How to dress like a diplomat – A useful guide

A common question I’m asked is how to dress for the Foreign Service test. Another important question — after you passed all the tests — is how to dress on the job. As superficial as these questions may seem, they’re actually quite important in the button-down culture of the Department of State. It is important to be taken seriously in this job. Many — probably most — other countries around the world tend dress with a bit more style than Americans.

Before we go too far into how to dress now, let’s look at how American diplomats used to dress. For those of you who shudder at a tie and panty hose (though perhaps not together), this short history lesson may make you appreciate our current relatively lax standards.

A Diplomat’s Uniform

In the very early 19th century, there was an actual military-style uniform prescribed for diplomats. Tri-corner hats, embroidered coats with gold buttons, and swords ruled the day in the early 1800s. At first there was an actual uniform and later diplomats were allowed to start creating their own uniforms (thus defeating the purpose of a uniform). Though I would love the chance to wear a sword at work, the temptation to use it might prove to be overwhelming at times.

An example of early diplomatic dress

Congress banned diplomatic uniforms in 1867. I can only assume others struggled with the same temptations of the sword. Many diplomats of the day were upset by this and were considered less than suitably dressed at formal functions with their colleagues in the diplomatic corps. From time to time the Department of State played with the idea of some sort of uniform, but Franklin D. Roosevelt put a final stop to it in 1937 stating no member of the diplomatic or consular corps wear a uniform not approved by Congress.

 How to Dress Today

The gold embroidery and pointy hat may be gone, but that doesn’t mean you can just wear whatever you want and expect to fit in. Each post around the world will be a bit different when it comes to everything, even dress code. Of course, you’re still trying to get in to the Foreign Service so let’s focus on the three most important days you have at the start of this journey: the FSOT, the FSOA, and your first day in A-100.

How to Dress for the Foreign Service Officer Test

It doesn’t matter. It is a computerized test being administered by proctors. All that matters is how you do on the test. No proctoring the test is going to be interviewing you down the road. Wear whatever you like.

How to Dress for the Foreign Service Oral Assessment

Dress to impress. This is your first interaction with your potential colleagues and supervisors. All of the assessors are Foreign Service Officers and they know that State still sticks to a pretty traditional button-down dress code. You need to look like you can fit the part. Also, your fellow test takers may well be your future colleagues. Do you want them to remember you as the guy who showed up wearing Birkenstocks and a Pink Floyd t-shirt? Probably not.

For guys this means a suit. For ladies probably a jacket, nice blouse, and pants or a skirt. Obviously, I don’t know women’s fashion as well, but I would encourage women to think more office professional and not outdoor wedding.

How to Dress for your First Day (i.e. A-100)

It’s time to pull out your best stuff. Must like the FSOA you will want to be wearing nice, formal business wear. Day one is not the time to be a trendsetter. You will be meeting many new people that day, several of whom will be ambassadors. Also, most of the people you meet will be your colleagues, contacts, and the backbone of your State Department reputation for your entire career. You want them to take you seriously. Five years down the road you will be after that sweet gig in Paris and your potential boss will ask one of your classmates what he thinks of you. Do you want him to say, “Oh yeah, Susan is great. Very smart and you can depend on her” or “Susan? Well, she wore fishnet stockings and a tiara on her first day, so…”