A fashion overhaul: going conservative. Huh?

Two suitcases is all I brought to Washington, DC. I congratulated myself for filling them with mostly practical stuff: clothes. Practical for teaching English in an art school in San Francisco. For frolicking in 80’s dance clubs and singing in piano bars. For grabbing beers with friends on weekends and then biking home, wind streaming through my helmeted hair. I come from the Mission District, the hipsterville. I was rather looking forward to carrying my style over, with a bang.

And lo and behold, I find myself on the set of modern-day Mad Men. People in the metro, on the streets, even in class all have this austere, tortured look to their wardrobe as if their personal and professional lives are spent on the defendant’s bench.

The men tuck in. I know this because in hot weather, they immodestly remove their blazers. The gleaming of their shoes could illuminate a sketchy intersection. Suits, suits are everywhere – and, unlike in San Francisco, it isn’t drag. Pink button-downs abound, but their wearers seem straight as an arrow. The men sport crew cuts. No curls or artistically-arranged facial hair here (I’m still talking about men, now).

The women clip around in sensible high heels, blouses tucked into their fitted pencil skirts. It’s the sea of monochrome, mostly black and grey, accurately capturing my despondent mood as I survey my clothing pile back in the apartment.

Looks like the age-old crisis has finally caught up with me: a closet full of clothes, and nothing to wear.

So what am I to do with these skinny jeans? Flowy strappy tops with floral patterns? Long necklaces and dangly earrings? My canvas bag that proudly reads “Bike to Work Day, San Francisco, 2010” would not land me a seat on the metro or brownie points in classes (and this, alas, is spoken from experience). Much less a job.

Then, there’s the ironing. It’s as if Washingtonians pack portable irons in their bags, so crisp their lines, so seamless their silhouettes. Not so with me. Once a year or so when I do get the courage to iron, the stuff comes out looking more crumpled than when I’d started, so I stopped bothering.

And there is something downright unforgiving about suits that makes me freeze up in conversation — images of interrogation, war, and other legal proceedings flashing through my mind.

“Remember that there are actual people inside those suits,” someone back home tried to comfort me on the phone. That’s the same person who made me pack a lime green fuzzy blazer just last week with an “Are you kidding? You have to bring it to DC! Of course you’ll fit in!”

Fashion-shocked and with interviews looming, I haven’t yet attended a single museum. I haven’t seen Mr. Lincoln immortalized in stone. Instead, I’ve resigned to combing mass merchant stores in hopes of squelching the unconscious hipster in me and reinventing my wardrobe.

It ain’t easy dressing conservative. Myriads of questions come up. For instance,

1) Is it okay to wear peep-toes to a job interview? To work?

2) If so, with hose or without?

3) Does a non-leather purse speak of modest means? And is there a reason for these dirty looks at my square-shaped hot pink bag? (I bet it’s envy. Yes.)

4) How low cut is too low cut? Let’s be frank: I want that job, but not that much.

5) And, ahem, shapewear?

As I ponder these questions, fashionistas who have mastered the art of conservative dressing  are welcome to weigh in.

3 thoughts on “A fashion overhaul: going conservative. Huh?

  1. Milana K says:

    As a recent graduate and even during my schooling when I was trying to score the internship I had somewhat adjusted the way I dress for the interviews/professional meetings. One can certainly never go wrong with a well fitted suit, pant suit in the winter and skirt suit in the summer/spring. I tend to wear a very light nude color hose when i wear skirt suits. But, recently I had also found a great designer Elie Tahari that makes semi conservative dresses that fit perfectly. The colors are certainly depend on the company culture, but navy (my favorite) and gray (not my favorite) are always a good choice. This designer dresses are often on sale and usually have a great fit on the body. If the dress is sleeveless, a nice complementing short sleeve jacket is a great piece to add. I have learned to combine the simple fitted black Calvin Klein dress with a thin belt on the waste with a nice blue jacket and it worked perfectly well on several employer meetings. Alas, occasionally I do find my style to stand out a bit more among gray and black suits that others wear and closed toe shoes, but the goal is to be dressed professionally without looking like everyone else. I dont wear a peep toe shoes and prefer sling backs or simple pumps. The color of the shoes also does not have to be always black. With navy Tahari dress one can pair it with nice brown color shoes. The heels or a wedge is always good, although i have seen ladies wear flats, not my immediate preference, but depend on the occasion and how ones feet feel :).
    If there is a chance to learn more about the company culture prior to the meeting, it certainly saves lots of headache on how to dress up. Some companies are very traditional and a suit is prescribed, others are more casual and a suit is not a must.
    As for a colored bags it certainly again depends on the company. Yet, my suggestion would be to avoid bright colors. But what always saves me is a leather black/dark brown portfolio which has a notepad and a space for resumes that I always have handy on my interviews.

    And absolutely no low cut tops, cleavages, or else. This can be interpreted as unprofessional. Minimum make up and perfume. Get them girl!!!

  2. By the way, a DC local just complimented me on my “elegant taste”! Sure, I was going to Safeway and it rained so bad, that I returned to change into my slummy SF getup, but still…the formula is working, Milana! I’ll post pictures soon.

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