How Should a Government Worker Dress to Impress?

by February 4, 2011 at 11:32 am 6,146 7 Comments

Khelan Bhatia Style Alejandra Owens Borderstan

Alejandra Owen’s dress by Express. Khelan Bhatia’s blazer by Uniqlo, shirt by Thomas Pink, jeans by John Varvatos USA and belt from Target.

From Khelan Bhatia and Alejandra Owens. Got a question for Khelan? Leave a comment or send him an email.

Bonjour, Borderstanis.  Hope you’re having a lovely week.  Today, I’m joined by fellow Borderstan contributor, Alejandra Owens, who will provide a female perspective.

This week’s column is inspired by following question I received in the comments section a couple of weeks back:

For those of us boring DC government worker types, how does one dress to impress without stepping too far outside of the standard-issue suit & tie dress code?

It’s a great question and it’s something I’ve struggled with in the past five or so years I’ve lived in the District. We can all agree that Washington is a very conservative (with a lower-case “c”) town.

It’s filled with legions of boxy suits, ill-fitting shirts and ties that make you go “yawn.” Not that any of you need to be reminded of this, but just because JoS. A. Bank offers you two free suits for the price of one doesn’t mean you’re getting a deal.

I tried to push the boundaries at work with a single-button, pinstripe suit from Ted Baker but found that it was just slightly too fashion forward for my office. Mainly because the pinstripes were far too bold and bright.

After reassessing the situation, I set the following rules for myself to ensure that I wasn’t just impressing my colleagues, but also my most nit-picky critic… me:

  • The fit must be impeccable: Gentlemen, take a good hard look in the mirror. Make sure your shirt isn’t blousing, your suit jacket doesn’t have several extra inches of fabric and your slacks don’t need to be held up by a belt. If they do, get thee to a tailor or clothing store. Ill-fitting clothes can make you look 10 to 15 pounds heavier. And if a tailor or sales-person tells you that you need the extra room “in case you gain weight,” don’t walk, run out of there.
  • The (handsome) devil’s in the details: In other words, accessories can make you stand out (and we always want one item to pop in our outfits). I personally love slightly-whimsical ties, like the one from Psycho Bunny I mentioned last week, but not everyone wants to wear skull & cross bone critters on their neckwear. I realize that’s my issue and I need to get over it. Seriously though, sometimes all you need is a simple tie bar; I picked up a great vintage one at Treasury on 14th and T. I’m not the biggest fan of French Cuff shirts, but the right set of cuff links can really make an outfit stand out. On the rare occasion I wear them, I love these silk knots from Thomas Pink. And quite frankly, a pocket square can do wonders for any suit. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t always have to match your tie. Just make sure the color and/or pattern complements your shirt/tie combo. Speaking of patterns…
  • Mixing patterns can be wonderful… but watch out for danger zones: The first rule of mixing patterns is find the balance between bold and subtle. For example, wearing two articles of clothing that have bold patterns, say a paisley tie and a plaid shirt, can make you look like an optical illusion. If you’re attempting at mixing patterns for the first time, a good place to begin is by sticking to the same color palette. It may make you look a little monochromatic, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. And if it’s pulled off correctly, it can look very elegant. Let’s start with a navy suit with very subtle pin stripes. Then add a blue, gingham dress shirt. Finally, a solid, navy tie to complete the look. This outfit has articles of clothing with a subtle print, a bold print and a solid. Of course, you’ll want to add your own accents (see bullet two). If the navy look works for you, be sure to wear brown leather shoes and a matching belt.

For Women

I think Khelan has some good rules here that apply to women too. Here’s my take:

  • No one wants to see your bra at work. In other words, fit matters for women too. Nothing is worse than ill-fitting basics. Take the white, long-sleeved, button up, collared shirt. It’s a classic lady problem, the buttons are pulling, it’s boxy and shapeless, and thanks to those pulling buttons everyone gets a peek at the teal satin bra you got for $10 at the Victoria Secret Semi-Annual Sale. Solution: my favorite white shirt comes from Express. The darting gives you some shape but hugs your body appropriately. The sleeves can be rolled up, the collar can be popped, the buttons are just where they should be and it is perfect for a suit, alone, or under a cardigan.
  • Who says you can’t wear leopard print on the Hill?! Accessories are a savior when you work in conservative work environments. A leopard print watch, a colorful statement necklace, tights in subdued hues are all perfectly acceptable ways of saying, “Hey I have a personality but I’m still totally work-appropriate!” I am a big fan of shopping for accessories online (and am a firm believer that you shouldn’t pay full price for any of them) at places like,,, and (if you need an invite to the latter sites, hit me up on Twitter). My favorite brick and mortar spots are Secondi (Connecticut Avenue and R Street above Starbucks), Ann Taylor Loft, Anthropologie, and Lou Lou Boutique.
  • We all have our limits. When it comes to patterns, especially mixing them, there are some outfits best left to the fashionistas. Better yet, confirmation from three out of five friends who’ve seen you in the outfit and say it’s a thumbs-up. There are some very basic pattern mixing rules ladies can follow if you dare to go there. Stripes go well with florals. No more than two patterns at a time. Pick complimentary colors that aren’t in the same family. Proportion matters, as does balance — think, how thick/thin is the stripe, how large or small scale is the print. Then how do the proportions and balance work out when put together. You don’t want a frenetic, tiny houndstooth skirt paired with a thick striped shirt. It’s just… too much!
  • If you do nothing else, please take care of your shoes! There is no excuse… ever… period… for letting your heels wear down so they end up sounding like tap shoes in the marbled halls of our nation’s capitol. Most cobblers charge about $10 to replace the heels on a pair of shoes. My neighborhood favorite is the dry cleaner below Russia House at Connecticut and Florida Avenues NW. Also, if you are going to wear your heels during your commute, your five-block walk to get lunch or on your way to happy hour, beware of the scuffed up, torn heel. That isn’t acceptable either. Get yourself a pair of basic flats to wear out on the mean streets and change before you head inside. You’ll extend the life of your shoes, thus justifying the spend on pricier investment pieces like these hot little Badgley Mischkas.

Those are the rules that keep us looking appropriate but fun — what are your rules? Any fashion disasters you care to let the group hear about!?


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