What to Wear to a Job Interview

The interior of a closet showing several suit coats of various colors.

At last! You have a job interview lined up for that position you really want! Now comes the big decision which may have you more nervous and stressed than the upcoming interview itself: what to wear? Go somewhat dressy? Maybe more casual? You certainly want to look good and make a great first impression. For men and women alike, deciding what to wear to a job interview can be a pretty tough call!

Some Caveats

To help with this decision, you’ve probably looked online for some guidance. If so, then you know the internet is full of all kinds of “expert” advice on exactly what to wear.  Some sites have good, reasonable advice; others, maybe not so much. When reading the articles and blogs, keep a few caveats in mind.

  • The concept of “normal” or “acceptable” attire varies from field to field. Some fields, such as law, finance, or healthcare administration tend to generally be more conservative and this is reflected in their everyday dress. Others, such as creative fields, software, or in start-up companies, a business casual or even laid-back look may be the norm. Know your field.
  • Having said the above, note that even within the same field the idea of acceptable dress can also vary by geographic location around the country. This may be due to the general culture of the area (conservative or casual) or the weather, such as extremes of heat or cold.
  • To further complicate matters, even within a particular field or geographical area each employer may have a different view on what constitutes acceptable dress. Some firms may have rigid dress codes while others have none at all. Research the company with which you are interviewing and try to get an idea of their standards (if any) regarding dress. 
  • It is true society today is far more casual regarding dress and some web authors push this fact hard. Some actually want you to believe you will surely be viewed as a stuffy fuddy-duddy if you DO dress nice or professionally. I suppose in a few companies or fields that might be true. However, remember not every interviewer necessarily shares that belief and therein lies the problem. Every interviewer is different. Usually, you DON’T know his or her opinion regarding proper dress. So, unless you know something definite, I suggest you play it safe.

So, Where’s the List?

Sorry, you will not find a detailed shopping list here and for good reason. I certainly do not pretend to be an expert on men’s and women’s apparel and fashion. Besides, entire books have been written on the subject. However, here is what I do know. I have seen plenty of applicants show up to their job interviews dressed like they wanted to make a poor impression, and they did. I certainly don’t want that to happen to you.

As you know, fashions change over time, albeit usually more slowly in business. Things go in and out of style. Everyone’s taste is different.  What looks good on someone else may not look good on you. Still, there are a few time-tested guidelines you should consider, and we’ll discuss those here along with some other random thoughts. Finally, we’ll end with a game plan for you to follow.

Overdress? Underdress?

In general, it is better to overdress a bit for an interview than to underdress. True, the clothes you wear to the interview may be dressier than what you will eventually wear every day once hired. But hey, after all, this is a job interview. Hardly anyone will fault you for trying to look good. It’s a sign of respect on your part. However, showing up looking way-too-casual could be read as you made no effort and don’t care what the interviewers think.

The job search website indeed.com suggests, “Because you’ve already researched the company, you should have a sense of the workplace and what level of formality is appropriate. Look at photos on their social media sites to get a sense of what people wear at the office.” Great idea. Still, you want to look at least as good, if not better, than the people in the pictures.

Men: Suit or No Suit?

If your field is somewhat traditional or conservative, go with a suit. We’re talking about an actual suit here, not just a sport coat and slacks. Many guys today say they don’t even own a suit. I’ve even seen applicants come to interviews in suits with the store tags still attached or tucked up into the sleeve (they plan to return the suit afterward). Bad idea. If you will be going to multiple job interviews or entering a field where a suit may be occasionally required, just get one. Solid navy blue or dark gray is probably the safest bet.

Since you may not yet have a job, your funds for a suit might be limited. Don’t worry, you won’t need a custom-made Armani suit. Start by checking your local department store; they always seem to be throwing sales. Another suggestion I have heard is to look around at second-hand stores or yard/tag/estate sales. You may just find yourself a very high-quality but barely-worn suit. Have it dry cleaned and then professionally altered by a tailor to fit you. You will look sharp at a very affordable price and no one will ever know where you got it.

For less conservative fields, business casual may be perfectly fine. Slacks or khakis and a long-sleeve dress shirt (tie optional) can look good. Tuck in the shirt! Otherwise, you will look sloppy, not casual. If you do decide to go with a tie, keep it plain or a basic pattern and not loud. Also, button the shirt collar and snug up the tie. A dress shirt with an open collar and loose, hanging tie gives an “I don’t care how I look” impression.

