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Job interview? Shop your closet

Categories: beauty, casual office


Screen shot 2011-09-28 at 11.08.07 AM

My friend Kristen always says that the best part of freelancing full time is the pants-free dress code at her office. The same can be said for being a stay-home mom; some days, it just makes sense to keep your pajamas on. All day.

These days, though, more and more of us are looking for work, and unfortunately, there don’t seem to be any offices with pants-optional or pajama day attire policies. Which is a shame, because imagine how productive people would be if they just didn’t have to worry about pants!

Sadly, not going to happen.

Job hunting can be stressful (because omg! you have to put pants on!); scoring an interview is both cause for celebration and reason to panic. Because oh my god what are you going to wear???

Don’t panic. I’ve got you covered. Promise.

Unless you’ve been out of work for so long that you do not own any office-appropriate clothes, there’s no reason to rush out to the mall as soon as you score an interview. Shop your closet; look for pieces that you would actually wear to this job. Your goal for the interview is to put together a slightly dressier than normal outfit for the interview; in other words, it should be an outfit that you could wear to work on any given Tuesday, but with a little extra something to show the interviewer that you are taking this seriously.

We’ll get to that little extra something in a bit, but let’s start with this: how do you know what you would wear to work? Start by thinking about the dress code for the field at large. Law firms, for example, tend to be more conservative than, say, advertising agencies, although a small law firm may be more casual than a big firm. A bohemian print maxi skirt would be entirely inappropriate for an interview with a law firm (big or small) but perfect for the ad agency. Your interview outfit should show that you understand what is appropriate for this particular field — think of it as one more way of showing that you are qualified for the job.

If you’re interviewing in an entirely new-to-you field, talk to people who already do what you’re hoping to do. (I am assuming that if you’re looking for an encore career you have connections in that field; if not, you really need to make some, in order to know what you’re getting into, just in general.) Ask about what they wear to work, about what is and is not acceptable. Once you know that, get in your closet and start putting together outfits.

I’m a big advocate of wearing your existing wardrobe to a job interview. You don’t want to wind up buying a whole bunch of clothes that you will never wear again after the interview. I talk with people all the time who ran out and bought a suit (or three or four) to interview for teaching jobs — and then never wore those suits again. Save your money, or spend it shopping for clothes you can wear to work every day, not just the one or two days you’re interviewing.

Wearing pieces from your existing closet also gives you a psychological edge; pieces you are familiar with put you at ease in a way that new clothes may not. You know that a particular dress or skirt or sweater fits well and flatters you; you won’t have to worry about your bra showing or your skirt riding up. Shopping your closet also gives you the opportunity to model your interview outfit for a trustworthy friend, ideally someone who has both good fashion sense and a knowledge of the field in which you’re interviewing.

What if you really and truly do not have anything in your closet that is interview-worthy? If you’re a mom returning to work after a baby (or two or three or …), this may truly be the case; the combination of the physical changes of pregnancy and the life changes of being a SAHM can leave you with a closet of clothes that are better suited for the playground than the office. In that case, it’s time to go shopping.

(Hooray for shopping!)

If you’re shopping, look for pieces you will really wear; the goal is to wind up with clothes that will work for the job. Not sure what to buy? No matter what kind of job you’re looking for, you can’t go wrong with classic basics: tailored skirts and trousers, perfectly fitted sweaters, beautiful blouses. Choose pieces that reflect your personality — I would opt for cropped trousers, for example, rather than full-length, because that’s what I wear — but make sure that everything fits perfectly and flatters your figure. You want to look your best — not just on interview day, but every day. And if you shop right, your interview clothes will truly be pieces you can — and will — wear every day.

For the interview, though, you want to present a slightly dressier version of that every day look; think about adding a statement necklace or a really beautiful pair of shoes. If you’re interviewing for a teaching job, for example, you might opt for a skirt and blouse — but instead of the flats you would wear to stand in front of a class all day, choose some great heels. Opting for pragmatic clothes with dressier accessories shows that you are both prepared for the day-to-day of the office and taking this interview seriously.

Your turn: what’s your best interview dressing tip? Do you have a go-to outfit? Or have you interviewed someone recently and seen a look that really worked — or really didn’t?

Photo via J. Crew.

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7 comments so far...

  • I don’t know - I see where you are coming from, but I just think you can’t go wrong with a classic suit. Especially for an interview in an office setting. I just don’t see anyone ever commenting that someone is overdressed, whereas we have definitely commented on people who are underdresed (FYI - i work in HR!).

    ds  |  September 28th, 2011 at 11:57 am

  • In the particular case of K-12 teaching, I have to disagree. Daily dress for teachers is relatively casual, but wear a suit to an interview. It’s an expected convention in this field. And with teaching jobs so competitive, why would you give anybody else the edge? You may not wear it again until your next interview, but please, teachers: wear a suit.

    b.  |  September 28th, 2011 at 5:28 pm

  • Thanks, ladies — it’s good to hear from real experts! And you both make a good point: overdressed is always better than underdressed.

    Susan  |  September 29th, 2011 at 2:45 am

  • Oh no! My secret is out! Although, I guess it’s not a real secret if I talk about not wearing pants all the time.

    (For the record, I have pants on right now. In case you were concerned.)

    Kristen  |  September 29th, 2011 at 6:58 am

  • I’m a lawyer, so take this with a grain of salt, but I currently work in a VERY casual office environment (jeans and tee shirts OK, maybe we dress up a little from time to time) and what I wore to the interview? A suit. I’ve had a few other job interviews in casual offices, where the interviewer was wearing jeans, and I wore a suit. If I was wearing a “slightly dressier than normal version of what I would wear to work” I’d be underdressed, every time. I think every job hunter should pretty much invest in a basic suit (it doesn’t have to be a $500 suit.) and shop their closet for shoes and shirts.

    Kate  |  September 29th, 2011 at 12:38 pm

  • I am surprised to see all the dissenting comments. I agree with Susan. I work in a really traditional field where most people wear suits, and I’ve always interviewed in dressy separates, because that’s what I wear. A couple of years ago I bought an “interview suit” on sale, and kept it in my closet. But the morning of my next interview, I put it on and I didn’t feel like me. So I put it away and wore my normal work clothes. I got the job offer. Didn’t take the job. :)

    rb  |  October 6th, 2011 at 12:47 pm

  • But ladies, ladies, what do you wear in the summertime? It is hot as _____ here in PA this summer, and I have an interview next week. I can’t bear to put on my wool jacket (and I think they would think I was nuts anyway), so what’s a lady to wear?

    VIcki  |  July 12th, 2012 at 10:25 am