How to Dress for an Interview

How to Dress for an Interview

by Kerry Scott on 10 February 2009

A reader writes:

I lost my job four months ago. I’m finally starting to get calls for job interviews, but I don’t have anything to wear. At my last job, we always wore jeans, so I don’t have any suits, and I really can’t afford that stuff right now. Do I really have to wear a suit to job interviews, and if so, where can I find cheap clothes for interviewing?

Whether you have to wear a suit depends on where you live, what industry you’re in, and how high up you are on the food chain.

Your interview outfit is meant to make you look smart and professional and stuff, but it’s also meant to be a sign of respect. Sometimes people say, “I know they wear jeans there, so I’m going to wear jeans to the interview.” You can try it, but you would be amazed how many hiring managers are offended by that. They want to see you dress up for them, as a sign of respect for them and the process, and as a sign that you actually want the job. Maybe that’s stupid, but I’d say that’s the prevailing view among managers I know.

That said, you don’t necessarily need to dress like you’re applying to be a bank president. Take what they wear on the job at the company you want, and then go up a notch or two. For example, if they wear jeans, wear dress pants and a nice sweater. If it’s business casual, wear a jacket and dress pants (not necessarily a matched suit). If you’re not sure what the dress code is, ask the person who invited you for the interview (trust me, they won’t mind-it makes you look smart).

There are lots of places you can get work clothes without spending a fortune*. When I was starting out, nearly all my work wardrobe came from thrift stores and consignment shops. In fact, consignment stores are an especially good option now, since a lot of cash-starved people are consigning their unused things to raise money. I’ve also bought a lot of suits on eBay; if you know what brand and size fits you, you can get some real bargains (this works for women…not so much for men). Target now has suit separates for men and women, and they look good enough to wear on an interview. TJMaxx is a great place for ties in particular; it’s hit or miss, but I’ve found some great ties there for $9.99 (sometimes less, but the cheaper ones are usually ugly…$9.99 seems to be the cutoff for nice ties).

Bottom line-you’re just trying to look presentable and respectful. You want the interview to be about you, not about your outfit. Wear something that will make you feel appropriate, professional, and comfortable, and you’ll be fine.

*I have no financial connection to any of these companies, although if any of them are overwhelmed by feelings of gratitude after reading this and want to send me a gift card, that’s okay with me. Especially Target.

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Ask a Manager February 10, 2009 at 8:40 am

Great post. For me, it’s less about wanting the candidates to show signs of respect and more about wanting an indication that they understand certain social mores. Rightly or wrongly, a suit or something close to it (nice pants and a sweater can work at a lot of places, although I think you’re always safer with a suit) has come to be expected at interviews, and so when a candidate flouts that expectation, I wonder what’s going on. Does he/she not realize that’s the norm? Realize and not care? It raises questions that you’re better off not raising in an interview.

Kerry is right about being able to dress nicely for cheap. You don’t need designer brands; thrift stores are a great way to pick up really cheap interview outfits.

Ask a Manager’s last blog to deal with a coworker being fired

Susanne February 10, 2009 at 10:10 am

Excellent post. I agree with everything you say here. My work environment is fairly casual but I always appreciate, and award extra “points” to candidates who dress professionally, especially for entry level jobs. If two candidates are equal, the one who broke out the suit will get my vote. Having said that, one of my interview pet peeves — and young men seem to be worse about this — is arriving in my fairly small office smelling like you dumped the bottle of cologne on yourself. I know some fellas thing dress up = smell good, but trust me, in close quarters, it’s way too much. And many people have sensitivies to cologne – so just don’t do it!

Sadistic Manager February 10, 2009 at 6:58 pm

This is why I prefer phone interviews. As long as they talk dressed-up, no one knows the difference.

Kidding! However, these are excellent tips. While I don’t necessarily think a full suit should always be required, showing up in what they’d wear on a weekend is a bad idea. Kind of gives me a hint as to how seriously they take the opportunity, and how seriously they’d take the job if I gave it to them.

Sadistic Manager’s last blog post..The Business of Bodily Functions

Kerry February 12, 2009 at 8:49 am

One of the interesting things about Milwaukee is that people still wear suits to work here. At my last job, I wore a suit pretty much every day. To me, that’s a little stuffy…but boy did my managers love it when candidates showed up in suits. Some industries are more old-school than others.

Amy February 12, 2009 at 9:13 am

As a candidate, I would never dream of showing up in anything but a suit. I work for clients, and when you go to meet the client, you wear a suit. It’s cultural shorthand for “I respect your time, I take this conversation seriously, I am a professional, and I have brought you my best game today.” Why would I present any less to an interviewer?

mouse March 30, 2009 at 2:19 pm

Just watch out for jobs that will absolutely not hire you if you do wear a suit to the interview. When I was managing restaurants (not in charge of hiring but giving input after participating in interviews) I was constantly talking managers out of not hiring perfectly capable waiters who showed up in a suit instead of their black and whites.

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