The D.C. Working Man’s True Power Suit

Forget the French cuffs. Washington is run by an army of underpaid schlubs.

There is a misconception that the male D.C. uniform is a “power suit” and tie.

It isn’t.

That ensemble belongs to the select number of lobbyists, lawyers, and self-titled trusted advisers who inhabit the dazzlingly white hallways of influence along K Street. They are rare specimens, populating a lucrative microclimate where jackets aren’t too tight at the shoulders or too loose at the waist, where slacks break at just the right point on the ankle, and where shirts have subtle geometric patterns ingrained in the soft fabric. These are the lucky few who shop at select boutiques in Georgetown where rich leather dress shoes decorate storefront windows (no price tag—far too gauche) and honey-accented Brits wait patiently inside for the next prospect to enter.

The real male uniform—for the tens of thousands of unpaid interns, underpaid Hill staffers, bureaucrats, think tank wonks, and nonprofit advocates who do the grunt work in Washington, D.C.—is much less refined. It’s typically an off-the-rack dark suit, bought on sale from Calvin Klein or Banana Republic and worn Monday through Friday. (Of course, these guys work alongside an equally underpaid army of female toilers. But as a man, I don’t feel qualified to comment on the ladies’ uniform.) Each day features a different shirt-and-tie pairing, which is supposed to make colleagues believe that the wearer has a closet full of suits. But they all know the truth—that closet has one, maybe two jacket-pant combinations—because they’re running the same con. It’s what you have to do when you’re faced with a formal dress code and a tight budget. The District’s average monthly rent on a one-bedroom apartment is $2,000. Uber pricing seems to be permanently on surge. Craft beers cost upwards of $9 a pint; a decent shot of whiskey at a bar in a gentrifying neighborhood might set you back $8.80, tip not included. All of this chisels deeply into the budgets of Washington’s white-collar laboring class: staff assistants’ salaries on Capitol Hill average just under $34,000 a year, and their entry-level brethren elsewhere fare only slightly better.

Note the shiny elbows of a dark suit worn too often at an office job that pays too little. Pay particular attention to the right sleeve, constantly rubbing across a legal pad as notes are furiously scribbled for a boss who seldom reads them. Check out the cracked leather around the belt holes, worn too long across an expanding waistline—the result of snatched meals of greasy but free passed hors d’oeuvres and happy hour specials. It was a cheap belt to begin with, probably from J.C. Penney, Sears, or the like. But it’s just a belt, right? Who looks that closely at your waist, unless they’re trying to divert their gaze from a garish polyester-blend necktie? (Banana Republic as well. Cheap material, but what a price!)

Look, now, at the seat of the pants. That’s the dead giveaway for the D.C. uniform, the sign of a man gone local. It shimmers with each step, the reflection of light in odd contrast to the deep hue of the rest of the trousers: the mark of the Metro.

This fabric, once a deep and satisfying navy blue or midnight black, has become a glistening reminder of the realities of life inside the Beltway. This particular suit may have begun life as a gift: a college graduation or first-Washington-job kind of present, never intended to really last, just like the job itself. And yet each lingers, as stagnant as the wages paid out every other Friday.

Washington isn’t Manhattan or Hollywood, where power and money always walk hand in hand.Public transportation, and the wear and tear it leaves on a wardrobe, has long surpassed the once-envisioned black Suburban as means of daily transit for the wearer of the D.C. uniform. Do quiet mutterings into the ears of power still happen in the backseats of SUVs? Absolutely. Just not often enough to rescue a Men’s Wearhouse buy-one-get-one-free-type getup from repeated slides back onto subway seats with too little cushion, smashed down into the cheap plastic by all the commuters who have come before. A little sparkly? A year, maybe two into the tour of duty. Bright to the eye? Three years, minimum. Missing a back pocket button? Getting close to five, the unspoken tipping point of the Beltway Stay, when the short-timers heading back to their home states are separated from the District lifers.

Power suit–clad downtowners look at this sartorial deterioration with a mixture of smugness and relief. They can remember a time when they, too, had an overburdened wardrobe and an under-stuffed wallet. Yet even now, as their flesh shifts satisfyingly beneath costly fabrics, they sit mired in an irony of their own. With the casting off of a worn old suit for a fine new one, they’ve moved from decisionmaker to influence seeker, from teller to asker. Ill-clad as he is, the guy sporting the D.C. uniform can take some comfort in knowing that he steers the power, even if he doesn’t wear it.

Washington isn’t Manhattan or Hollywood, where power and money always walk hand in hand. Much of the business in D.C. gets done by legislative toilers whose cuffs are rubbed raw with the keystrokes of a hundred bills, and by uncomfortably clad service members, thrust into the heart of the National Security Council’s decisionmaking apparatus, who are more used to fatigues than suits and slacks. Bills are written, troops deployed, and regulations designed by this intrepid collection of twenty- and thirty-somethings. Want to add a zero to a line item in that appropriations bill? Put on your best suit and sit down with the staffer responsible—don’t mind his baggy dress shirt. Talking points and regulations and senators’ schedules are all written by this class of people, the gatekeepers to the powerful and the architects of the world’s most significant minutiae. Even a staff assistant, the poverty-wage sentinel for a billionaire cabinet secretary, can “lose” a meeting request with the click of a mouse. Their outfits may scream insignificance, but their job descriptions belie it as, day after day, the District floats on a sea of emails covered in their electronic fingerprints.

Wearers of the D.C. uniform could have pursued a more profitable career path, or at least one available in a cheaper part of the country. But these men have chosen climbing the ladder of influence over riding the escalator of profit. They labor tirelessly in the capital city of the world’s last superpower, with the full knowledge that wealth is out of reach and fame is confined to decades’ worth of C-SPAN B-roll. Such is the nature of true power in D.C. And those wrinkles will iron out, right?

Sam Jefferies

Sam Jefferies is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. He appreciates a good pair of suspenders.