Wednesday, July 5, 2006

Tank tops, flip-flops, bare flesh and cleavage.

It’s the unofficial uniform of the summer interns, gaggles of college-age women and recent graduates who invade buttoned-down conservative Washington every summer, bringing a large dose of hotitude to offices from Capitol Hill to K Street.

They’re known as “skinterns.” Those who think “belly shirts” are career wear. If the devil wears Prada, the skinterns wear nada. As if Washington wasn’t sweltering enough.

“All the guys I worked with here, they would love it when the weather got warm for that very reason. ‘Ooohhh, the interns are coming,’ ” said Elizabeth Conatser, a Washington fundraiser, lunching with a friend at Le Bon Cafe near Independence Avenue.

An estimated 20,000 interns descend on the nation’s capital every summer, and they are easy to spot.

Lindsey Marburger, in skimpy black tank top, flowered skirt and flip flops, was sitting at an outdoor table at Le Bon Cafe.

“The Smithsonian doesn’t care what we wear,” she said, flipping her shoulder-length auburn hair. She’s a 20-year-old student at American University and interning for the Smithsonian. “Honestly, I don’t see the problem with flip-flops.”

Miss Marburger said her college offered a seminar on intern etiquette (including wardrobe advice), but she did not attend.

“I’m from Washington state, and my friends are like, ‘You can’t wear jeans to work?’”

The admittedly naive interns dress provocatively — in miniskirts, stiletto heels, low-cut spandex tops, but they quickly become aware of their effect on the testosterone level in Washington offices.

“One of my friends said, ‘My boss was definitely trying to look down my shirt yesterday. Tomorrow, I’m buttoning up the blouse to the collar,’” said Miss Marburger. “You learn.”

“They just don’t get it,” said Marjorie Tuttle, owner of Art & Soul, a jewelry and wearable art shop on Capitol Hill. “If you’re going to play the game, dress the part.”

On the Hill, offices offer internships to at least six or seven college students. Law firms, newspapers and public-relations and lobbying firms also take on interns — some paid, some not — during the summer.

“We were told to look more like Ann Taylor and less like Wet Seal,” said 21-year-old Katie Garlick, referring to a leading teen retailer in America.

She was lunching at Cosi with two fellow interns from the office of Rep. Geoff Davis, Kentucky Republican. Miss Garlick wore a beige camisole and flip-flops — she left her heels back in the office.

Intern Liz McGovern, 19, from Jacksonville, Fla., was also wearing a T-shirt and flip flops.

Most offices have instituted dress codes (pants or knee-length skirt, blouse, “professional” shoes) after sending interns home to change out of see-through Capri pants or too-short skirts. But many do not, leaving the barely legal ladies to fend for themselves — unless they’ve been formally instructed on the conservative attire of working women in Washington.

“I really think the interns are getting smarter because of these programs,” said Betsy Rothstein, a columnist for the Hill newspaper. “They’re coming from college. They don’t have the thought process. They’re learning they can’t dress like that.”

Still, the phenomenon of skinterns has made its way to the Internet, where the Washington blog site Wonkette is holding a “Hill Intern Hotties Contest” for both men and women to be decided by popular vote.

Young and sexy, the interns evacuate by August. Still, they manage to fill a void in Washington — if only for a few months of the year.

“I think the situation is actually improving. Some of the men would still prefer the skimpily attired,” Miss Rothstein said, then she laughed. “It’s sick.”

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