Reader Request: Stylish Interview Garb

how to dress for an interview

The lovely Kendra sent me this plea:

I was wondering if you could provide some ideas for interview wear beyond the basic suit and button down. I know alot of it has to do with what industry/field and what level you are interviewing for, but either way it can be hard to pump some creativity and personality into interview attire.

Well, Kendra, lemme tell ya. I actually tend to err on the side of conservatism when interviewing, as I believe that the best time to express your personal style and fashionable creativity is AFTER you’ve landed the job. I understand that showing up in a suit when you’re not a suit-wearing girl may seem dishonest, but you ought to be able to express yourself through what you say, your accomplishments, your humor and smarts. Interview clothes should establish your ethos, not your personality. In an interview, you want to present the most mature, impressive, hire-able version of yourself. You can slowly introduce your visual personality after you’ve been hired or your reputation has been established.

All that said, there’s no reason to show up in a white button-down and black slacks to every interview. While you might not want to wear a cleavage-baring blouse or do your hair in a beehive, it is important to look at least somewhat memorable. And there are ways to spice up classic, clean, conservative interview garb so that you can leave a visual impression without scaring the bejeezus out of your interviewer.

First, a few don’ts.

colorful suits

Colorful suits are making a mild comeback and utilizing some brights is a great way to grab attention in an interview situation. But I have to say that, in most cases, I think a matchy-matchy skirt- or pants-suit in one solid, bright color can look like overkill. There are better, subtler ways to utilize color that will help you appear more sophisticated and stylish.

You’ll also want to steer clear of any fabrics that are super shiny. While I generally subscribe to the shiny = pretty rule, I think satin, lamé, and other highly reflective materials are pretty much never interview-appropriate. Sure, they’re attention-getting, but more in a “Wish I was out clubbing instead of trapped in a conference room” way than a “I’m a stylish go-getter” way.

sequin tops

Same applies to sequins, pailettes, rhinestones, and really anything heavily embellished. You should use your ability to assemble a stylish, flattering ensemble to wow your potential new employer, not a super-busy, flashy, or detail-laden piece of clothing.

I’d also avoid flowers or feathers in your hair, oversized scarves, bangle bracelets or other jewelry that clanks, fishnet tights, open-toe strappy sandals, above-the-knee skirts, and heavy/colorful makeup. Think clean, simple, elegant. And, of course, whatever you wear should fit you impeccably. No pant hems dragging, pulling buttons on oxford shirts, blazers that constrict your shoulder movement, or skirts that give you muffin-top. Not only will ill-fitting clothes give a bad impression, they’ll cause you to fidget. You’ll be nervous enough as it is, don’t give yourself another excuse to wiggle and writhe.

Now, let’s talk do’s

As Kendra pointed out, interview garb varies from industry to industry. If you show up in a suit to interview at a graphic design firm, you might look a little overdressed. If you show up in a sweater and slacks to interview at a law firm, you might look a little underdressed. So never be afraid to ASK about dress code when you’re setting up your interview. Believe me, no one is going to take points off for that.

But should you be unable to procure information about the general environment, I’d say err conservative. Personally, I’d rather be overdressed. At least that way you look earnest instead of ill-informed. So, generally, I recommend suiting, button-front shirts or blouses, pumps, and simple jewelry as starting points. Sounds deathly dull, right? But there’s lots of wiggle room in those staples. Observe:

suits for interviews

Both women here have a few small, thoughtful details in their outfits that make them memorable. On the left, she’s got sassy leopard print shoes. On the right, a printed blouse. Both are still fairly conservative looks, but not so plain as to be forgettable.

interview pencil skirt

A full suit isn’t necessary for many – even most – interviews these days, but utilizing one suiting separate can work well. A pencil skirt paired with a simple sweater, blouse, or even twin set will read as tasteful and chic in most working environments.

creative suits for interviews

The gals in the previous two sets aren’t exactly going wild with color … and you might want to do the same, depending on your personal preferences and interview industry. But a splash here and there can be memorable and attractive without feeling like overkill. My favorite way to do color for interview outfits is to add a bright blouse to a conservative suit in a neutral shade. You could also throw on a pair of colorful shoes in a simple shape. Adding a TINY bit of texture or embellishment – like the ruffle in the gray-on-gray outfit at far left – or a printed blouse to a solid suit works beautifully as well.

