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Capitol Hill Staffers Explain DC’s Complex Dress Codes

Dressing for a career in politics means stashing an “emergency blazer” at your desk and avoiding dry cleaning at all costs.

A young woman in a red dress and flats walks down a hallway carrying boxes of pizza.
A Senate staff member carries boxes of pizza into the Capitol Building on the night of the Obamacare repeal vote on July 27.
Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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Everyday fashion on Capitol Hill doesn’t look like much from afar. Our attention is inevitably diverted to the most famous and powerful people, and only when their outfit choices are especially bizarre, heavy with meaning, or expensive in an inflammatory way. What we know of everyone else’s style tends to come from the pictures at the top of articles about hearings and State of the Union addresses. What it looks like is indistinguishable suits and blazers in dark colors.

Naturally, things are more complicated than that in a town where optics count for a lot (and in any town, for that matter). People who work on the Hill say that it’s full of its own dress codes and particularities — they just exist in shades of business casual. I spoke to four Hill staffers about how they dress for work, where they shop, and how they do it on a government salary. (Proximity to power doesn’t guarantee a big clothing budget.) They didn’t all have identical experiences, but Republican or Democrat, they did agree on a few major points.

Capitol Hill has its own set of fashion rules, spoken and otherwise

Jen*, a staffer working for a Democratic senator: Every individual senate office is like its own small business. The tone when it comes to vacation policy and office hierarchy and dress code is set by every office independently. I have the benefit of working for someone who is really pragmatic about dressing and would prefer that people are in comfortable shoes as opposed to stylish shoes. I think there are other offices that put more of a premium on presentation, so their dress codes are stricter.

That said, Congress is an institution, and it’s an arcane institution. There are rules about what you can and can’t wear on the senate floor. Men have to be in suit and tie. For women, if you’re wearing a dress, you have to have your shoulders covered. If you’re wearing slacks, you have to wear a jacket. One day I was in slacks and a sweater and I tried to swipe onto the floor and the sergeant at arms said, “You can’t be out there, you don’t have a jacket on.” My boss was with me and was like, “Really?” They were like, “Unfortunately, she can’t accompany you.”

In recess, some offices will say you can only do jeans if the member is out of town for the full week. In some, you can’t wear jeans if you’re a front office staffer. Others say you can wear them if you’re not taking meetings with outside individuals.

Kate, who works for a House Republican: I think the lines are a lot more blurred on the Hill than in a corporate setting, because every office is different, but you’re still in the same building. You might see someone wear something and it’s appropriate for their office, but not yours. That’s where it gets confusing: Everyone has a different standard and yet we’re all in the same Dunkin’ Donuts.

I don’t think people realize that we change what we wear, depending on whether members are in town or not.

Emmanual, a staffer on a House committee: When we’re in session, we’re wearing suits. If you’re like me, you don’t want to wear the same suit every day or the same outfit combinations. I like to change it up: I wear knit ties, regular skinny ties, bow ties, pointed bow ties. Different colors, stripes, prints, all sorts of things. Make it fun! Sometimes I change my shoelace colors according to my outfit. I think I have at least 16 shoelaces.

Heather, a staff member for a House Democrat: When we’re in recess, I wear jeans and a sweater. I sleep in an extra 30 minutes.

Shopping on a Hill staffer’s salary means deal-hunting

Kate: A lot of people don’t realize how little Hill staffers make, so they probably don’t realize what a struggle it is to find clothes that you’re able to wear to work and that are still acceptable. I’m just trying to make rent! I make $65,000, but I know some staff assistants that make $25,000.

I shop at Marshalls, T.J. Maxx, and Nordstrom Rack — I go to the Nordstrom in the mall, and then I go to the Rack and find the same stuff. I would never pay full price for something. On birthdays and Christmas, I try to get as many clothes as I can.

Heather: I typically shop at Marshalls and Nordstrom Rack. I still shop at H&M, but some of their stuff is more expensive and wears out quickly. I’ll only shop at J.Crew Factory and Banana Republic Factory if it’s something that I love and fits me really well. Otherwise, I won’t splurge on it. Anthropologie is where I wish I could shop if I had that kind of money, but I don’t.

I won’t spend more than $80 on one particular item of clothing, unless it’s a coat. For dresses, I won’t go over $70 unless I love it. Tops I like to be $20 to $30. Pants and shirts, $40.

Emmanual: I love me a good J.Crew suit. I think most of my suits are from there. Suit Supply in Georgetown also has good suits that I think are great. I do have a blazer from Banana Republic. You can go to the outlet mall and you can get a nice suit there that’s not too expensive. As long as it fits your body, you can wear a suit that costs not even $300 and it can look like you spent over $1000.

In a place like this, with a lot of powerful people, you want to sprinkle in items that do cost a lot of money. I’ll wear a Burberry scarf with an overcoat; I carry a Tumi bag. If they see items on you that they can recognize and that they know the value of, they then assume that [everything you’re wearing] is expensive, when little do they know you got your suit for under $300 and your shoes were on sale for $50.

Desks are closets, too

Heather: I have an emergency blazer in my desk that I can whip out if I feel I need to, and then an extra pair of flats in my desk. You do so much walking in DC that flats wear out really quickly. I’ll keep Band-Aids and Neosporin in my desk, too, for when I’m breaking in a pair of shoes. I’ll get new flats every four months — I’ll just go to Marshalls and get what’s on sale.

Jen: I’m a big fan of having a lot of jackets that I keep in the office. You never know what day you’ll need to go staff your boss on the senate floor. Jackets that you can put on regardless of whether you’re wearing slacks or a dress or a skirt and a top — I think that’s one of the easiest things to keep on hand. Then I have a black sweater, because these buildings can be terribly temperature controlled.

Dry cleaning should be avoided at all costs (because it’s a big one)

Jen: I definitely splurge on clothes that don’t require dry cleaning because those costs add up. That’s a major hit, especially in the summer months. [DC] is literally just a swamp. You walk outside and you feel like you need to take another shower. I would say I spend $100 to $120 a month on dry cleaning in the summer.

People keep their suits in the office and change into them here so they don’t have to do so much dry cleaning in the summer. Especially in my first year here, I’d walk to work in shorts and a T-shirt and change when I got here.

Emmanual: All of the shirts I get are non-iron shirts. That’s a key to the budget: buying stuff you don’t have to take to the dry cleaners. I take my suits to the dry cleaners once a year. I wash my shirts in cold water and hang them to dry. And you want to steam everything — it keeps everything looking like it went to the dry cleaners.

*Name has been changed.