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Dressed for Interview Success

For guys, it's simple—a suit and tie will do just fine in any situation. But for women, knowing what to wear to the interview can be more complicated than knowing the elements to the periodic table

By Celia Colista

Who knew making a first impression could be so complicated?

Four years of hard work. Weeks—maybe months—of research and networking. Schmoozing former instructors for references. Getting creative with your resume to make it fill a whole page. Then the call comes.

The culmination of 12 years of academic grooming feels at once exciting and nerve-wracking: In a few days, you will have your first interview . . . and you have no idea what to wear.

Dressed for Interview Success

Today the question of how to dress for a job interview seems harder to answer than ever before. Office dress codes vary dramatically from company to company, industry to industry. What used to be a boring, pallid assortment of jackets and skirts for women has evolved into an overwhelming array of fashion permutations.

With the emergence of youth-oriented dotcoms came the freedom to dress more casually. And a business casual dress code became a perk that many companies offered young professionals in hopes of recruiting them in a hot job market. Yet other companies maintained traditional business dress codes and expected those interviewing for jobs to be at least as well dressed. It's hard enough for employees to know what to wear in their own offices, so how are you supposed to know what to wear to a job interview?

"The first thing you need to do is a little research and find out what the appropriate dress code is," says Susan Wilson Solovic, public speaker and author of A Girl's Guide to Power and Success. "You're going to make an impression in the first few minutes, and they're going to make a judgment in those first few minutes. . . . People do judge a book by its cover. That's how human nature works."

Showing that you know something about the office culture is a sign to the interviewer that you take the job opportunity, the company and yourself seriously.

"I view the way in which they're dressed as part of their preparedness," says Chicago-area-based Abbott Laboratories' Mark Naidicz of interviewing job candidates.

Naidicz, director of human resources in Abbott's corporate engineering division, recommends calling the human resources department or asking what the dress code is when you are first invited to interview. Although Abbott's workers dress casual, most interviewees show up dressed in traditional business attire or, put simply, a suit. Naidicz says he thinks business attire is appropriate, but he doesn't downgrade a job candidate's standing in the interview process if they come to an interview in business casual attire.

'Wear a Suit'

Generally, most human resources and management sources say that if you are at all unsure of what to wear to a job interview, err on the conservative end of the dress-code spectrum.

"Wear a suit," is the no-nonsense advice of Tom Schofield, vice president of NativeMinds, Inc., a provider of Web-based self-service solutions in San Francisco. "You always should. The interviewer should be aware that you are trying to make a good first impression."

Dressed for Interview Success

Although NativeMinds, Inc. is a young, dotcom generation company with a business casual dress code, many of its employees are expected to interact with clients and look professional. Job candidates who assume too much about the casual attitude of the Internet world could end up bombing an interview by overdoing dressing down.

"One interviewee turned up professing to be a director of professional services in a sweater and corduroys," says Schofield. "You have to wonder how he would deal with customers if he dresses like that for a first interview when impressions really matter."

If you know you will be interviewing at companies that run the gamut—from very traditional to living room casual—invest in a suit. But the thought of becoming a "suit" shouldn't make you cringe. Take heart that not only will you be doing your career a favor, you will also be in step with at least one fashion trend.

"Suits are coming back," says Peggy Farritor, assistant department manager at Barney's New York in Chicago, a high-end retailer.

One benefit of the suit is that it's a no-brainer to wear and serves as an all-purpose interview outfit. For the more casual interview, wear a nice knit top with the suit pants or skirt; for anything dressier, throw on the jacket. Buy a suit in a year-round fabric and you'll never come up empty-handed, whether you're interviewing in Des Moines or Miami.

"A lightweight suit will always go the distance," says Farritor.

You can buy a suit at mid-range retailers like J.Crew and Banana Republic for $169-$350. Suits at JCPenney or Sears are typically priced even less. Designer "outlet" stores and sales events at stores like Macy's, Bloomingdale's and Nordstrom are great sources for high quality at reasonable prices.

Skirting the Issue

Which brings up another dressing-up dilemma: Should pants be relegated to the business casual interview and avoided in more traditional settings?

"The interesting thing is it's still OK to wear pants—you don't have to wear a skirt," says Solovic.

Although pants used to be considered more casual by the business world, today a pants suit is seen as the female equivalent to the man's traditional suit and tie. And because pants are easier to pair with other separates, you will probably get more mileage out of a pants suit than a skirt suit.

