How to dress like a grown-up (a guide for young interpreters)

How to dress like a grown-up (a guide for young interpreters)

Kirill Kazakov

Ok, folks, here’s the deal. 

Recently the head of my interpreting alma mater invited me to meet with this year's students. Much to my surprise, a tangential mention of the implicit dress code for interpreters prompted a flurry of questions. This is why I decided to put together a quick and dirty guide on the subject.

This is a guide I wish somebody showed me when I was starting out as an interpreter. 

Back then, the foundation of my wardrobe was a pair of beat-up blue jeans, two flannel shirts and a green hoodie. Not very professional, I know. But I came from an IT scene, wherein wearing pants (any pants!) could have prompted an “are you having a job interview today?”

Naturally, when I got a job offer from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I was appalled. What am I supposed to wear? I heard these people wear suits. As in suit-and-tie suits. Every day! Does that make me one of them suits? Shit-shit-shit, I need to get myself a suit real quick. And shoes. And… a shirt? Questions abounded. Eventually, I found my answers. And so will you. With a little help from your friends. 

Dressing for interpreting, especially at higher levels, is not the same as dressing for a job interview or for a regular day in the office unless you work for a law firm or an investment bank. The bar is set higher, the environment is more conservative and often, more hostile, too. There are certain expectations (not explicit requirements though) about how a professional interpreter should look.

Interpreter's battle gear. Photo from thearmoury.com

Your clothes essentially help you accomplish one of two things: to stand out or to blend in. You guessed it right – it is the latter that you're after. 

A couple of important considerations are to be borne in mind. One, your clients will be older than you, sometimes much older. And more often than not, older would mean more conservative in dress. Two, you will often be disliked simply for the fact of being so close to the big man himself. Many people in the immediate surrounding of a CEO, a high-ranking official or a president would spend years elbowing their way to the top. And yet there you are, a young guy or a charming young lady sitting next to the president or whoever it is you’re interpreting for. Must be somebody’s daughter or son! Do they even know the terminology, the context, the background of the matter?! 

I think you got the point. Dressing in a distinctively different way from people around you (shorter trousers, oversize jackets, bright colors in an outfit) may undermine your trustworthiness in the eyes of your clientele. By the way, so does an overreliance on tech – say, using a tablet instead of a notepad for note-taking – especially if it fails you, which it will (bloody millennials, can't do anything right).

So instead of disrupting your own credibility, why not use your clothes to help you gain trust and respect of your clients. How do you do this? Two things: fit is king and mind the context.

While an interpreter should look friendly, he must also carry himself with a bit of gravitas. There is more to the topic than just clothes, but it merits a post of its own.

As far as clothes are concerned, they should not look cheap, although they must never look flashy or conspicuously expensive (so, please, no gaudy logos or gleaming suits made out of super-fine fabrics). Very sharply-silhouetted suits, power ties, ostentatious cufflinks and watches will also make you come across as pushy and aggressive.

The best way to gain respect is to be comfortable and at ease in your clothes. Therefore fit is king. So learn how clothes should fit, since many men today err on the side of tight. Sprayed-on shirts, cropped trousers and jackets that pull at the buttons would make you look like a schoolboy. It's up to you decide when to grow up.

Having said that, I can’t make you dress like a grown-up. Nor do I wish to. If you don’t want to, don’t. Just remember that if you don’t command respect, you won’t be respected.

As far as trust is concerned, we trust people who seem similar to us in terms of style/vibe/culture. So let cues in your outfit align with the style of those you’re working with. If you’re interpreting for people in suits, you should also be in a suit. If you’re interpreting to the very casual/hip set, wear a sharp sports jacket and jeans. You’re not going to get very far if you underdress, so err on the side of overdressing.

Would a light gray suit be proper in this setting? A plaid one?

Your professional attire consists of four things: 

– a two-piece suit;

– a shirt;

– a tie;

– and a pair of shoes. 

Technically, your undies and socks are on the list, too, but I do hope you have those. One minor note on socks. Consider wearing over-the-calf socks if you will be sitting in front of the cameras. The sad-slipped-sock look flatters no one. Not even Sean Connery.


Even 007 can be caught with his, ehm, socks down

A suit 

A two-piece suit means a pair of trousers and a jacket. FYI, three-piece is the same outfit plus a vest cut of the same cloth. I’d say, ditch vest for now – it can look beautifully decadent, but also a bit dated. I personally like them for a variety of reasons, but it is not something I would recommend to everyone.

