In 2017, shortly after the next president is inaugurated, thousands of newly appointed federal officials will struggle with the same existential question: What do I wear to my first day of work? I understand their anxiety, having languished over wardrobe during eight years of federal service and pondered the fashion choices of my male colleagues during the interminable meetings that are the hallmark of government work. It’s hard to point to a solid “real world” professional competency that I learned during those years of meetings and memo writing, but one skill I developed is an uncanny ability to tell you where any man in the national security community works based on his apparel. But first, to understand the fashion choices these professionals make, you must understand the culture—and keep in mind that not every employee falls into these stereotyped camps. (I’m also leaving a thorough assessment of female fashion to other writers more qualified.)
Let’s begin with the State Department, which traces its roots to patrician northeast culture. The wardrobe reflects that: Pin stripes and button down oxfords are in, as are monogramed cuffs. And yet, the modern diplomat needs to be ready to jump on a helicopter or into a tactical vehicle at any time, and this, in turn, calls for comfortable, but not particularly stylish footwear. The man formerly in charge of rebuilding Iraq, Ambassador L. Paul “Jerry” Bremer, was the bridge to the new diplomat’s sartorial ethos. The Exeter- and Yale-educated former ambassador to the Netherlands was known for two things: being really bad at rebuilding Iraq and rolling through the Iraqi heat in immaculate suits, prep school ties, sensible pocket squares, perfectly coiffed hair, and an exquisite pair of standard-issue tan combat boots. Ten years since Bremer’s departure from Baghdad, the idea of wearing combat boots with a suit is widely mocked within the State Department, but a sturdy pair of Rockports is beyond reproach. Just remember to keep the suit and shirt rumpled, as if you might have just come out of Khartoum or Kabul—after all, everyone knows how hard it is to get good dry cleaning there.