"I would definitely do a pants suit over a skirt because you'll wear it more," advises Farritor. "You can do more with it."

In a business casual environment, you can ditch the jacket and you still have a nice pair of pants to wear with a fun, more casual top once you get the job.

If you do choose a skirt, you have more options than women used to.

"Ten years ago, I was told to always wear a skirt at or below the knee," says Lynn Curtis Turk, who works in human resources and was once a college recruiter at BE&K, an engineering and construction company based in Alabama. "Some folks can pull off a shorter skirt and it doesn't bother me."

Gotta great pair of gams? Above the knee is OK, as long as it's not mini short and not distracting—to you or your interviewer. First, says Solovic, don't wear a skirt that you will be tempted to tug at every time you sit down or shift in your seat. Second, even if your skirt fits perfectly and you feel comfortable, don't pull an Ally McBeal and wear a skirt that shows more thigh than it covers.

"It's not about me making a judgment on women," says Solovic. "It's about if you want to make your best impression and you want them to concentrate on [your qualifications], then don't give them distractions."

If you do wear a skirt, says Solovic, be sure to have an extra pair of pantyhose on hand. She recalls a time when as a practicing lawyer, about to make her first appearance in federal court, she caught her heel on the seatbelt as she was getting out of her car. She not only fell on the pavement, but scraped her leg and ruined her hose. She had to walk into court bare-legged at a time when bare was definitely a fashion don't.

The Casual Interview

Now that you know what to wear in most interview situations—a suit—what do you wear for more casual interviews? Some companies tell job candidates to come dressed in something "comfortable," which generally signals not to suit up.

Desislava Iorgova, a senior computer science major at the University of Illinois, has yet to interview off campus, but swaps interview stories with friends, including one who recently interviewed at a company in Aurora, Illinois.

"The company told her in advance to wear casual and comfortable clothes so that she would feel relaxed," says Iorgova. "They gave her a tour of the building and then had her participate in some activities with all the other students that made it to the second round."

In situations like this one, you should be dressed comfortably, but not so casual that you look sloppy or careless. Farritor of Barney's advises choosing separates that you can mix and match.

In a more casual environment, you have a little more freedom to express individual style. Farritor chooses a white cotton shirt with a twist: ruffles. But these aren't flouncy, line-dancing ruffles; they are tight and short, a tiny detail that adds texture and a little bit of fun. Farritor pairs this tuxedo shirt with pinstripe pants. The result is a put-together look that is made just business enough with the addition of pinstripes.

If you feel intimidated by making such creative choices, stick with a tailored white shirt and dark pants.

"A clean white shirt always has a crisp, clean look, and it'll go a long way," says Farritor.

Farritor advises buying a button-up cotton shirt with a little bit of Lycra blended in. The stretch will help keep wrinkles at bay and maintain the shape of the shirt.

An alternative to the basic white shirt is a nice knit top with a pair of pants or a skirt. Twin sets (matching sweater sets) look professional without looking stiff, plus you'll come across as coordinated without having to agonize over choosing the right blazer to match your sweater or button-up shirt. But if you prefer to wear a jacket and have the right pieces to go with it, you can still pull off a business casual look.

"I think a woman can never go wrong with a nice jacket," says Solovic.

Try wearing a knit top under the jacket to add texture and soften the overall look.

At the high end, at Barney's or Neiman Marcus, for example, you can expect to pay $240-300 for pants and $125-175 for a shirt (or even more). That's too pricey for most students, and even Farritor admits similar looks are possible at lower prices.

"You could even translate this look to the Gap—buy a clean white shirt and black pants," she says.

For a price range that's somewhere in the middle, try stores like Banana Republic, Ann Taylor, and The Limited. Expect to spend $125 on a nice pair of pants and $69 on a shirt. High-end stores like Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus often have excellent sales, too.

Once you have invested in the perfect pair of pants, make sure they fit properly. Many stores, including department stores and shops like Banana Republic, will alter a pair of pants for you, eliminating that extra trip to the tailor. To have the seat taken in costs from $15-30. And don't try a new tailor just before an interview if you can help it, advises Farritor.

