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What to Wear to Your Job Interview

What to Wear to Your Job Interview

By Amalah

Good morning!

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.

Please halp!

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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Amalah
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch

Amalah

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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Comments

  • Grace

    I have never ever worn a suit for an interview and I’ve gotten the majority of the jobs I’ve interviewes for. Granted, I’m based in the bay area and have primarily worked at startups in editorial roles. I usually go with black pants (new, crisp, clean) with a blouse and cardigan or a really nice sweater. All somewhat neutral colors, no flashy jewelry, crazy hair, etc.

    I actually interviewed a candidate for a job where she showed up in a classic suit and it came up with my coworkers in every recap conversation about the interview. As horrible as it sounds, people thought it made her seem old, conservative and outdated. But again, really probably depends on your location and industry.

    • Lindsay

      I heartily second every single thing you mention here – and I’d add that I’m also a hiring manager, so I interview people all the time, and I’m an engineer in a VERY male dominated field that also skews older. Suits read strangely to me, even if you discount all the people wearing ill fitting suits (SO much worse than being underdressed).

      The issue, I think, is that we both are talking about California. Since the email mentions cold climate and layering and a 3000 mile move, I’m guessing this is a move to the East coast (I could be wrong). I visit companies on the East coast sometimes. COMPLETELY different set of rules for dressing.

      • MR

        Yes, East coast is VERY different from West coast. Suits are far more expected on the East coast, and pretty much expected to be a dark suit – navy or black. Most people on the East coast don’t tend to wear a lot of color. I have had several friends move back to the West coast from the East coast after several years, and every single one of them has commented that they need to change their wardrobe because everything they have is black, white, grey, and navy. That was also my experience when I worked in NY.
        I work in IT on the West coast, so a suit would be WAY overdressed and would probably mean you didn’t get the job because you’d never fit in. I used to get asked why I was so dressed up at work – I was wearing jeans and a t-shirt, but they both fit, were clean, and didn’t have any holes, so I was dressed “fancy”. No joke.

      • Emily Staats

        Definitely agree about it being regional. Here in NY (upstate), even working for a tech startup where it’s perfectly acceptable to wear jeans/ultra casual day-to-day, it’s not awkward to see interviewees in suits or extremely well put together skirt+blouse+heels.

    • kefi18

      I’ve never worn a true “suit” to an interview, and I’ve never not gotten a job that I’ve interviewed for! I generally go with a pencil skirt, a patterned top, a black blazer and black pumps. I always add color to my interview outfits (my favorite interview outfit is a bright green pencil skirt with a b/w polka dot top), it’s a bold choice but I pair a colorful outfit with no jewelry but my wedding ring and minimal, very neutral makeup. I think the pop of color helps me stand out from other candidates and reflects my personality, but I’m also in my mid-20s so maybe it’s a generational thing?

    • Sasha

      It SO depends on where you are going to end up, and what field you’re interviewing in. I work in New York, for a large national corporation you’ve all heard of, and anyone coming for a first interview not wearing a suit is extremely unlikely even to be considered. If there’s a second interview, still a suit. Even creative types, of which there are many in this corporation, almost always come to the first interview in a suit. And this is for a corporation where only the nakedly ambitious and the executive suite inhabitants wear anything but jeans on a daily basis.
      Same when we interview in the DC area: it’s formal suits all the way.
      In the Midwest, Chicago and the like, it’s usually a suit for the first interview and something slightly more relaxed for a second interview. Same for Atlanta.
      Miami is more relaxed from the start, as is the West Coast, but even when I’ve conducted interviews in LA or SF, I haven’t had Grace’s experience of people dissing the interviewee for being too formally dressed.
      In sum, I’m with Amy: better to risk being overdressed than underdressed. A suit. If everyone at the interview is very informal, you can always take off the lovely tailored jacket during the interview.

    • CKD1

      Yep, fellow Bay Area person here (and I’m in a creative agency, although I’m not a creative, if that makes sense) and people get away with slightly less conventional attire. I mean, people dress nicely, but crazy hair colors are not uncommon, and we see few suits. Even if someone wears a suit, there’s usually some crazy accessory (think a bright shoe or flashy brooch for the women and wacky socks or tie for the men). No one thinks poorly of someone in a typical conservative suit, but it’s somewhat surprising.

  • abby

    Grace stated exactly what I was going to say. I also usually go with nice black pants, a blouse and a cardigan. I will sometimes mix it up and interview in a conservative dress and cardigan. I too work on the west coast (Seattle) so things might be a bit different. I also interview a lot of people and would say the majority of females dress as stated above. And, just like Grace, I’ve experienced post-interview water cooler conversations focused on someone who was perceived as being overdressed. Aside from regional differences you also want to consider the type of position you are applying for, if it is an executive level position absolutely wear a suit. I’ve also seen a suit worn a bit more casually – like unbuttoned or with a fun shirt – so it still had the feel of being very appropriate while not feeling stuffy. Finally, wear shoes that you can walk confidently in.

