I’ve been dressing and preparing clients for professional interviews at Dress For Success for almost seven years. I have also prepared my paying clients for the job interview process. And of course, I have interviewed and been interviewed myself. So I thought I would try to distill a set of guidelines from my experience. 

Your goal in a job interview is simple: you want the job. How does your outfit help or hurt your chances of being successful? In my opinion this all comes down to two things.

  1. The impression you make on your interviewer. In the first few seconds of meeting them their brain will be trying to make the hiring decision on the only information they have: the way you look. Can they imagine you doing the job? Will you fit into the culture? This may not even be a conscious evaluation.
  2. The impact that your outfit has on YOU. You must also be able to imagine yourself doing the job you are interviewing for. Above all, you need to feel confident and physically comfortable. It’s your time to shine and the outfit must complement your skills, not make you feel self conscious about them.

After the first few seconds, you want the interview to focus exclusively on your expertise and your ability to excel at the job. Your outfit should make the right first impression and then get out of the way. It is impossible to create a universal outfit to achieve this goal for positions in all professions, in all industries. But here is a checklist to get you started.

  • Err on the formal side: It’s better to dress too formally than too casually for an interview. Interviewers will expect you to dress more formally than usual.
  • Err on the conservative side: This is straightforward if you’re interviewing for a profession in a conservative environment, but the lines blur for more creative professions like design, art, literature, advertising and fashion. For creative professions, you can add trendy elements to the ensemble, but it’s a good rule of thumb to be more classic than the way you normally dress.
  • Err on the modest side: Look tailored but don’t wear overly figure hugging clothes. Skirts and dresses should end on or around the knee and make sure you do the “sit-down-test” as skirts tend to creep up once you’ve sat down. No cleavage.
  • Wear a jacket: A suit blazer or jacket adds bus loads of polish to your appearance. It really steps things up a notch so my suggestion is to wear a jacket no matter what the interview.
  • Suit versus Separates: Conservative professional job interviews require a formal interview suit, whereas other job interviews are fine with the dressier side of business casual attire – which still means jacket in my book. A dressy dress like a sheath with a jacket is another good option for business casual.
  • Skirts versus Slacks: You might perceive this differently, but I find skirt and dress suits more formal than pant suits. So if you want to make an even more formal impression, go with a skirt suit. But if you feel better in slacks than skirts, stick with the slacks suit.
  • Blouse, shirt or item of knitwear: Wear one of these underneath your suit or separates jacket. Sometimes you’ll be able to wear a good quality knit top too, like a solid shell top. Wearing sleeveless blouses and tops underneath jackets is really comfortable so bear that in mind because your jacket does not need to come off during the interview.
  • To tuck or not too tuck: Tucking is not essential, but you might feel neater if you tuck your top into your bottoms. When you tuck your top into slacks, finish off the look with a belt. Also do the sit-down-test for blouses and shirts as they can pull across the bust when you are seated.
  • Neutrals versus Colour: Keep your suit and separates neutrally toned. Black is not your only option: grey, brown, caramel, olive and navy are great too, and so is a subtle pinstripe. What you wear under the jacket needn’t be neutral, but I’d stay away from anything too bold just because it might overpower you in the interview, and distract the interviewer.
  • Wear good shoes: Keep them close-toed, heeled, polished and fairly neutral. Sling-backs, pumps, mary janes and oxfords are all fab.
  • Limit the accessories: By all means wear accessories, but stay away from anything too flashy, noisy and oversized. Again, it’s distracting for the interviewer. A watch, wedding ring, specs and small earrings are flop proof, whereas chunky necklaces, bracelets and scarves are a little harder to get right. If in doubt, leave it off.
  • Hose: I’m still not sure about this one. Should you wear hose with a skirt for an interview? I’m inclined to say yes, but you tell me.
  • A hairstyle that stays in place: You don’t want to fuss with hair that you have to keep pushing out of the way during the interview, so make sure it’s secured.
  • Light make-up and perfume: Wear just enough so that you smell sweet and look polished. Check for lipstick on your teeth just before you go into the interview.
  • Neatly manicured hands: Your hands are quite visible in an interview, so if you can make them extra pretty beforehand, so much the better. Short nails and neutral nail polish (or no nail polish) is best.
  • Handbag, brief case or portfolio bag: This will depend on you and what you need to bring to the interview. Keep the handbag fairly structured as opposed to overly slouchy, but there is no need to keep it neutral. Avoid neon colours, but a beautiful deep red or purple handbag can lift an interview outfit perfectly.

If you’re still not sure what to wear, visit the organization and watch employees coming in and out of the office to see what they are wearing. It might help you make decisions like skirt or slacks, blouse or knit top, or how formally you should dress.

Finally, be sure to find out whether the hiring company has guidelines on what to wear to the interview. When Greg interviewed for a well known software company, he was actually told not to wear a suit and that he had to wear really comfortable clothes because his interview would be grueling and would take the entire day.

I would love to brainstorm together with you and come up with a killer list of flop proof guidelines for effective interview attire, perhaps even across different professions. Let’s hear about how you like to dress for an interview and what you have learned along the way. If you are a recruiting professional or a hiring manager (or have been one in the past), please share your thoughts on what makes a great interview outfit, your likes and dislikes and any tips in general.

Ps. While we’re talking business attire, Corporette.com is a blog that focuses on what women wear in the workplace. Their “interviewing” category has some interesting discussion on this topic.