Whether we like it or not, fashion and how you physically present yourself matters when it comes to landing your dream job—and having your closet ready with job interview outfits can help take a little pressure off an already stressful situation.
When deciding what to wear to a job interview, you want to fit in to the company culture—but also, of course, stand out from the pack—and navigating the two can be a challenge. Nowadays, even some of the strictest companies have relaxed their dress codes to adapt to the startup-fueled, tech-first economy, but what’s appropriate still varies from industry to industry. And despite the fact that we’d all like to think our resume speaks louder than our pencil skirt, what you wear during the interview process remains very important.
“First impressions are critical. What you wear is the first thing people see, before you even say a word,” says Barry Drexler, the founder of Expert Interview Coach. “[Hiring managers] evaluate your appearance because they don’t know you yet, and they don’t have a lot to go on.”
It’s during this first interaction that people size you up based on everything from your handshake to your choice of shoes. Whoever is hiring needs to be able to visualize you in the position they’re trying to fill—and that doesn’t necessarily mean showing up in something extra-conservative.
“Recent grads especially are fish out of water,” says Jill Jacinto, managing editor and associate director of editorial and communications for WORKS by Nicole Williams, a company dedicated to helping young women find jobs. “They often get advice from their parents, who say they need a classic suit. My mom, who hasn’t worked in years, took me suit shopping. And I was taking her advice, which now seems laughable. We need to break away from the power suit mentality.”
So, how do we know what’s appropriate and what’s not? “It’s all about understanding the company culture,” says Ryan Kahn, founder of The Hired Group and MTV’s Hired career coach.
That means everything from knowing if the executive team will likely be dressed in hoodies (and what that means for you as a hopeful employee) to understanding what colors are likely to be acceptable—a pink handbag is probably going to look a lot more at home in an interview with Kate Spade New York, for instance, than it will at Bloomberg. “You want to wear colors that show you fit in the company’s culture and that show your personality, but in subtle way,” says Rahel Berihu, a wardrobe stylist and longtime volunteer at Dress For Success, which provides support and professional clothing to promote women’s economic independence. “You don’t want your outfit to be overpowering or distracting.”
Though everyone we spoke to agreed that overdressed is better than underdressed, neither is a particularly good look. “People in creative firms might see you as less creative, a little uptight, not someone who will roll up their sleeves and get dirty,” says Frank Dahill, senior recruiter and branding expert at Sam & Lori, a New York recruitment firm that focuses on creative industries.
Below, our experts weigh in on how to put your best foot forward, fashion-wise, in a job interview in five different fields.
If You’re Interviewing For: A Creative Job
Examples: writer, editor, photo editor, film, graphic designer, art director
- While jobs in creative fields give you a bit more leeway to be, well, creative with your attire, here a common pitfall is wanting to show too much personality right off the bat. “I’m not worried about personality in your clothes,” says Dahill. “If you have no personality, clothes won’t help. I’d rather see you be more conservative.”
- While you shouldn’t show up in a skirt suit, don’t show up in something wild or trend-driven either.
- Jacinto advises to “tone it down and apply the rule of taking one piece off before the interview.”
- Be comfortable. Jacinto proposes trying your outfit on before the interview to “know how your clothing reacts in different situations.”
- Shoes should be closed-toe, pants should be black or dark denim, and accessories kept to a minimum.
If You’re Interviewing For: A Client-Based Corporate Job
Examples: law firm, real estate, public relations, sales, marketing, advertising or account executives
- Be well-groomed. Don’t wear too much makeup and have your hair clean and simple. Never wear perfume.
- Invest in a nice blazer. This can be used to dress up anything from simple blouses to well-cut trousers. Again, shoes should be closed-toe and no higher than three inches.
- Keep colors conservative, says Kahn. “Keep it classy. Nothing too vibrant, bright, or distracting.”
- Berihu advises against “bright colors, distracting prints, or anything lacy, sheer, or low-cut.” Keep the attention on you, not your clothing.
If You’re Interviewing For: A Fashion Job
Examples: fashion editor, buyer, stylist, designer, merchandiser, assistant, sales
- According to Drexler, a mistake people make when interviewing for a fashion-related job is to make a broad-brush assumption that they should dress edgy or super-on-trend.
- What you wear here depends on the specific job and company you’re interviewing for: Keep the aesthetics of the brand in mind while getting dressed, but don’t show up in a head-to-toe runway look.
- Keep clothes simple and instead make accessories the focal point. Have stylish shoes, a sharp bag, and modern jewelry displaying your great taste.
- Don’t try to be too fashion-forward. You want people to think “she looks presentable and stylish in that dress” as opposed to “wow, that’s a really expensive designer dress.” Clothes shouldn’t be a distraction.
If You’re Interviewing For: A Finance Job
Examples: banking, consulting, hedge funds, accounting, insurance, research analyst, stock analyst
- In finance—at least at the interview stage—not much has changed. Don’t push the envelope, and appear conservative and professional.
- Wear a dark, two-piece pantsuit or skirt suit. Lighten it up with a white or softly-colored blouse and conservative accessories.
- “Look for pants that are fitted and have a bit of a taper,” says Berihu. “And if your suit has a skirt, it should be knee-length or below and tailored appropriately.”
- If you’re wearing tights, Jacinto suggests bringing an extra pair in case they run. “You never know what will happen the day of, so be prepared.”
- On that note, don’t wear colorful or patterned tights, open-toe shoes, super-high heels, or low-cut tops.
If You’re Interviewing For: A Tech/Startup Job
Examples: engineer, coder, product manager, designer, communications, content strategist, IT
- Startups often have a young staff and foster a collegiate atmosphere, so the biggest fear people have here is being overdressed in a sea of hipsters.
- A good rule of thumb is to dress a half-step up from everyone else “so the person interviewing you knows you’re dressed up for an interview,” says Dahill.
- Coming in wearing a corporate-style suit makes it look like you know nothing about the industry. “If you’re going to a startup in a three-piece suit, you may say the right things, but you look like you’re looking for an environment that’s different, and the company might think they cant offer you want you want,” explains Jacinto.
- Show that you’re serious about the position without being overdressed. Opt for dark denim and a tucked-in blouse, or a stylish skirt with a chambray button-down and blazer or basic sweater, and accessorize from there.
A version of this article was originally published in January 2014.