What to Wear to Your Job Interview
I am a long-time reader of your blog and your Advice Smackdown column, and I’m hoping you can give me some tips about professional attire. You see, we are moving 3,000 miles for my husband’s job and I won’t be able to keep working for my beloved employer (sob!).
This means I have to apply for jobs and go to interviews, ugh. I feel I need to dress professionally and conservatively, and conventional wisdom tells me that means trousers or skirt, button down shirt, and blazer. But blazers look terrible on me! No matter what size/quality/brand/fit, no matter how much money I spend on the blazer or on tailoring, that just doesn’t work for me.
I landed my current job after interviewing in a plain black sheath dress, nude hose, and black pumps. Frankly, I looked like I was ready to go to a funeral. The dress still fits though – should I stick with it? I’m moving to a much colder place though, so I’d like to be prepared for some layering options. Are cardigans okay for interviews? What about those skimming layering open shirts (like this)? I have a million of them in different colors, and I wear one almost every day in my current job (higher education, lots of student interface, no jeans allowed). Or should I just suck it up and try again with a blazer? I will be living out of a suitcase for about three months, and I would like to have at least one killer interview outfit and three acceptable ones with me, but this is proving more problematic than I thought.
You are not going to like this answer, but alas, here goes: You need a proper suit. Not slightly coordinating separates (pants/shirt/blazer) and DEFINITELY not a dress and cardigan. You lucked out before, but 9 times out of 10 that will read as entirely too casual. But a proper suit jacket with pants or a skirt, bought together in the exact same fabric, is a worthy investment.
This was true back when I was interviewing for jobs and remains even more true today, especially in fields with a lot of competition and an emphasis on professionalism. Even now as a freelancer, if I’m meeting with a potential client at their office, I wear a suit. There are some exceptions for super-creative fields and start-up companies, but even then, unless your interviewer EXPLICITLY tells you otherwise (as in “we’re a casual office so traditional interview attire isn’t necessary”), your best bet is to show up dressed more formally than the office’s regular dress code. AKA SUIT. This is the time you really want to be the most dressed-up person in the room. It’s a subtle sign of respect, and of understanding traditional business norms/customs.
I did some quick Googling for higher education interview attire just to make sure I wasn’t WILDLY off-base, and while the top results are all on the older side, most of them do come down to a suit being the smartest, safest choice. Especially for women, for a lot of annoyingly biased views on what a “professional” woman looks like. While a regular old dress and those cute layering tops are 100% totally appropriate for your day to day work, your interview attire is a separate animal. This is not regular ol’ day to day you. This is mega-professional/capable/kicks all the ass/takes all the names you. And that you rocks a killer interview suit.
So how does that work for someone who hates how they look in blazers? Well, the good news is that there ARE some significant differences between blazers and proper suit jackets. Better fabrics/linings, for starters, plus women’s suit jackets come in a much, much wider variety of cuts and styles. Since you don’t say specifically where your blazer pain point is coming from (shoulders, chest, the length, the closure, etc.) I can’t point you to specific suiting styles that might work better. You might like a jacket that’s more fitted/feminine than a traditionally boxy blazer, you might like fewer buttons or something more structured. You could try something without a lapel, something longer/shorter, who knows! But try getting out there and try on some proper suit jackets and see. (Good places to start: Ann Taylor, Ann Taylor LOFT, Banana Republic, then all of the related outlets and factory stores for those places. Department stores (Macy’s, Nordstrom, Dillards, etc.) and high-end consignment stores are also worth visiting. Don’t shop online for one until you try on as many as possibly in person and get a better idea for what cut works best for you.)
Some stores will still call the vast majority of their jackets “blazers,” but the key difference is that you should find a pair of pants and a skirt made out of the EXACT SAME FABRIC alongside it, thus putting it in the category of a put-together suit and appropriate for an interview. If you need more than one interview outfit, get a jacket and both the skirt/pants options in a neutral color, then several different shirt options underneath. A nice button down in a solid color is a reliable classic, but there’s usually a bit more flexibility here and you can try lots of different patterns/styles — just as long as they aren’t sheer or low-cut, or like, a basic t-shirt or something. Check the clearance racks of the stores I mentioned: You’ll likely find a lot of options, and ones you can then wear on their own with pants or a skirt once you land your job.
And while this isn’t interview attire advice, I highly HIGHLY recommend getting completely hooked on Alison Green’s Ask A Manager, and dive in particularly deep into (excellent!!) advice columns on resumes, cover letters and interviewing. She knows this stuff REALLY well and gives terrific, practical advice.
(She’d agree with me on the suit, by the way. It’s just the best and safest option, and I bet you look a lot better in jackets than you’re giving yourself credit for!)
Photo source: Depositphotos/stevanovicigor
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