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What to Wear: Formal Business Attire & the White House

By Amalah

Wise, funny, lovely Amalah,
I have a small crisis and I don’t know where to turn … White House appearance. Yeah, my company is getting an award from the President (like, THE PRESIDENT) at the end of the month, and I’ll be there. I thought it was going to be an audience thing while our CEO goes up to shake the president’s hand, but I just found out that, no! I’m probably going to be up there with him … doing the hand shaking thing … with THE PRESIDENT. OF THE U.S.
(Obligatory side note: this is totally an awe-of-the-office thing, not awe-of-the-man. But, just as well, really, cuz I’d be so much worse and totally squee! if it were Obama …)
Anyway, I’m flummoxed on attire. I’m thinking a suit, of course, but I live on the west coast, so totally don’t own one … and I’m tall (6’3″) and not-waify.
Anyway, I just bought this jacket, or at least a version of this in a very smart dark gray with a suiting pattern, with a skirt and a purple blouse (the purple matches the lining of the suit). Is that okay? My only other option is really black slacks and a button down top (no jacket) …
Also I was thinking black (low) pumps. and no hose. And what about my hair? Pinned back? I’m afraid I look too young if I get a blow-out, not to mention the potential for sweaty nervousness and hair sticking to face or going all crazy humid …
So, yeah. Super excited (white house!), but don’t want to be That Poor Girl who was dressed all wrong … you can’t go wrong in charcoal, can you? Any other advice? I’m a little freaking out and this situation has never really come up before …
Thanks so much … you’re the best!
Sucker for Pomp and Circumstance

lanebryant%20jacket.jpgYou’re fine! You’re totally fine. Good instincts, all around, truly.
(Can I tell you, though, how much I love being the virtual version of a cheerleading friend in the dressing room? At this point I’d be all, “Let’s go look at shoes! And oh, look, we have to walk right by Nordstrom’s little coffee shop! have you ever had one of their Ice Storm milkshake drinks? No? You have to try one. In Cookies & Cream. But they can make it with skim milk so it’s like, way healthy and stuff.”)
Any sort of formal ceremony that ultimately revolves around your work or business generally calls for formal business attire. Unless said ceremony is part of a black-tie affair or something else where a different dress code is specified. The White House, however, definitely falls into the formal business attire category. Suit, jacket, conservative heels, etc. So…what you’ve bought already! Hooray!
I would encourage you to at least pack and consider a pair of hose — nude, black, more charcoal, whatever. Weather in DC at the end of September is a total wildcard, as it’s just as likely to be in the low 60s (or colder) as it is to be in the middle of some weird, early-fall heat wave. Hose is one of those subjective things now, with many women flat-out rebelling against it as a necessary part of business attire, but I generally lean towards wearing hose when the occasion or weather calls for it (goosebumpy legs are NOT A GOOD LOOK). Sort of falls into the better-to-be-overdressed-than-underdressed rule. Hose with a suit always looks polished, and while there’s nothing inherently wrong with bare legs, you may feel weird if you look around and realize your legs are the ONLY bare ones in the room.
lanebryant%20skirt.jpgAs for your hair, I don’t know what style would be the most flattering, but I’d definitely vote for anything that minimizes any temptation to fuss and fidget with your hair during the day. When I wear my hair completely down, for example, I have an involuntary habit of fluffing and flipping my bangs to make sure it hasn’t “gone flat,” so I usually opt to pull all or part of it back when I know I’ll need to keep my hands still. (Important meetings or any other time when I suddenly need to pretend to be a grown-up instead of a gum-snapping, hair-flipping child.) Something simple and clean-looking, perhaps a French twist or a half-up/half-down look.
Other fashion don’t when it comes to formal business attire? Big chunky jewelry (opt for stud earrings or very small hoops), too many rings (no more than one per hand), and brightly-colored fingernails. Go for “day” makeup — no smoky eyes or glittery bronzers; keep your colors neutral and your lips mostly matte. (A little gloss is fine, but don’t slick on the super-wet-and-sticky stuff. It’s a little teenybopper now and you’ll just be plucking stray hairs off your lips all day.) Oh, and keep a tiny compact mirror in your pocket so you can check the lipstick-on-teeth situation before you shake hands with the leader of the free world.