  • Vickie

    Midwestern university.
    Job fair, hiring only for that university.
    Close friend of ours, who was wearing a suit, realized every single person making it to the second round of interviews was wearing a suit.

  • Call Nordstrom’s and make an appointment with a personal shopper. If you are plus-sized, make sure they know so that they can order in several options in your size.

    If you are, like me, an in-betweenie, you may need to get your suit jacket tailored. I am 4’11” and wear an H cup bra, so if I buy jackets that fit my breasts, I tend to need to get the shoulders and waist taken in and the sleeves shortened. Nordstrom’s may do the tailoring for free if you use the personal shopper.

  • Stephanie

    I live in California and work in government relations. Given our need to interact with legislators, you absolutely 100% wear a suit to an interview. Day to day, you can wear much less formal wear, but for an interview? A suit for sure. My friend lived in Connecticut for a few years (also from CA), and she said the overall attire was more formal – suits with nylons M-Th with business casual on Friday. I don’t think it hurts to be overdressed, but it can hurt your prospects to be underdressed.

  • Selena Luna

    There’s a huge problem with suits that are sold as sets. I don’t know about all women, but I have never, ever found a set with one size for the top and a different size for the bottom. If you can get the same fabric and color from separates, great. Call it a suit. I have done exactly that, with the one, singular “suit” that I own, but I have to wonder if the people who sell sets actually understand that most people are not the same size on top as they are on the bottom.

  • Morgan

    This is super regional. I work in head office oil and gas land and suits would actually be inappropriate for vast number of positions. Like the senior structural engineer I married *might* consider buying dockers for an interview instead his usual jeans and golf shirt attire.

  • Dana

    I’m not east coast but I do work at a university. You mention working at a university and if that’s where you will be interviewing I would say it is usually more casual than big business. If you are in fundraising, recruitment, or higher administration you might need that suit, but for other areas I don’t think a suit would be required. Wouldn’t necessarily hurt, but wouldn’t be expected for many university jobs.

  • IrishCream

    I’m in higher ed (development, big-name school) and on the East Coast. I wouldn’t knock someone out of consideration if they weren’t wearing a suit, but I would expect them to be more dressed up than just a cardigan. A sheath dress with a blazer or a cropped jacket would be fine. A tailored skirt or trousers with a nice blouse would also be fine. Anything less formal would be a warning sign (not a dealbreaker, but a yellow flag, at least) that they weren’t taking the process seriously or that they were inexperienced or unprepared. You can wear the same suit to multiple interview rounds; just mix up your shirt or blouse options underneath.

    Banana Republic and J Crew aren’t the cheapest options, but their suits do hold up well over time, and I believe they both offer tailoring in-store. You can often knock 10% – 20% off the price, and get free tailoring, if you sign up for a store card at the time of purchase. Getting a suit tailored can be a game-changer in terms of the look and your comfort level; even small changed really make a difference.

    And take heart–in my department, at least, only very senior staff wear suits on a daily basis! Good luck!

  • Kerry

    I work in higher education on the west coast, and I have never owned a suit to interview in. I can’t remember if the last couple of women I’ve participated in interviews with for director positions have worn suits…I’m tempted to say no, but it doesn’t stick in my mind either way. We did have a couple from D.C. for a while though that you could always pick out from across campus because of how nicely dressed they were.

    I think the level and general area of the positions you’d be looking for matters a lot too. Like…don’t show up at an interview wearing clothing that costs more than the job pays, and the rules for government or alumni relations are going to be different than for writing center directors.

    But it does sound like you need east coast advice, or at least Seattle advice…so I don’t know how useful I am to you here. (Although east coast people…if you are expecting people to show up to interviews in clothes that cost more than the job pays, maybe stop doing that? I’ve done interviews when I was completely broke, and when I was six weeks postpartum and nothing I owned fit, and I’m grateful that I was judged by my ability to do the job and not how much I invest in my clothes. I think it worked out pretty well for the people who hired me too.)

  • Reader

    I work for a suburban public high school and have helped to conduct interviews for new teacher hires. In a recent round of interviews, some of the candidates wore suits, some blazers, and one wore a nice dress. Out of all the interviews, we only commented on two people’s choice of clothing. One was a woman who wore a suit with a blouse that showed a fair amount of cleavage. She lost points in the professionalism category. If that was her “conservative” look, we were scared to put her in front of a group of teenagers. The other was the woman in the dress. We all loved it and wondered where she bought it because it was professional and stylish. Incidentally, she did get the job- not because of her dress; she is an amazing teacher, but the dress made a strong first impression.