jewelry with suits

Jewelry is another great way to liven up a suited look. Big earrings can be tricky, and lots of bracelets can be noisy, so the simplest route is to find an interesting statement-y necklace. And since such items are so common that you can practically buy them at gas stations and grocery stores, you’ve got no excuses. Wearing an interesting necklace puts your outfit’s focal point up near your face, which provides your interviewer with an interesting and memorable item to correlate to your lovely countenance. Bonus!

Both of these ladies have chosen great pieces: Big but not huge, interesting but not wild, and fairly short in length. Long necklaces are great, too, but again, the more your interviewer focuses on the vicinity of your gorgeous visage, the more memorable you’ll be.

If you know in advance that a suit is overkill, try:

  • A solid-colored cashmere sweater, pencil skirt, and pumps
  • A bright, solid-colored button-down shirt, neutral slacks, and pumps or flats
  • A demure dress – something with a nice high neckline, cap sleeves, and a knee-length hem – in wool, heavy twill, or another weighty fabric
  • A graphic-patterned blouse, a-line skirt, and bright colored pumps or flats

That whole “never get a second chance to make a first impression” thing? SO true. So be sure to give some thought to your interview attire a day or so before the big event. Do some research about the company’s dress code, if you can. Lay out a few options for yourself in advance so you have choices the day of. Make sure that your ensemble has one or two accents – a pop of color, statement jewelry, an interesting handbag or shoes – but is still relatively classic. And, above all, pick something that makes you feel strong and confident so that you can focus on what you’re saying, not how you’re looking.

Images via Banana Republic, Talbots, and Nordstrom

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  • Lisa

    I work as a Career Counselor at a University and deal with Interview issues all the time. No matter what the company dress code, ALWAYS wear a suit to the interview. It's better to be overdressed, than not professional enough.You are on display and most recruiters expect you to be wearing a suit.
    For the more conservative fields like banking and accounting always go with a simple white button down blouse. No patterns, no colors. And no open toe shoes on interviews! I immediately noticed two of the models were wearing sandals, a definite interview no no. Shoes should be low heel, closed toe, and conservative. No bright colors. Save your individual style for after you have the job. Unless you are interviewing for a job in the fashion industry, then all the rules go out the window! You want to think of it as almost a uniform", you want the interviewer to focus on your qualifications not your attire.

  • Sal

    Lisa: I work at a Big Ten university and have given presentations on interview attire to several classes. Many students have told me that they've gone to interviews overdressed – in suits, most times – and felt really foolish since the interviewer and entire office were wearing far less formal attire. So I can't agree with you completely. I definitely think that erring on the side of conservatism is wise – better too formal than too casual! But don't you think that dressing several levels more formally than the environment requires makes you look like you haven't done your homework about the office, or even the entire field?

  • Christina Lee

    here here- I totally agree- great post!

  • Stefka

    Thanks, Sal! This is good timing as I will hopefully have some job interviews coming up in the next couple of months.

    Question: I have a nice simple black knee-length skirt (J Crew) that I plan to incorporate into my interview outfit, along with black pumps with a subtle pattern. What is the rule on bare legs vs. nude (or other) stockings? I don't normally wear stockings in summer, but I wonder if that is too informal for an interview.

  • The Raisin Girl

    I've only ever done interviews for scholarships and campus jobs, but I've almost always gotten what I wanted out of those interviews. My secret? Well, I love to talk about myself, and that's what an interview basically is. But as far as clothes:
    1. I never, EVER wore black. I picked another neutral that better suits my complexion, like chocolate brown or grey.
    2. For the most part, I tried to think "Sunday Best." If I wouldn't wear it to church, I didn't wear it to an interview. And believe you me, for those scholarship interviews I showed up looking a LOT more put-together than my jeans-and-sweater wearing male peers and my casual-skirt-and-button-up-blouse-wearing females ones.
    3. It's okay to be interesting. Honestly, I've found that as long as I was clean, neat, and pressed, and didn't wear jeans or tank tops or anything TOO casual, the people interviewing me were more interested in what I had to say. It wasn't "let's evaluate what she's wearing," it was more like "she's wearing clothes, now on with the interview." Part of this is because I made SURE to be comfortable. I don't care if you have to search every store from here to the moon, DO NOT rest until you find an interview-appropriate outfit that's as comfortable as being naked. The more confident you are, the more your clothes will seem like a matter of course and a part of you, and the less your interviewer is likely to get hung up on them.

