Chelsea Lanzoni was on her way from the lacrosse fields of Vanderbilt University to a summer internship at National Geographic in Washington, but her first stop was a dressing room at Nordstrom Rack in Annapolis.
"I had, literally, nothing to wear," she said. "Nothing."
Thanks to a program at Vanderbilt that advises students on, among other things, how to dress appropriately in the workplace, she bought pants, skirts to the knee, dresses with sleeves and tailored blouses.
And a pair of conservative flats that immediately gave her heels blisters.
"I had never dressed up for anything," said the rising college senior from Annapolis. "But I'd read a few things on what to wear. I wanted to be conservative. I didn't want to do anything to step out of the box.
"But I also didn't want to be sweltering," said the young woman, who will be walking a mile to and from work in the heat.
Summer creates the perfect conditions for bad workplace fashion decisions: clueless young people entering the workplace for the first time during the hottest months of the year.
The result is often flip-flops and too much skin for the women. And guys who look rumpled and poorly put together.
"The sloppy-little-boy look may be a turn-on for the college girls but not in the workplace," says Callista Gould, who founded the Culture and Manners Institute in Des Moines, Iowa. Among other things, she helps universities create career services for their students that address workplace dress codes and other civilized topics.
"Iron your shirt, shine your shoes. People notice the details," she said. "And if you can wear it at the beach, you can't wear it at work."'
Karen Ciurca-Weiner, buyer and manager of the Jones & Jones boutique in Cross Keys, suggests that office attire be "conservative with a flair."
"Throw in a small trend here and there but, not knowing what the office atmosphere is, it's better to err on the conservative side rather than being fashion-forward," she said. "And make sure the clothes fit properly. Many people buy inexpensive clothes that don't fit and then they're constantly pulling at their skirt or fixing a bra strap. So make sure they're tailored properly."
You'd think workplace dress code basics would be self-evident, but fashion magazines and television create the impression that deep cleavage or a cocktail dress is OK if you are also wearing a suit jacket. And that real men wear jeans and running shoes to the office and never tuck their shirts into their pants.
To be fair, workplace dress codes have drifted toward casual, and that can leave the uninitiated wondering where the boundaries are.
"When I worked in New York," said Gould, "a young woman showed up for an interview for a public relations job in a halter top. I wanted to tell her that in order for her to be the face of our company, she needed a back to her shirt."
That's the other difficulty: How do you tell interns or new hires that they are bringing the wrong kind of attention to themselves without ending up in hot water yourself?
"It is up to the company to set the guidelines and the rules, and it is up to the company to explain them," said Maria Everding of the Etiquette Institute in St. Louis.
"I advise them to cut out pictures: 'This is what we accept and this is what we don't accept.' "
People see their clothing as an expression of themselves, said Gould, and criticism can hurt.
"And it can be a legal issue, too," said Gould. "It can be construed as sexual harassment."
Deliver the assessment this way, she said: "You are a valued member of our team, but I need to tell you that your outfits are not in line with our company policy. I am telling you this because you have such great potential, and I want you to succeed."
Young people are often taking their fashion cues from their peers and not looking to the people who could be mentoring them.
"And I honestly believe in working with these college students," said Everding. "They are so hungry for guidance, and the more you give them, the more they appreciate it. But they won't go looking for it for themselves, it seems."
Think of it as a financial decision, said Gould. "If someone told you that you could command a higher salary or get promoted by dressing a certain way, would you do it?"
Lanzoni emailed a supervisor at National Geographic and asked what was appropriate workplace attire, but she was still nervous her first week.
"I was actually the most conservative of anyone," she said. So she loosened up a bit, wearing the occasional long skirts and neck scarves.
"I leave my flats at my desk and I walk home in my flip-flops," she said. "I don't think my feet would make it any other way."
We tapped experts and our own observations for workplace fashion tips for interns and college graduates. Better to go conservative until you know the culture:
• No flip-flops. Ever. No Tevas. No strappy sandals and no toe or ankle jewelry. For women: No open-toed shoes unless you have a good pedicure.
• The less skin the better. Skirts to the knee. Nothing sleeveless without a cardigan or a jacket. No cleavage. "Modest is hottest," said Callista Gould of the Culture and Manners Institute. "Dress so people respect you, not inspect you."
• No sundresses, tube tops or bare midriffs. Nothing too tight or form fitting.
• Not everyone has to wear a charcoal suit. Lighter versions of gray, blue and taupe are fine. "Let your personality do the shining," says Callista Gould. "Don't let your clothes shout you down."
• If you must have brighter colors, make sure the clothes are very traditional cuts. And pair strong color blocks with a neutral color. Don't wear them together.
• Piercings anywhere but the ears of women should be removed and tattoos hidden.
• Jewelry should be simple and traditional.
• Save the golf shirts for the golf course, the tennis shoes for the tennis and basketball courts, and the Hawaiian shirts for the beach.
• Shorts, even paired with a suit jacket, come up short in the workplace.
• Fine-gauge T-shirts under a suit jacket can be acceptable for men, but no V-necks. Chest hair on men can be a turn-off in the workplace. And nothing with slogans or ads.