How to Dress for a Job Interview

The job interview: Just the thought of it tends to strike terror in the hearts of anyone hoping to build a career. For good reason, interviewees tend to feel like they’re being observed through a microscope, as the manager searches for the slightest indication that the person sitting on the other side of the desk may possess some undesirable flaw. It can be a nerve-wracking experience for job hunters, which is why it’s essential that they maximize their chances for success by preparing for the interview as thoroughly as possible. A big part of this preparation involves figuring out what clothing to wear. This, however, isn’t a simple, clear-cut matter, due to the varied kinds of work environments and accompanying dress codes that you can encounter out there. For instance, a job hunter interviewing for a spot on a construction site will likely dress differently than someone going in for a corporate middle management position.

So, bearing all the above in mind, how should you dress for that big job interview? While there is literally no one-size-fits-all solution, there are some useful guidelines that you should observe.

A Few General Tips

As we will see, your style of dress for the interview will depend to a large extent on the type of work environment you plan to blend in with. Even so, there are a few preparatory steps that everyone should follow, no matter what kind of job they’re seeking.

Be sure to hit the shower (or the bathtub) on the morning of the interview. Also, avoid strong perfumes or colognes—you won’t impress anyone with strong fragrances, and some people experience strong allergic reactions to them. Speaking of fragrances, be sure to brush your teeth before the interview. Avoid smoking or eating immediately before meeting the interviewer. Loudly chewing on gum during the interview is another mistake made by far too many job hunters.

As for the clothing to wear, it’s important to note that it’s not always obvious exactly what kind of outfit is more appropriate. For example, a startup with an “artsy” slant may be receptive to relatively casual dress, or it may insist on standard professional attire. If you’re uncertain, the best strategy is to err on the side of formality. Being “overdressed” is a safer bet than risking offense by presenting an excessively informal look. Additionally, you should bear in mind that the clothing worn by the company’s employees isn’t always appropriate to wear for an interview. Some job seekers make the mistake of scouting a company’s offices on “casual Friday” and conclude that the parade of T-shirts and jeans walking through the hallways is indicative of normal business attire enforced at the site. To reiterate: If you’re not sure, be conservative.

The Business Formal Look

How to Dress for a Job Interview

Traditionally, the business world has required personnel to wear formal suits as a condition of employment. This is commonly known as “business formal” attire. Once, this was standard dress in the white-collar world, but over the years this requirement has been gradually relaxed. Only a small minority of workplaces enforce a business formal dress code these days. Even so, certain types of businesses still frequently require this kind of attire—it’s common in the financial sector, to name one example. Given that we have already established the wisdom of erring on the side of formality in job interviews, it’s useful to have a firm grasp of what this dress requirement entails.

Men: The heart of the business formal style is the suit—not just any suit, but one that fits your body shape well and which allows comfortable freedom of movement. This should be a solid color, preferably dark gray or navy. Wear a long-sleeved dress shirt underneath that matches the suit (and remember that white goes well with anything). You will also need a belt and tie—again, stay conservative with these items, as bizarre colors or patterns will interfere with the overall effect you seek. Socks should be a dark color; white cotton is a definite no-no. Be sure to wear leather shoes. Finally, avoid excessive jewelry, keep your hair neat, and make sure your fingernails are trimmed.

Women: In general, women’s business formal wear follows the same principles as the men’s: solid (not bright) colors and conservative choices. The blouse should be coordinated with the colors of the suit. Also, the suit should include a skirt that extends to the knee or the calf—keep in mind that long, ankle-length skirts are to be avoided as much as short ones. Keep your hair tastefully styled. Jewelry is acceptable, but only in small amounts; dangling earrings and similarly elaborate items should be left at home. For footwear, basic pumps work best. Avoid gaudy colors—and don’t forget that this rule includes your fingernails.

The Business Casual Look

To a large extent, so-called business casual attire has replaced the older and more conservative standard of dress. For the majority of workplaces, this look is perfectly acceptable for day-to-day attire. As the name implies, business casual is closer to normal out-and-about clothing than business formal, but it’s important not to get too informal with one’s garment choices. It may be useful to think of this look as emphasizing “business” more than “casual.” There is no precise definition for business casual attire, and it’s possible that a supervisor that mandates this standard will have a different look in mind than the job seeker does. As always, try to lean toward formality if you’re uncertain about what to wear. Even if you’re sure that the work environment allows “street” clothing, the best strategy for the interview is to be relatively formal in your attire.

Men: It’s fine to go with lighter colors than is allowable with the business formal style, although it’s still a good idea to avoid the flashy or garish. Button-down shirts are probably best, but polo shirts will likely be permissible as well. Khaki or gabardine pants tend to work well with the business casual look. Shoes may be relatively informal, such as loafers. Again, don’t get too carried away with the “casual” part of the equation—this means avoid T-shirts, excessive jewelry, shorts, flip-flops, and other items you’d wear on the weekend.

Women: Polo shirts, knit sweaters, and cardigans are permissible with business casual attire. Either pants or knee-length skirts are acceptable. Again, the key is not to get too casual, so avoid wearing eye-blinding colors, donning immoderate amounts of jewelry, and exposing the stomach, thighs, or cleavage. Hair and fingernails should follow business formal standards, which means tasteful and unobtrusive.