My first day of my second job on Capitol Hill, I wore a black pant suit, the best suit in my closet at the time. When I reported for duty that morning, the office’s old school secretary (who had taken shorthand during negotiations on the Civil Rights Act) looked me up and down with disdain and informed me in a most serious tone that the office had a “very strict dress code.” You would have thought I’d been wearing a tube top.

It turned out pant suits for women were against policy, as were, for the record, cropped tops.

Me: “Really? You had a problem with them in a Senate office?”

Apparently, they did. A few summers earlier, an intern dubbed “MTV Bethany” had indeed tried to get away with a navel-exposing cami. You would think a person handed a dress code that indicated women couldn’t wear pants would not be so bold as to push that particular envelop, but she did.

“She was a skin-tern,” my new officemate and future best friend informed me.

It was then I learned about the one constant every summer on Capitol Hill: the arrival of skin-terns. You’ve seen them. Young women in college who have landed their dream internship with their hometown senator or Member of Congress, but they have never had an office job and don’t know how to dress the part. Their mom bought them a suit or two from the Limited or Banana Republic which they then try to marry or supplement with their club wear, the fanciest stuff in their closet. The result leaves nothing to the imagination.

Sadly skin-terns aren’t the only ones perplexed by what passes for summer office wear. A former colleague emailed to express her dismay at what young women in her office are wearing this summer; she has genuine concerns that their wardrobe choices reflect poorly on her organization. I affirmed for her the following:

1. Strapless is not appropriate in the office.

2. Spaghetti straps are not appropriate in the office.

3. Mini skirts are not appropriate (even as a “suit” component) in the office.

Much like anything in Washington, DC, knowing how much skin to show is about striking a balance. You want to show some leg? Cover the arms. You want to bare (so to speak) arms? Wear a skirt of a longer length. In the dog days of summer, you want a sleeveless dress with a skirt of a shorter length? Make sure other assets are contained, but not in too clingy of a fashion.

Think of it as a form of bipartisanship.


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