In a recent episode of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" called "The Bare Midriff," Larry David is disgruntled that his new secretary is wearing a shirt that exposes her tummy. When he confronts her, she tells him she's proud of her body and wants to flaunt it.
"You can flaunt two-thirds of the day outside the office and then you have one-third non-flaunt," he tells her. "Why not take a break in the flaunt?"
In white-collar offices across Maryland, "the flaunt" has become an issue and a distraction, particularly when it comes to interns who, professionals say, perennially show more daring than sense in their work wardrobes.
In Washington, D.C., where they've never quite forgotten Monica Lewinsky, a name has evolved for the scantily-clad summer staff: "skinterns."
"It's something we deal with all the time," says Carol Vellucci, director of the University of Baltimore's Career Center. "One staff member said she received a call from a not-to-be-named employer who had to speak to their intern about wearing booty shorts to the office. I said, 'She had to tell her that'"?
Booty shorts. Thigh-grazing dresses. Flip-flops. Ripped jeans. Cleavage-baring tops. See-through skirts. Forgotten bras. … Employers have seen it all — and wish they hadn't.
Missy Martin hires about 80 interns a year as vice president of human resources for Ripken Baseball, where she says it's critical that employees — even interns — represent the Ripken name with integrity and professionalism. That's difficult to do with thong underwear peeking from your waistband.
If Martin sees a sartorially-challenged intern, she says she nips the problem in the bud with an up-front discussion about standards and expectations. But at other offices, she's seen young staff members in jaw-dropping get-ups.
"It's not that they come in and look sloppy, that's not what you see," she says. "They're showing up to work in bar clothes. Short skirts, tank tops and cleavage showing. It's like, 'Kids, do you realize you're not supposed to be dressed like you're going out to drink in Canton?' "
Vellucci says, no, they don't.
When a lot of students hear they're supposed to get "dressed up" for work, she says they think of their best, night-on-the-town outfits. "It seems to be something that especially younger students aren't quite getting," Vellucci says.
To remedy that, the university has just launched a one-credit elective, taught by Velluci, called "Personal And Professional Skills for Business." Anyone can take it, but it's required for business majors. She talks about things like how to network, how to write a resume, how to handle oneself in an interview — and what to wear.
"It's really, really basic," she says. "No cleavage. Closed toe shoes. All the things that you'd think you wouldn't have to say but we say them anyway."
Every year at Towson University, the College of Business and Economics invites students to an event called Dress Smart. Part fashion show, part networking opportunity, the event is designed to show students, in a very visual way, what isn't right for the office.
Professor Laleh Malek, the organizer, asks students to wear things to the program that range from professional to a little bit wrong to wildly inappropriate. The students model and mingle while real company recruiters, folks from firms including T. Rowe Price and Black & Decker, talk to them and tell them why their outfits work or don't.
"Recruiters from well known firms come in and say this is wrong — so if you thought it was right it's not," Malek says.
With the prevalence of the vaguely defined "business casual," Malek says it's no wonder interns can become confused.
She urges them to take a better-safe-than-sorry approach, erring on the conservative side.
"We advise you put your best foot forward cause you are meeting clients, you're meeting people who could potentially be prospective employers and in the current economic situation, it's all about employers seeing who you are," Malek says. "How you dress gives off an image of who you are."
Missy Martin learned that the hard way, in the first minutes of her first job out of college.
She walked into the office and her boss started clapping and said, "Oh, we have a short skirt today!"
"I wanted to die. To die," she says. "I learned a very hard lesson. You should let your brains and accomplishments speak for you and not the skirts and the tight tops."
Martin believes that if an intern is wearing the wrong thing, the short skirt or whatever it is will serve as a blinder, hiding all of his or her attributes. "I think it takes you down a notch," she says. "When you see an individual at work that doesn't have the sense to realize you shouldn't be showing things…it drowns out all of their good deeds, their good work, because they don't have good judgment."
At Himmelrich PR, Mike Fila managers the intern program. How they should look in the office is a huge part of his first-day orientation lecture.
Why? Because he's seen how it can go wrong — especially in the summer when young women are tempted to wear less because it's so hot outside and young men think it's alright to come in unshaven, or in shorts.
"These things just don't project the kind of professionalism you would want in an office atmosphere," he says. "We go over how we as paid staff present ourselves and how we believe interns should present themselves as well….
"Most often it's because they just don't know. It's their first experience in a formal office environment. I've never gotten any push back."
Fila brings his interns to call on clients. And he expects them to look the part. "Daisy Dukes would just not work," he says.
Himmelrich intern Alexa Pollokoff of Owings Mills just graduated from Washington University in St. Louis with a degree in Marketing. On her first day of work, before Fila even got to the "What Not to Wear" speech, she showed up in black dress slacks and a short-sleeved white blouse, explaining, "I tried to steer it down the middle road."
So, potential employers, there's at least one out there who gets it.