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What to Buy to Look Like: A Capitol Hill Intern

Photo: HBO

Status can be a funny thing. Of course its most obvious iteration comes with shiny hardware and easily recognizable logos, but it gets far more interesting as you narrow it down to the more opaque signals — when the way you tuck your shirt, or what you eat for breakfast, or your particular brand of notebook can mark you as in or out. And of course, what counts as a status item varies wildly across human tribes. In our new series, Insider Goods, we’re talking to tribe members (some with their real names, some anonymously) to find out the status items among art-gallery assistants, or Broadway actors, or architects. Here’s Karam Singh, who was an intern on the Foreign Affairs Committee (specifically the subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific) this summer.

“Networking is huge in D.C. It’s all about meeting people and getting them to remember you, but you don’t want to be remembered by the clothes you wear, so in terms of fashion, you want to go with the flow. On the Hill, there’s a dress code, so you have to wear a suit and tie. A lot of young interns wear square-bottomed ties. I, personally, don’t really like those because I don’t find them professional, so I would always go with the simple triangle look. You’d have to be a petty intern to wear red just because you’re a Republican. It’s usually simple checkered or plain-colored ties. You do see a huge gap between younger and older staff, though. It’s the young interns who want to make an impression.”

“A lot of the interns I knew didn’t really have many suits before because, unless they’re Paul Ryan’s kid, they don’t have money. We’d go to places like J.C. Penny, where they have a brand called JF J. Farrar, and for around 150 bucks, you can pick up a suit. People would just get one or two suits — always black, gray, or blue to match the congressmen — with white shirts, and then switch up the ties. The older congressmen are usually wearing clunky, old suits that are two sizes too big. For everyone else, fitted is key, but not too fitted. Republicans probably dress worse overall, although it’s arguable. Some Democratic congressmen come from big cities like New York, L.A., or S.F., and they have better fashion scenes there than in rural Pennsylvania.”

“And of course, a flag pin for the jacket.”

“Most of the interns come in the summer when it’s incredibly hot, so water bottles are key. You might look dumb if you carried around a plastic Poland Spring water bottle, so everyone buys one to refill.”

“There’s this clip everyone uses to hold their badges. The interns want to show off, so they’ll wear their badges right in front and walk around town like that. Also, intern badges are bright green, so you can tell right away who’s an intern. You never really see the older staffers’ badges.”

“People drink a bunch of Red Bull. Those are big. The higher-up staffers work late nights because a lot of people are trying to climb up the hierarchy, so I’ve seen a lot of people with Red Bulls. Interns might be a little less occupied. They mostly end up giving tours and answering phone calls. A lot of interns would listen to angry people scream at congressmen, especially this summer, but among each other, people won’t be openly partisan with someone they don’t know. You need to get comfortable with someone before you talk politics, which sounds like it wouldn’t be the case, but it is. You need to tread with caution. People don’t just start railing about Trump.”

“As for notebooks, a legal pad is the standard in D.C. A lot of interns get sent to briefings where they have to take notes. They’ll usually find a legal pad at this store in the Longworth Building with the seal of the U.S. Congress on it, or one that says U.S. House of Representatives. Folders have the Congress seal, too. Most interns get their own desktop computer, so they also get a mouse pad that says U.S. House of Representatives. People walk around decked out in all their gear, especially interns, because there’s a lot of social capital that comes with being an intern here. It’s like, what’s the point of being a D.C. intern if you can’t tell anyone about it?”

“You obviously have to have a few pens with you. Most people use pens and pencils from the staff store, and they have this particular black gel pen everyone uses.”

“A nice leather bag is an important detail. The bag I bought probably cost more than my suit. Right now, the fashion is a brown leather bag with brown shoes. Some people go with a more modern laptop bag, and those are okay, too, but more people would have the brown bag and the brown shoes.”

“Everyone had a reading list and people talk about it a lot. The mainstream books this summer were about Trump or Hillary. Within my committee, everyone was reading books about Chinese history and Chinese-U.S. relations. Everyone just wants to be on the top of their game, especially when it comes to foreign affairs. A lot of people would be like, ‘I’m reading this book!’ And just recommending books to each other all the time.”

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What to Buy to Look Like: A Capitol Hill Intern