Accessories: Don't Overdo It

One comforting aspect of choosing what to wear for a job interview is that you don't have to worry about wearing trendy accessories. If anything, keep accessories to a bare minimum. Solovic advises wearing a watch and maybe a pair of small earrings. If you have a simple, small-pendant necklace or a string of pearls, that works, too. Skip scarves unless you wear one that is short and has a subdued pattern and color. Farritor recommends tucking the ends of the scarf under, choker style, if you are wearing it with a jacket. Choose only one or two accessories—not all of the above—to avoid looking overdone.

Make sure your belt and shoes are in good shape and are not faded, stretched out of shape or in need of a polish. This is one of those areas where managers disagree on the importance of such details, but some interviewers do pay attention.

"I have friends who check out the shoes people wear to make sure they can dress the part," says Schofield. "I think that takes the professional dress thing a little too far."

Still, it is something some managers and HR professionals look at, so make sure your shoes are as clean and neat as the rest of your outfit. The good impression you want to make might as well start from the bottom up.

The final accessory to consider is the kind of bag you should carry. You can take a purse and a briefcase if you have one, but the less you have to juggle the better off you'll be, so make sure you're not carrying anything too unwieldy.

"If you're going to an interview, and you have to take a briefcase, try to consolidate," advises Solovic. "You have to shake hands with people, so don't have so many bags that you're constantly juggling. There are nice bags today that serve as both purse and briefcase."

Don't "consolidate" by carrying a backpack, a mistake students often make.

"All the students that I see in suits still have their school backpack and, believe me, it is the ugliest combination," says Iorgova of her "favorite pet peeve" of on-campus interviewing.

Although choosing the perfect interview ensemble may at first feel overwhelming, following these guidelines will help you make the right decision at each step. Just remember to wear something you feel good in. Don't wear your friend's red suit if black is more your thing. Look good, but don't over do it. You aren't trying to win the Miss America pageant, you're just trying to look professional and competent.

"The key is," says Solovic, "to be able to look in the mirror and say, 'I'm professional, organized and put together.'"

Don't let this happen to you... Five mistakes women make

1. Don't overdo the 'do:
Keep your hair simple. Solovic advises keeping it off
your face and going easy on the gel. Turk says to be careful with fancy up-dos, or anything overly intricate. "Especially for us African Americans, there's a lot we can do with our hair," she says. Turk says that for the interviewer, the issue isn't whether they like or dislike a more dramatic hairstyle, it's whether it distracts them from what you have to say.

2. Don't wear distracting accessories:
Stay away from long, swooping scarves. "When you have things on like that you tend to be distracted by them," advises Solovic. "Don't wear things you can fidget with." As for jewelry, this is not the time to show off your newest, trendiest finds or your family heirlooms. Stay away from anything too big (hoop earrings, huge rings, etc.) or too flashy. Don't wear anything that makes noise when you move, such as multiple bracelets.

3. Avoid bold colors and patterns:
Keep colors subdued and patterns to a minimum. A pinstripe shirt is one thing, but one with wide sailor stripes is a whole other story. A solid pant with texture is OK. "Stay away from heavy prints, in general," says Farritor. Be equally careful with color. "Don't wear bubble gum colors like hot pink or turquoise," advises Farritor. "It says, 'I'm not that serious.'"

4. Don't wear perfume or heavy makeup:
Although you may have a mental connection that dressing nicely requires perfume, you don't want to risk someone being annoyed by your choice of fragrance during an interview—or worse, being allergic to it. Likewise, don't distract your interviewer with heavy eye makeup, streaks of blush or lips glossy enough to reflect the person sitting across from you.

"You're not going out on a date," says Solovic. "You're going out on a job interview." Again, stick with subdued colors. Put on some eye shadow, a little mascara, and a neutral, flattering shade of lipstick. At the other extreme, if you never wear makeup, try a nice shade of lipstick, and—unless you have flawless skin—invest in a decent makeup foundation, concealer or even a tinted moisturizer for a polished look. Need help making a choice? If you don't feel confident choosing flattering shades from a drugstore shelf, go to your favorite department store and have someone at the makeup counter help you find the right products for your skin type and tone.

5. Don't have neon green claws:
Not only should your hair be neat, but your hands should be well-manicured, as should your feet, if showing. It is OK, by the way, to wear open-toe shoes, as long as they aren't clunky or too bare. Just make sure you have a neutral polish on your toes. Use a little lotion on hands and feet. Make sure that your fingernails are at least filed. If you do choose to wear polish, don't wear a loud or strange color and absolutely no glitter.

Celia Colista is a Chicago-based free-lance writer specializing in career issues.

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