    And now, I need to go look for some statement necklaces, because the one thing I NEVER thought of was adding an interesting piece of jewelry to the mix!

  • budget chic

    I agree that it probably better to accessorize then to go in with a "bold" outfit if the job you are interviewing for is more of a business environment and not arts, entertainment, fashion or music related. You want the interviewer as Lisa stated to focus on your qualifications and skills not your fashion sense.

    As we all know there is a time and place for everything and if you are not interviewing for a fashion mag – an interview probably is not the appropriate time to make a fashion statement.

  • Sal

    Stefka: I avoid stockings in summer, too, but might recommend them in this case. It kinda depends on the field. What kind of job are you interviewing for? Is the office likely to be fairly formal/conservative? If so – even if it's business casual – nude stockings aren't a bad plan. Again, better too conservative than too casual.

  • budget chic

    I also agree with you Sal – know the environment you're getting ready to walk into. Don't walk in with a expensive YSL suit that scream high-rise corporate when it a small manufacturing office or omething like that. But on another note, everybody knows that most people will come in dressed "for an interview' but will conform to the job dress code once they come on board. Plus it shows a level of respect for the organization you have the interview with if you take the time to look professional on your interview even if the office is a business casual environment.

  • Sal

    Budget Chic: Totally true. And part of the reason why you can dress more formally than you will on a day-to-day basis without being a poseur: They know you're dressed to impress, they expect it!

  • lopi

    Although I never had to go through a formal interview until now, I loved this post! All of your advice Sal sounds just right. And I love the fact you chose pictures of women wearing grey suits to illustrate your point instead of black ones. Most of the times they look too severe as colored ones look too bright. Grey is always the best choice and it's easier to accessorize too!

  • Sharon

    I would also like to add: You're probably wearing something unfamiliar, which will make you nervous and self-conscious anyway. Don't add to that nervousness and self-consciousness by worrying about "Oh shit! I split a seam getting out of the car! Now what?" or "I just know she'll see my bra when I reach out to shake her hand!" or "This looks great when I'm standing up, but I can't breathe when I'm sitting down!" or "That went pretty well, but how am I going to get out of this chair without looking like a doofus?"

    Familiarize yourself with your outfit before the big day. Put it on and practice sitting down, standing up, getting in and out of a car, going up and down stairs, shaking hands, and any other movements you're likely to do during the interview. For extra credit, practice a few movements you're not likely to do during the interview– like bending, squatting, reaching over your head– just to get a better idea of how the outfit moves. Pay attention to how much noise your outfit makes, too. If it swishes, rattles, or jingles, it's probably going to be too distracting for you to be fully present in the interview, even if your interviewer doesn't notice.

  • Sal

    Sharon, I am TOTALLY stealing that idea for the next time I do a presentation on dressing for interviews. BRILL!

  • Rosie Unknown

    AS someone who is fast approaching the age when they start working in the summer, thanks for a very informative post.

  • La Belette Rouge

    I love work clothes. Your great advice makes me almost wish I was working. Almost.;-)

  • Becky

    This is great! As someone who not only has had formal interviews, but also been to several "meet and greets" in offices that didn't have specific job openings, but that had expressed an interest in seeing me, I have mostly worn suits, or a slight variation with a cardigan. One thing my suits have in common? They're black. Another thing? They all have some sort of feminine detailing. The first formal interview I ever went on was with the Florida House of Representatives and I had to rush and buy a suit the night before the interview. I chose a pants suit that looked pretty standard, but that had filigree detailing on the buttons. Nothing flashy, but enough of a difference for me. The second suit I wore was for a meet and greet. Again, a pants suit, but the jacket had a subtle embossed fabric and two front pockets that had micro-ruffle detailing. The suit I wore at the interview for the job I had now is a skirt suit (I re-use the skirt as a separate all the time) and the jacket is peplum-style with 3/4 length sleeves, so it's more feminine and figure flattering. I always wear pastel shells underneath to cut the severity of the black, so that way I still feel like myself. Fit is SO important with these sorts of things, and I tried to get suits that I still looked like a woman in, vs a woman trying to look corporately gender neutral. Lovely post, Sal!

