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Dressing for a Job Interview: What “Professional” Looks Like

Dressing for a job interview

When it comes to what to wear to a job interview, is it better to blend in or stand out? Is it smarter to spend big bucks on one item or budget your way through to have more options?

Wardrobe consultant and personal stylist Lisa Barry offers services like image consulting, closet editing, and personal shopping through her Madison, WI-based business Lisa Barry Styling.

We asked her for tips on dressing for a successful job interview.

Your business offers personal styling to “everyday people.” Why is a personalized image important for people who are not, say, in the public eye?

A first impression is made within seconds of meeting someone. That impression comes mostly from your appearance and is lasting according to statistics. It is much easier to make a good first impression than to change that impression.

One of the first questions I ask my clients is “What do you want someone to think about you when they first meet you?” How someone initially perceives you will make the difference as to whether or not you get the job, the new client…or the first date for that matter.

One of the services listed on your website is “corporate styling.” Why is this important?

The corporate culture and image is not only reflected by the company itself, but also by the actions and appearance of its team. Corporations need to be aware of what their frontline team is saying about them…not just verbally, but from their appearance as well.

Are there certain general visual cues that are sure to say “professional”—specific colors, for example, or patterns or fabrics?

Darker colors read as more professional…think black, navy, and charcoal gray. Stick to either solid or subtle plaid or stripe prints in a suit. Taking a suit to a tailor will assure it is well fitted. Also always making sure your attire is clean, pressed, and lint-free will make even a less expensive suit appear more expensive.

As someone who focuses on personal style, what do you think of the general maxim that, if unsure whether or not something is appropriate for a job interview, err on “conservative and overdressed” versus a more individualized style statement?

Always err on the conservative side. If you look in the mirror and wonder if your look is appropriate, it probably isn’t. You can show your personal style subtly through accessories…a slightly edgy piece of jewelry or your favorite color or print in your shirt or tie.

This will depend on the company as well. Are you applying for a position at a law firm or a magazine? The company and position will determine how creative you can be with your attire. I always recommend a candidate for any position research the company. You want your interviewer to picture you fitting in with the company and the position.

If I’m on a limited budget for my interview wardrobe, do you recommend I invest in one large item (say, a suit jacket or dress) or in high-quality details (tie, socks, shoes, accessories)?

I would recommend everyone have a professional suit in their wardrobe. An investment suit will be in your wardrobe for years to come. Think classic silhouette: single breasted, 2-button jacket with flat trousers or a classic skirt. When you invest in a higher quality suit, the tailoring and fabrics will be much nicer and will wear much better and make for a more professional appearance. You will be able to break apart the suit and wear the trousers or skirt and jacket separately as well for more versatility. Note: Be sure to dry clean both pieces together even though you may find yourself wearing one more than the other.

Don’t skimp on shoes either. Buy leather shoes or vegan alternatives. When you invest in a more expensive pair of shoes, you will have them for years to come with proper maintenance. Find a good shoe repair place to keep them in good condition along with cleaning and polishing between visits.

You can find less expensive accessories you can change more often to make your suit feel fresh and modern.