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Professional wardrobe on an intern budget

Jenna Johnson

Today's guest blogger is Ilana Strauss, a junior at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Ilana has interned at the Jerusalem Post in Israel and the Scripps-Howard Foundation Wire in the District. She is currently working at an online internship at

ilana_strauss.jpgI am guessing that in the midst of packing for your internship, you realized wearing a tee shirt, cargo pants and sandals probably isn't going to cut it in an office on the Hill. But you are a college student. Eating Ramen noodles for every meal is just cheap enough to keep you in five-figure debt. Can you afford a new wardrobe?

Yes, you can. And here's how.

Where to shop

Provided you are careful about it, you should be able to pick up designer clothes in specialty stores at reasonable prices.

Ha. Had you there for a moment.

Walk away from the specialty stores. Walk away from the department stores. Walk away from Kohl's and Macy's. You shouldn't even be near Gucci or Saks Fifth Avenue.

If you really want to be sure you get everything you want in one trip and are willing to pay a little extra (relatively speaking), you can go to Target or Walmart.

But if you are really committed to avoid breaking the bank and are okay with doing a little extra searching, resale shops and thrift stores are gold mines for professional, high-quality clothes at dirt-cheap prices.

If you don't know your local resale shops, you should be able to find them by pulling out your giant phone book or, if you were born after the Stone Age, going to Google maps and searching "resale stores near (your town)." Chances are, there's a Salvation Army or Goodwill nearby, if not some hometown stores. Avoid shops that market themselves as "vintage" -- they are, in my opinion, basically the same thing as resale shops, but they charge ten times as much.

What to buy

What many young professionals don't realize is that they don't actually need a whole lot of clothes for a professional internship. My rule: Wear something different each day of the week. Changing up clothing combinations can be the same thing as wearing something new.

In a nutshell, here's what you need:

* Two pairs of business pants, one black and one gray (I've gotten these for $5 each at the Salvation Army)

* A business skirt (speaking to the ladies here) ($5 or so)

* One or two business jackets that match the pants ($6 each)

* Four or five professional shirts. For guys, these are generally button-down. For girls, a little more variety is possible. Check through your regular clothes for blouses you wear casually that can be dressed up for the office. This goes for skirts as well. ($3-$6 each)

*Three or four ties (speaking to the gentlemen here). I would especially urge going to a thrift shop for these. It costs less to buy a tie from a thrift shop than to have one cleaned. Many resale shops sell ties for a dollar or less. ($1 each)

* One or two pairs formal shoes or sandals in black. Ladies, I highly, HIGHLY recommend flats if you don't like having blisters all over your feet. These are the only items I advise going to Target for rather than Goodwill. Comfortable, professional shoes in your size are hard to come by at thrift stores. On the bright side, there's a decent chance you already have a pair or two, since you'll have needed them for virtually any formal event you've attended in the past. ($10-$30 each at Target)

So if you get everything at the prices I've seen, you can put together a professional wardrobe at around $50-$60, less if you find a few usable items in your closet.

What qualifies as "professional" might vary from internship to internship, so ask someone there about dress code beforehand.

Happy shopping!

By Jenna Johnson  |  June 7, 2010; 10:55 AM ET
Categories:  D.C. Interns  | Tags: Internships  
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I would recommend actually purchasing suit pieces that are from the same store, like Bennetton or Banana. If the colors (even blacks) are mismatched or faded to different levels, the suit will look less like business attire and more like a dowdy mess.

I am on a limited budget myself, and often head to stores like Target, H&M or even Ann Taylor Loft sales for cheap staples. For quality pieces with a little individuality, I recommend Second Time Around in Georgetown. I've found a JCrew skirt, a Kenneth Cole dress and a few other cool items for around $20 each.

Hope this helps!

Posted by: 1234streets | June 8, 2010 8:42 AM | Report abuse

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