  • Ava-May Hemme

    I love that red suit. I always try to wear a little something that makes you stand out, and memorable. I have a zebra print cardigan that is my interview cardy! It got me 2 call backs and I start my new job on the 22nd! It is smart but al little jazzy so that you stick in their mind- you don't wanna blend into the wallpaper. Even a scarf or bright necklace will do!
    Ava-May
    x

  • lisa

    The last time I did an interview was for an internship position at the software company I work at f/t now. High tech is notoriously casual and Vancouver is pretty casual as far as workplace culture goes, so I donned an A-line green plaid skirt, a black V-neck sweater, pumps, and a beige trench. My interviewers were in cotton tees and jeans, and one of the managers had a baseball cap on, I think. If I had gone in there in a suit I would've been completely overdressed, so I definitely agree with you on that point, Sal.

  • Mo

    If only you'd written this months ago! My (ridiculous) housemate went to an interview in her zebra print AA leggings, a black dress, and her boyfriend's cardigan with a gold lame headband and fringe boots.

    Totally professional, right?
    /end sarcasm.

  • AsianCajuns

    Great advice as always, Sal! And so thorough. I am a graphic designer, and I still tend to be pretty conservative when interviewing because a neon/platform-wearing 26 year old might not look like she belongs to the Art Director club- and that's the next rung 😉

    When I doubt I also ask WWAW (What Would Audrey Wear)? And it's usually spot on.

  • Sal

    AsianCajuns: OMG, Laur, PLEASE print up WWAW … bumper stickers or tees or something. I'll buy them in bulk!

  • Sal

    Mo: Whoa. For reals? I really hope she wasn't interviewing for a job at a law firm or library. OK, actually, that wouldn't be appropriate anywhere besides a fashion mag!

  • Mo

    Sal: It was actually an interview for an art gallery. I mean, she MIGHT have been able to get away with something a LITTLE bit ridiculous, but the whole thing at once? Too much!

    She didn't get the job. Naturally.

    I wish I'd taken a photo though – I bet it would be perfect as an interview don't!

  • issa

    great tips on the suits for interviews… i always donned a suit when it was time for interviews.. now i can wear bermuda shorts to work.

  • enc

    WHAT? NO BEEHIVE?!

    That must explain why Vogue and Elle didn't take me seriously when I was trying to get onboard with them back in my old Production Manager days! 😛

    I love this post. I love how you find a way to simultaneously toe the corporate line, while veering offcourse just slightly.

    😀

  • Sal

    enc: I think "WHAT? NO BEEHIVE?" is going to have to be the Phrase of the Day.

  • Audi

    From the admittedly narrow viewpoint of someone who works in a highly professional but often absurdly casual field (biotechnology), I'll beg to differ with you one one little point: showing tattoos. For me, being able to express myself (or perhaps more precisely, not having to hide who I am) at work is hugely critical to my happiness, so I always make it a point to let at least a little ink peek out of whatever outfit I wear to an interview. I figure if they're going to let something like tattoos influence their opinion of me as a scientist, then I would rather not work for that company. For my current job, I interviewed with the VP of the department with my shoulder tattoo in full view, which turned out to be very indicative of the laid-back, accepting environment I now work in.

  • pretty face

    Post a link to your interview attire video! I thought of it as soon as I read this.

