Every summer, interns and fresh college graduates migrate to Washington DC as if they were in some dystopian nature film. Think “March of the Penguins” as seen by Hieronymus Bosch—a sweltering hellscape with the penguins replaced by people who loved student government.
Whether they are cynical careerists or idealistic careerists, the new arrivals are thrilled by their proximity to power. Although they are not yet Important People doing Important Things, they are in Important Places near Important People doing Important Things, and that is something. But being adjacent to power comes with a cost. Several costs, actually. The rent is exorbitant. Transportation is an exercise in choosing the form of the destructor: driving in DC traffic or taking the tardy and occasionally deadly Metro.
There is also the oppressive, humid heat of the DC swamp, where summer comes early and stays late, ensuring that the latest crop of Ambitious Young Things sweat and suffer in their dark wool suits and blazers. Big shots may get air-conditioned SUVs idling at the curb, but minions have to do some walking in the heat. Male business attire, in particular, was not designed for a climate like this, where the humidity hangs in the air like the sullen wrath of a petulant god, sprung fully formed from the armpit of Zeus.
These are excellent reasons for leaving the Swamp, and conservatives should consider doing so. They will likely be more effective in state or local government than as another small, replaceable cog in the DC machine. But, for those determined to stay in DC, or who are working in other locales and jobs that have wretched summers and business dress codes, here are some suggestions for survival. Hot, sweaty, and smelly is no way to show up at the office.
1. Wear Lighter Fabrics
Cotton, linen, silk, and blended fabrics like poplin wear much lighter than wool. Suits, sport coats, and trousers made of these materials will keep you cooler than their traditional wool counterparts will. Choosing jackets that are only partially lined will also help, as will shirts made from a lighter-weight fabric.
Because lightweight fabrics tend to wrinkle more easily, you may need to steam or iron them more often, but that is a small price to pay for comfort. But be careful in choosing non-iron shirts, as the treatments or fabrics that reduce wrinkling can also keep the shirt from breathing.
2. Men: Wear an Undershirt
This might seem counterintuitive, as it adds an extra layer to an outfit. However, sweating directly onto a dress shirt looks terrible. Giant underarm puddles (and the stains they leave behind) are not a professional look. Wearing a lightweight undershirt to absorb the worst won’t make you much hotter, and it will keep you looking much fresher.
3. Pick Quality Over Quantity
This advice applies year-round, of course, but it is especially relevant if the climate dictates two distinct business wardrobes. If your budget is constrained (and it likely is if you’re just starting your career), you’ll probably be better off with a smaller, but comfortable and well-fitting, selection than a closet full of ill-fitting, heatstroke-inducing stuff. Classic looks never go out of style and good clothing will last if you care for it properly, so you will be able to build up your wardrobe over time.
4. Keep It Simple to Start
This too is year-round advice, with special pertinence when acquiring an extra selection of business clothing for summer. Begin with the basics: navy, gray, or tan suits, jackets, and pants, white or light blue dress shirts, and simple ties to go with them. A selection of tried-and-true business staples will work for just about anyone, and they are easy to match.
Bonus: this will actually make it less noticeable if you have to wear the same things regularly. If you wear a plain shirt every day, no one will know if you have a closet full of them, or are wearing the same few shirts over and over. When he started working for the Missouri attorney general after law school, Clarence Thomas had only two dress shirts, and had to wash one every night. No one knew.
5. After Mastering the Basics, Have Some Fun
Once you’ve mastered the basics, have fun if you want to. Summer is a great season to add some individual flair to traditional business attire, from bright solids to colorful plaids to accent pieces. If you want to wear a seersucker suit and a madras bow tie, do it. Having your own style can project confidence and will make you memorable at meetings and networking events.
6. Keep an Emergency Outfit in Your Office
This also applies year-round, but may be especially good advice in the summer, when people tend to dress down a little. If a something comes up that you haven’t dressed properly for, or if you spilled coffee all over yourself before an important meeting, having something on hand to change into can save you embarrassment, which is why many professionals do so.
Whether it’s a tie kept in your desk drawer, a jacket always hanging in your office, or even a complete change of clothes, is up to you and dependent on your situation. Since your workplace likely has AC, stashing a traditional wool suit or blazer at work may make a great emergency option for the summer.
These tips won’t solve everything. Having to buy a seasonal collection of business clothing is an extra expense no matter how assiduously you shop sales, thrift stores, or eBay. When it is more than 90 degrees and humid, no business outfit will be entirely comfortable. But the right clothes will go a long way to keep you looking, feeling, and smelling better.
If you are going to live and work in the Swamp, you should dress for it.