Of all the ways you can effectively prepare yourself for an interview, few things are more important than how you plan to dress.
Although for some of us, the clothing we choose is just a matter of habit, research tells us there’s much more at stake when it comes to dressing for an interview. Two published studies out of the UK and Turkey reported that people make a judgement on us in just three seconds; and better yet, if we’re dressed right they’ll assume we’re “confident, successful, flexible and a higher earner.”
Because a first impression is a form of nonverbal communication, you must be ready for snap-judgements and rapid assessments and be prepared to turn them to your favor.
Deciding what to wear for a job interview can be a daunting task because it’s as if there is a right answer and a wrong answer — but it’s not forthcoming. There’s a lot of grey. To add to the ambiguity, our personal values, background and perspectives also impact what we think is right interview attire.
Let’s dispel the grey.
As always, by failing to prepare you are preparing to fail. This is the quintessential interview attire advice. You do not want to be standing in your room on interview day, surrounded by piles of clothing, and crying that you have nothing to wear. I’m talking from first hand experience here. When deiding what to wear for a job interview, take the time to think about what you want to wear, try on several options a day or two ahead, and choose. You might even want to have two solid outfits lined up in the event that you change your mind the day of. You want to be thinking about the content of your interview the night before and visualizing your success; not fretting about whether you have the right shoes to wear.
Start with you.
Choosing what to wear for a job interview is going to boil down to two things: the company and you. You’ll find ample advice on the web about mirroring the company you’re interviewing at. If it’s a startup, wear the coolest jeans you have. If it’s corporate, wear your most typical navy suit. While this is reasonable advice, which I’ll dig deeper into shortly, it falls short on delivering you authentic advice on how to feel your best. People who feel good and I mean, feel like they look good radiate positive energy. They're bursting with it. They’re smiling, happy and you know why? Because they are physically comfortable.
If you put me in a suit I will be adjusting and tucking all day. I will feel restricted and if I feel restricted I will not be my best self. My best self being the positive, radiant, happy person I know I am. Instead, I will be counting down the minutes until I can peel the thing off and be me again.
Another reason to pick out what to wear for a job interview with yourself in mind is that you want to accurately represent who you are to your prospective employer. If you have no intention of ever wearing a suit when you get the job, then why put one on for the interview? If you’re sitting there saying, “well the company has a dress code so…” Ok, well do you really (really?) want to work at a company that will insist you dress up every day? You also don’t want to show up in a sharp suit at the interview and then show them who you really are (super casual) and have them feel like you were someone else during the interview. Don’t contrive to fit their mold. Be yourself - and if they don’t want you, it’s not meant to be. You want to look like you.
Then, think about the company.
After you’ve thought about how you want to feel in your interview clothing, think about what the company might be expecting. When it comes to the company, mirror the tone that they set but leave room for interpretation, also known as your personality. To understand the tone, you can pay attention to the cues they’ve set. Some initial clues would be in the interview process. Was the telephone interview very casual? Do they have office dogs? What can you find on social media and the web about the company culture? So many organizations have Instagram and Facebook pages to showcase their culture and here is where you’ll find pictures of their employees. Check it out! What are they wearing? You can also take a shortcut and just ask the person who’s arranging your interview: what is the office dress code?
Let’s get dressed.
If you’ve sussed it out and you’ve narrowed down their culture, it’s either going to be casual, business casual, or business.
Make sure you’ve done your homework before you show up dressed casually to an interview. Remember you can never be overdressed but you can be underdressed. I once worked for a company that had what we fondly referred to as a “barefoot culture,” which meant quite literally, people took their shoes off at work regularly. But did we expect candidates to show up in beach shorts and tanks? No. We still expected a cleaned up look.
If you do land an interview and you’ve the utmost certainty that you should be dressing casually for the interview, you’ll want to look smart, not casual.
For women, I’d pair dark denim with a blouse and some simple jewellery. The key is to look polished. The top should be dressier to balance out the denim and you should absolutely wear a professional shoe with this look.
1. Banana Republic, 2. Gap, 3. Ann Taylor, 4. Steve Madden
For men, it’s about sending that same message: casual, crisp, and clean. I highly recommend a collar because t-shirts won’t cut it. Dark denim paired with a shirt with good lines and thoughtful accessories like a strong watch will do the trick. A man might be able to get away with sneakers but they should be dressy sneakers, not your cross trainers. A denim shirt is a fantastic look for a casual-smart look because it’s a dress shirt but made of denim = perfect.
If you’ve looked inside yourself and researched the company and you still don’t know which look you should aspire for - go business casual interview attire. When in doubt, it’s almost always business casual. Easiest put, business casual means business clothing without a mandatory tie or jacket.
For women, business casual interview attire is a sharp button-up shirt or a conservative blouse paired with trousers or a skirt. You could also wear a tailored dress. Shoes should absolutely be business appropriate - flats, loafers, or heels. Ladies, do not wear shoes that are uncomfortable. If you can’t walk around your prospective new office comfortably, you will look uncomfortable and hence, act uncomfortable. It should also go without saying, but cleavage is an absolute no. Never. Skirts must be to the knee. Please and thanks.
For men, business casual interview attire means collared shirt, tie-optional, and dress pants. While a jacket is optional, it sets a polished tone. I especially like the no-tie-jacket look. It’s sharp. Here is a great opportunity to show your personality by the use of colors. Every other candidate you’re up against is wearing a black or grey suit with a similar shirt and tie combo (boring). Show your personality with a unique shirt or suit color. If you’re totally against a jacket, you could wear dress pants with a dress shirt under a nice cashmere (or sweater). This is a comfortable look that will keep you looking professional and feeling at ease.
For men and women alike, business means that you want to look as tailored as possible. You want to look like your clothing was cut especially for you. For women, you don’t have to wear a traditional suit because there are some non-traditional, suitable items available that can show off your personality and achieve the dress code just as well. Stick to the rule of dress pant/skirt and jacket and find a creative balance that will work for you.
For men, unfortunately your clothing options are limited. You’re going to have to wear a full suit with a tie. But, you can spice it up by adding interesting pieces like a vest or a sweater that will add some dimension to your otherwise look. My personal favorite is a vest because it’s timeless and sophisticated. Be cautious of adding too many layers if you’re a sweaty guy - you do not want to create an oven of yourself! You can also add touches like cufflinks to your suit to show a little flair.
When it comes down to it, follow the golden rule: when dressing for an interview, wear things that make you feel good. If you feel good, you’ll be comfortable and if you’re comfortable you’ll think clearly and communicate effectively. Focus on feeling good.
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