The post I wrote on what to wear to an interview is one of the most visited pages on YLF. But it is almost four years old and definitely in need of an update. Some of my previous post is carried over directly from the earlier one because the points are still relevant today, but it also includes some points that were made in the comments and some things that I’ve learned in the interim. 

The points in this post are general and will apply to the vast majority of interview situations, but it is true that dress codes can vary wildly across industries and even companies. What works for a programmer being interviewed by a Silicon Valley startup might not work for a trader being interviewed on Wall Street, or a merchandise position at a major fashion retailer. So over the next few months I will be writing a series of posts that explores appropriate interview attire for specific industries and professions.

Like I did in the previous post, I’m going to focus on one thing: How does your outfit help or hurt your chances of being successful? I think this 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.

As far as possible you want the interview to focus on expertise and your ability to do the job. Your outfit should make the right impression, give you confidence, and get out of the way.

Here is a checklist of things to consider when you are putting your interview outfit together.

  • Err on the dressy side: Although the work setting and culture of the organization is casual, it’s still better to dress too formally than too casually for an interview. Interviewers expect you to dress more formally for the occasion, so don’t worry about looking a little more polished and dressed up than other people at the company. 
  • Err on the classic side: Stick to the classics when you’re interviewing for a position in a conservative environment. Of course, things get a little tricky when you’re interviewing for creative professions in art, advertising and fashion, and wearing a trendier and more fashionable outfit is a good idea. Still, wear an outfit that is more classic than what you’d usually wear, just to be on the safe side. There will be plenty of time to express your style more creatively after you’ve landed the job.
  • Err on the modest side: Stay away from low necklines, high skirts, exposed midriffs, and body-hugging items. Tailored and fluid fits that cover the body are best. Skirts and dresses should end around the knee, and make sure you do sit-down tests. Ensure that your shirt or blouse doesn’t gape and that your skirt doesn’t creep up too much when seated. 
  • Leave off the scent: You can’t run the risk of kickstarting someone’s allergies with your choice of perfume or body lotion. Also, some people are put off entirely by even the whiff of a scent.  
  • Limit the accessories: Stay away from anything flashy, bold and noisy. The clanging of bracelets and visual dominance of statement accessories can be distracting to the interviewer. Plus if you’re prone to fidgeting with your own accessories, leave them off. A watch, wedding ring, specs and small earrings is fine. It is the larger statement pieces that are harder to get right, and it’s just not worth worrying about them. 
  • Wear light make-up: Wear just enough make-up to look extra polished, presentable, energetic and healthy. Stay away from overly dramatic lipstick and eye make-up, and check your teeth for lipstick before you go into the interview. 
  • Wear clothes that cover perspiration marks: Nerves run high during an interview and puddles of perspiration are a real possibility. Wear clothes that are forgiving of perspiration marks, and wear or at least bring along a jacket that camouflages these marks as a contingency plan.  
  • Wear clothes that work with your body temperature: If you run warm, wear something suitably lightweight so that you don’t overheat. And by the same token if you’re sensitive to arctic air conditioning like me, wear sufficiently warm layers. 
  • When in doubt, wear suit separates: These days formal suits are generally not essential interview attire. With some exceptions, business casual separates are perfectly acceptable. Stay away from denim unless the recruiter has specified that jeans are fine AND you believe that all interviewers will likely think the same. Note: originally I used the term “business casual” separates here, meaning “something less than a formal suit”, but that is confusing given the wide variety of interpretations for “business casual”.
  • Wear a skirt for an extra formal look: Pencil skirts are dressier than trousers, so wear a skirt instead of trousers if you want to make a more formal impression. That said, if you feel a lot more comfortable in trousers, go with that option despite the slightly less traditionally formal look. 
  • Wear flattering colours: Keep your bottoms and jacket neutrally toned, but by all means wear a flattering colour under the jacket. Or if you’re not wearing a jacket, wear a blouse, shirt or sweater in a shade that flatters your complexion. Remember that black is not your only neutral option. There is also grey, brown, taupe, caramel, tan, navy, ink blue and shades of white.
  • Bring a jacket: A jacket gives your outfit structure, polish and authority, and makes you look more professional. If a jacket makes you feel uncomfortable, take one along and wear it initially with the first interviewer and then take it off and carry it with you for the rest of the interview process.
  • Wear good shoes: Keep them close-toed, dressy, polished and fairly neutral. Pumps, dressy flats, oxfords, tall boots and booties are great options. They don’t need to be 8-hour walking shoes, but comfort goes a long way. I know I’m more confident when my feet are happy, which is more important than wearing a prettier, but less comfortable shoe. 
  • Bring a spare pair of hose: In many work environments hose is no longer essential when wearing a skirt or dress. But if it is, or if you would just prefer to wear hose, carry a spare pair just in case you ladder them on your way to the interview. 
  • Wear a hairstyle that stays in place: You don’t want to fuss with a fringe or long locks that get in the way or cover your face during the interview. So wear a style that is sufficiently secured. 
  • Bring a handbag, briefcase or portfolio case: This will depend on you and what you need to bring to the interview. Bring a structured bag that is large enough to carry notes and brochures. No need to stick to neutrals, but it’s not the setting for a neon clutch either. Keep the bag dressy and professional. 
  • Groom your hands: Making your hands look pretty is worth it because they’re quite visible during the interview, especially if you “talk with your hands”. Short nails and neutral nail polish (or no nail polish) is best. 
  • Road test the interview outfit: Be sure to try on the outfit well before the interview. Walk around, sit down, and take your jacket on and off. Make sure you like the outfit without the jacket. Most of all, make sure that you’re happy, confident and comfortable. 

If you’re still not sure what to wear, visit the organization and watch employees come in and out of the office to get a better sense of what they wear to work. Also, find out whether the hiring company has guidelines on what to wear to an interview.

Please share your own thoughts about dressing for a job interview. What do you like to wear? What are dress codes like in your industry or company? If you’re a recruiting professional or hiring manager, please feel free to share your thoughts on the checklist, any other thoughts on what makes an appropriate interview outfit, or tips you have for YLF readers.