    Thanks for the welcome 😉
    As you can probably tell, I've found assembling outfits this week really hard. I'm actually thankful that the weather's been so dreary as I cannot imagine dressing for last week's heat. Ah well, I am sure to be doing some serious damage with this week's paycheck at the weekend 😉 x

  • Hammie

    Sal, so agree with you. I also feel you need to wear "your power suit" the one that makes you feel fabulous and confident and take on the worlde!
    So something new is not always a good idea if you have never worn it and don't know if the skirt rides up or the jacket does that little stick to your butt thing. Don't let the clothes wear you.

    I once went to an interview straight from work and changed my shoes but forgot to change my bag. It was the 90's and it had to be matchy matchy. All my confidence ebbed away in the waiting area as I cursed my missing matching briefcase. Didn't get the job.

    One warning about necklaces: don't fiddle with them. People make all kinds of judgements about our comfort gestures that you may not be aware of. xx

  • rb

    I actually interview people quite a bit for a very corporate setting and I would be SHOCKED if a woman showed up baring cleavage, toes or tattoos. (I would also be shocked if a man showed any of these so please don't think I'm not equal opportunity.)

    I think a suit or an outfit with a blazer/jacket is essential, and if the environment turns out to be more casual than you expected, you can always shuck the blazer/jacket.

  • Nadine

    Oh thank you very much for all the nice ideas :).

  • WendyB

    If someone went to a job interview with feathers or flowers in her hair, I'd think I'd want to slap those right off of her!

  • Laura.

    this makes me feel a lot better about my $14 savers suit-ish outfit, scored a couple of weeks ago (referred to by a friend as my "bootstrap outfit"). it's conservative but cute, and comfy to boot, and although it's not two matching pieces, it looks professional. there are a lot of great tips and ideas in these comments, too!

  • futurelint

    Oh goodness do I hate interviews and hopefully won't have another one for years! I'm always nervous about my nose ring and that they will not hire me due to it… I think a good bright shoe is a very good idea… it has always impressed my interviews!

  • Diane

    LOVE LOVE LOVE those yellow pumps!!!

  • ambika

    Thrift stores are surprisingly great resources for blazers and suit jackets. With a pair of nice black or gray pants, you're golden–without having to invest 100s of dollars in something most people (depending on profession of course) are unlikely to wear often.

  • Lesley

    Great advice!!! Thanks!

  • Kristen Sara

    What a great and helpful post!! I am new to your blog but love it! Where did you find those yellow shoes?? I'd love to have them!

  • Kendra

    Sal,

    I am late to the party here (I have been out of the blogosphere for a few weeks), but thanks for posting my question!

    I interviewed a week after I sent you the question for a higher rung (IT Director), than I am now (IT Operations Manager) and believe my outfit fits your rules well!

    I ended up putting together my most comfy black dress pants with the jacket from my suit which is the darkest charcoal with a barely noticable from afar large window pane pattern. Underneath I chose a jersey scoop neck blouse that had a subtle ruffle around the neck. Deep eggplant pumps, and simple pearl stud earings. I also pulled my hair away from my face with simple bobby pins.

    Oh yeah, and the offered me the Director job two days later…. unfortunately I had to turn them down because we couldn't agree on a salary/benefits package.

    Thanks again!

  • Dina’s Days

    Excellent post.

  • Bazron

    I love this post – I think I must share your taste! Any chance you could share the links to the places that sell the suits pictured?

  • Sal

    Bazron: I'm usually so diligent about that, but in this case I omitted links because many of these images are for last year's merchandise! But everything pictured is either from Banana Republic or J.Crew. And those shops are pretty consistent, so I'm sure you'll find similar styles there now!

  • Katie

    AWESOME post!! Wish I had read this before a few of my past interviews. I always err on the side of conservative, but adding a little splash of color would have been nice. LOVE the suits in the photos!

  • Marie-Christine

    Sal is right, you must at least consider the office culture you’re applying in. I wouldn’t hire an engineer that showed up in a suit for an interview. Either they’re young and didn’t bother to find out anything about the industry, or they’re not and it’s worse. Maybe they’re just trying to sneak in the door so they can get their dream manager job eventually? Maybe they just made up their entire resume? Maybe they’re really, totally clueless? A bit autistic is fine for that job, but not to that point.. Anyway people, don’t take the pronouncements of lawyers and MBAs too seriously if that’s not the kind of job you’re applying for.