About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • Megan

    September 11, 2008 at 2:55 pm

    I don’t know if you read through the comments, but I was thinking of sending you a question anyway, so maybe it would be addressable here…. On the topic of hose, what is your standpoint on hose colors…say, with a black or gray skirt suit for a job interview? I think things have changed since the last time I interviewed for jobs. Love your advice!

  • Sarah

    September 11, 2008 at 4:09 pm

    Kick him in the shins for me, would you?
    (Sorry, couldn’t help it.)

  • Hilary

    September 11, 2008 at 10:27 pm

    @Sarah: I was thinking the SAME THING!! Or whisper, “January 20, Ass Clown!” into his tiny evil ear.

  • Amalah


    September 12, 2008 at 9:43 am

    I don’t know of any hard-and-fast “rules,” Megan — I worked for a very long time in a formal business attire office (where hose were always required) and I saw every color combination possible. As long as you stay in the black/charcoal/nude categories you’re fine pairing them interchangeably. White hose is pretty out these days, and I wouldn’t wear anything patterned or colored on an interview.
    Personally, I liked black-with-black, gray-with-gray and nude with everything else. But you aren’t going to make anyone recoil in fashion faux-pas terror if you mix these combinations up.

  • Daisy Duke

    September 12, 2008 at 11:15 am

    What about Body Glide???? I’m a convert (I wrote about it on my blog awhile back and the comments were all positive from readers)
    Body Glide looks like a deodorant stick, is sold in upscale running stores, REI, and on Amazon. It is clear and you rub it on your feet and presto- no blisters! It was created for marathoners & day-hikers to prevent mangled feet. It is amazing- and they make like travel sizes too, perfect for sticking in your clutch for a night on the town in your new strappy stillettos!

  • Stephanie

    September 12, 2008 at 4:08 pm

    I live in DC, and I haven’t been to the White House, but the last time I went into the Capitol Building for a meeting, I had to take off my shoes to go through security. My ankle-strap heels looked totally fabulous, BUT… It’s hard to maintain a sense of poise and professionalism when you are bending over in strange ungraceful positions trying to get those twee little buckles refastened (not a chair or bench in sight!) while the four men going to the meeting with you stand around tapping their own feet impatiently and looking at you like you are an idiot. So perhaps some easy-to-slip-into shoes, just in case? 🙂

  • Peanut Butter

    September 14, 2008 at 11:36 am

    That’s why they were thirty bucks. Sheeeesh….women….shoes….sale……blisters……could of predicted that one.

  • Kim

    September 15, 2008 at 1:22 pm

    I hate wearing hose, but for an interview you should wear nude color hose no matter what the suit color. That’s the accepted business practice anyway. Good luck!

  • Amy-May

    September 15, 2008 at 1:26 pm

    Went to the White House about a year ago. Your clothing choices look perfect, yes, wear hose. The other women who work there, will be in hose. You’ll look (and worse, feel) awkward when you notice you look too girlie in bare legs. The halls are mostly marble. Try to choose shoes that are not too clickty-clack or worse, sling-backs that shmik-smack. Carry a small purse with only the bare minimum of junk. Your bag will be searched and you don’t want to hold up your party with your purse contents spread across a counter and the men waiting impatiently.

  • mswas

    September 15, 2008 at 3:46 pm

    Good tip from Amy-May on the shoes – one other point: are the soles slippery? You may want to either scuff the soles or buy those non-slip stick on things. (Getting confused with previous post…) if they are new, try to do a trial run on some marble-ish floors. Good luck!!! Can you post details about the award so we can look for you if there are pictures?