dresses. DC also has pretty good, cheap dry cleaners, like the Zips chain-- it will make a difference if you're not already in the habit of ironing your shirts and suit jackets. If you have a car, some of the suburban Marshall's are amazing, others are not as great. The one in Pentagon City sometimes has good office shoes. You'll be fine, and good luck on your dissertation!
posted by jetlagaddict at 10:32 AM on October 21, 2012

I 100% agree with the advice to pay the money for a good haircut (bonus: you do not have to go as often!). At fancier salons you can always ask to see one of the junior stylists who will charge less. I found my awesome stylist by asking other women in the office for recommendations.

As others said, your new colleagues are probably the best way to gauge what is appropriate workwear in your new gig. You may be able to wear skirts and cardigans on an average day and save the suits for occasional meetings with VIPs. It's probably good to have at least one nice fitting suit in your closet. I recommend charcoal gray as an alternative to black, it's more flattering to a variety of skin tones and the black suit is as much of a DC cliche as the intern with the un-ironed shirt. If button-downs don't suit your figure, I have seen a lot of women lately wearing knit tops (not t-shirt material, more like a thin sweater) under cardigans and blazers.

Comfortable heels do exist. Look for heels that are not too high. I look at online reviews that give good marks for comfort (or "arch support" on some sites). Wear them around the house to break them and get used to wearing them. With dress shoes, spending a little more money to get a few versatile pairs of better quality and better fitting shoes is worth it. It is handy to have a pair of rain boots to wear to work on wet days if your commute involves walking to or from Metro or the bus.

The Filene's on Connecticut by the Mayflower closed, leaving an empty space in my heart and in my wardrobe. There is a new TJ Maxx downtown at 13th and F NW though. There is a nice Marshalls and Nordstrom Rack at Pentagon City Metro by the Costco.

For tailoring needs beyond just the usual hemming, etc. that your dry cleaner can do, I highly recommend Ginger Root Design on U Street.
posted by bbq_ribs at 3:53 PM on October 21, 2012

What you will wear on a day-to-day basis will really vary depending on what agency you are with -- not only do they vary from agency to agency but they can vary within one agency if it is especially large and spread over different campuses -- or if you are working on the hill. Definitely have a couple of suits for starters. You will likely want to take part of networking events as part of your fellowship so it's good to dress up for those.

If you have time to shop before your fellowship starts but while you are in Washington DC I would recommend that. Filene's basement is closed all over. Nordstrom rack in Friendship Heights is pretty good in my opinion. I've also found good sales at Lord and Taylor as well as the Macy's at Metrocenter. I would also suggest keeping an Eye out for the petite sections because that cut is really flattering when you are on the shorter side like myself and yourself.

As a former science policy fellowship person myself I'm happy to try to suggest something agency specific if you want to memail me off-line.
posted by NikitaNikita at 8:03 PM on October 21, 2012

Suits...plural?! Truly, it will be a different world. Thanks for the advice, and keep it coming!
posted by ilyanassa at 12:06 PM on October 22, 2012


A) I am so sorry about the Filene's Basement error; it has been a little while since I shopped there but I guess I have somehow missed the empty storefronts....:(

B) Probably. This will depend again on your office culture, but having multiple suits* will give you more flexibility.

*For example, the ability to have one at the dry cleaner and one on you. If you end up needing to present/attend important meetings on a sporadic and spontaneous basis, you might like to keep a neutral or black jacket in your office to dress up a more casual pant or shirt. Also, many DC offices tend to be kept chilled at all times so sometimes it's nice to have real sleeves! Good blazers that can mix-and-match with your existing skirts and pants would probably fill this requirement for most intern positions. I have a blazer from H & M that I bought used and looked amazing for three years, so don't worry too much about spending hundreds of dollars on suits, especially not until you've gotten settled in!

I would also not worry that much about shoes until you're here, because you'll want to see what you need for commuting. (But, if you don't own rain/snow boots and you will be here for the Months of Gross Slush known as DC's winter, you might want to look into those.)
posted by jetlagaddict at 12:40 PM on October 22, 2012

Thanks, jetlagaddict.

Follow up question: does a nice dress in a neutral color paired with a jacket count as a suit? Or is it insufficiently formal? I have a couple nice Banana Republic dresses & pencil skirts already, and if I could pair them with jackets I would save a ton of money.
posted by ilyanassa at 3:45 PM on October 22, 2012

I think a dress like that with a suit jacket would be fine. If you look at J. Crew's suiting line, they always offer an option that is a wool dress with a suit jacket. I also think that a dress like that with a nice cardigan would be good. One of my favorite things to wear when I don't actually want to wear a formal jacket is a sweater jacket (so basically looks like a blazer but is a thick knit). I see them from time to time at Ann Taylor, J. Crew or Talbot's.

One thing you can do, if you are going to buy a suit is to buy one jacket, matching pants and also a matching skirt or dress. Ann Taylor and J. Crew both offer multiple options in the same fabric. This way, you are sort of getting 1 and a half suits. I did this for my first job and found it to be helpful.

I see that Ann Taylor offers 20% off full price items for students with ID. If you're trying to dummy proof dressing for work, pretty much anything from the Ann Taylor wear-to-work section is going to be a safe bet. They helped me transition from college to workplace in a GarAnimals kind of way.

But I agree that you should just get a few things, scope out your workplace first! :) Good luck!
posted by dottiechang at 7:53 PM on October 22, 2012

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