Truman Capote in a 3-piece suit

It should be dark in color, but not black. Black is reserved for funerals, tuxedos, waiters, an occasional president, and Johnny Cash. 

Dark navy is your best bet. This is your MVP. Your hero. Your workhorse. Your go-to. Your three-days-a-week (but nobody really notices). It flatters absolutely all skin colors and goes well with most business shirts and ties. It is a notch higher on the formality scale than a grey one and slightly more somber, too, but it really comes down to a personal preference.

Bulletproof suit-shirt-tie combo

If you’re hellbent on only having one suit in your wardrobe that would better be the navy. It can handle it all: weddings, funerals, dinners, dates, business meetings, special occasions. It can also easily break down to double as your weekend blazer or most versatile trousers.

I wrote a bit about the versatility of a navy suit in my pet project of a blog. Sorry, it’s in Russian, but the pictures tell the story. As a bonus, it has outfit examples for both men and women. An eagle-eyed viewer would notice the subtle difference of outfits. Counterintuitively, wearing a tie would make a woman's outfit less formal and more fashion-forward.

Dark grey suit. Another solid option.

If it’s your first suit, avoid any patterns. Leave bold stripes for your high-powered clients, or for when you’re not working as an interpreter. Avoid plaid suits. Apart from often being too flashy, they carry undesired connotations in some cultures – used car salesmen from Lynn, Massachusetts, LOVE plaid suits. 

A shirt

A white shirt, a sky-blue shirt and a striped blue-on-white shirt make a solid foundation for your shirt wardrobe. Keep the stripes thin (the thicker the stripe – the less formal the shirt) and the colors cold. Please, no acid colors. Nothing screams “take me back to 70’s” louder than a neon-blue shirt.

Business shirt
Business-casual shirt
Casual shirt

Cufflinks are fine, but they can be a pain in the ass during long stretches of note-taking. If you insist on French cuffs, try the small silk-knot cufflinks that look like a ball of yarn. Avoid fancy collars – pointed collar and cutaway collars are the only ones that you need. Avoid any collar with the word “mini” in it – it's too contemporary, too millennial. Band collars are only considered formal in Iran, and Iranians wear them buttoned all the way up, tieless. Look no further than Foreign Minister Zarif to get an idea of the look.

Iranian FM Javad Zarif in a band-collar shirt. And, coincidentally, a navy double-breasted suit.

Shoes 

Black oxfords are the best and safest bet (see below and the very first picture in this post). Leather soles are the hardest-wearing and most comfortable option, but there is a hitch. Leather soles turn polished stone floors into ice. Yours truly once performed a graceful, yet not exactly a deliberate glide across the St. Andrew Hall of Kremlin and henceforth never attempted to run there. 

My 12-year-old black oxfords. No, it's not a typo, they are that old.

Tie

Anything nondescript and made of silk would do. You can either make the tie color complementary to the color of your suit or use a contrasting color. So, a dark blue tie with a deep navy suit is complementary. Alternatively, you could use dark burgundy (wine color) or dark green. 

As a matter of fact, ties (and in some cultures – pocket squares) are the only opportunity to add a splash of color and some visual interest to an otherwise muted and dull business outfit. So use it wisely!

Neckties with some eye-catching patterning like small crests or floral designs are great for establishing rapport. People feel “drawn” to them because of the visual interest, and then subconsciously associate that attraction with you. The collar-tie-lapels nexus is the cynosure of your outfit. An eye slides up the tie and into the inverted V of the shirt collar that points to your face – ideally, the most interesting part of your ensemble.

Contrasting tie color. Photo from the Andreas Weinas's Instagram
Complementary tie color

Anyway, try texture before color, and color before pattern. Also, keep in mind that ties also carry cultural connotations. Diagonal-stripe ties (pictured below) are called regimental ties for a reason. They make a part of a dress uniform of certain regiments (and sometimes signal affiliation to Ivy League universities). As such, they act as a secret handshake for alumni and fellow officers. Unless you’re one of them, it is more prudent to pick something else or risk embarrassing yourself as an imposter. 

Regimental tie

So this is it. Keep it simple, muted and somber. And remember, you can get away with more, when you're dressed up.

P.S. If you have any questions left, feel free to ask – I'd be happy to help. Also, feel free to subscribe to my Telegram channel and Instagram. And if you're lucky enough to understand Russian, check out my blog, Veshalka.

P.P.S. I decided not to venture into other topics here, although many questions were asked about packing for travel and how clothes should fit. If this format proves itself useful, more posts will follow.