For the Ladies

You probably already know what looks good on you. However, “looking good” is a very subjective thing.  I have served on many job interview panels and here’s my simple advice: dress to look “professional” not “hot.” You’re going on a job interview, not a date. Who do you think is the most vocal and openly critical of female applicants’ attire? Yup, the women on the interview panel.  Wearing a revealing, low-cut top or really short dress is the quickest way to get a “she sure doesn’t know how to dress professionally” comment from the female interviewers. It should be no surprise then when they give the applicant a low score and recommend someone else. Sure, you may not like or agree with their opinion on clothing. You might even suspect they were simply jealous of your good looks. But, in the end, you’re not the one deciding who gets hired, so it’s their opinion which matters right then.

What’s on Your Clothes?

Male or female, you might think having your clothes not look or smell bad would just be plain, good old common sense.  Well then, I guess I have seen a lot of applicants who lacked common sense. Got a pet? I recall one applicant whose clothing was so covered in cat hair it distracted the interviewers. Do you smoke? Don’t smoke while wearing your interview clothes! Clothing which smells like an ashtray can be physically nauseating to non-smoking interviewers. Similarly, as some interviewers are very sensitive or even allergic to certain odors, don’t overdo the cologne or perfume. Otherwise, the impression you leave will certainly be memorable, but not in a good way.

Shoes

Regarding shoes, an article on the job site Monster.com says, “They can pull together your entire look or rip it apart. Your footwear is the finishing touch that seals the deal, so make sure your shoes are professional, sharp and in good condition.”

Ladies, every piece of advice I have seen says not to wear open-toed shoes. Indeed.com suggests, “For your business casual interview, wear black or brown closed-toe flats, pumps or low heels. Make sure your shoes are not scuffed, scratched or dirty, and avoid strappy sandals, flip-flops, sky-high stilettos, sneakers or brightly colored shoes.”

Men, when dressing more formally, make sure your shoes are polished and shined. You may not think having shined shoes is a big deal, but I am always amazed at the number of people who DO pay close attention to a man’s shoes. Not shined? They figure the applicant must lack attention to detail or simply doesn’t care about appearance. Also, don’t forget many of your competitors for this job (the other applicants) probably have well-shined shoes. You certainly wouldn’t want to look worse over something so simple.

Your Interview Dress Strategy

Still deciding on what to wear? Here’s a game plan for you to consider.

  • First, as recommended earlier, research both the field and organization with which you will interview. Try and determine where they fit on the formal/casual dress scale, but never forget this is still a job interview. Search online using the words “dress code” and the company name. I tried this with several companies; with some, a surprising amount of detail regarding their official dress codes was available.
  • Deciding whether you will go dressy or casual is critical at this point as it will help you focus your efforts. After all, no need to worry about dress clothes if you’re going casual or vice versa.
  • Read multiple articles regarding how to dress for an interview, looking for tips which specifically apply to your dress/casual decision. After reading a while, you will start to see sensible suggestions which appear over and over. Avoid extremes and keep in mind the caveats discussed earlier.
  • As you read, make a written checklist to ensure you cover all bases and don’t forget something. The list might include items such as a suit, shirt/blouse, tie, shoes, jewelry, hair, make-up, coat, purse, etc.
  • From that list, identify which items you already own and those which you will still need to acquire. Be sure to also consider the time needed for shopping, ordering/delivery, or having alterations made to clothing. If your barber or hairstylist requires an appointment, allow time for that as well.
  • Try on your interview apparel well in advance of when you will need it and look yourself over. That way, if something just doesn’t look or fit right, you can still fix it. You sure don’t want to notice a button is missing or have a worn shoelace break when you’re on the way out the door to the interview! Also, get a second opinion about your overall appearance from a trusted friend or professional.

It’s Showtime!

Having your interview clothing decisions made and addressed early on will help relieve a huge amount of stress. This means one less thing for you to worry about or clutter your mind. Knowing that you’re looking good will give you more confidence and allow you to focus on the other aspects of the interview!

Agree? Disagree? Share your experience or thoughts?

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Featured image courtesy of pexels

 

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