Knowing exactly what to wear for an interview can be a real conundrum, especially when the company you are applying to has a mix of formal and informal dress codes. A front-of-house role may require wearing a more formal suit to work each day, so an interviewer may expect to see this reflected in your choice of an interview outfit.
But what if the position you are applying for will see you buried deep in the back office of the IT department? Smart but casual may be better for an interview of this sort.
Ultimately, you have three styles to decide between:
- Business formal
- Business casual
- Smart casual
The tips below should help you make the right call!
What to Wear to an Interview: 5 Quick Tips to Help You Decide
Do Your Research First
As the popular lore tells, you should always dress for your job interview as if you already have the job. Thus, it can be helpful to do a bit of research before your interview on the company dress code.
First of all, the type of organization that you are applying to will already tell you a lot about the likely dress code. For instance, you’d be better off wearing corporate classic attire (formal suite, neutral shirt, tie) if you are applying to a law firm. Or if you are interviewing at a creative advertising agency, wearing business casual or a fully casual creative outfit will be more appropriate.
To get a better sense of what may work, browse staff pictures on social media or corporate website. These days many workplaces have relaxed dress codes where everyone is seen wearing shorts and t-shirts to work. This can often make an interviewee feel uncomfortable when they wear a smart suit for an interview, but find that the employer is dressed far more casually. You want to create a good first impression, but you also want to project the image that you would fit in well with the workplace culture and be seen as ‘one of the guys’.
Alternatively, can go past the employer building at the beginning or end of the day as the workers arrive or leave. This will give you an idea about what is acceptable and then aiming a little bit higher for your interview outfit.
Assess the Role You are After
The higher you aim – the more “dressed” you should be. Most senior-level positions will assume a higher degree of formality. On the other hand, coming overdressed for a lower-level position can also create the wrong impression.
As one HRs recounts, a man applying for a position as a meat slicer at a deli came to the interview wearing a three-piece suit, a new tie, and a snazzy pair of shoes. The deli owner immediately contacted the recruiter saying that “he did not think this person was willing to get his hands dirty in the job.”
When In Doubt, Go With a Suite
A suit is the most universal business professional attire that’s almost always appropriate. In fact, a recent survey by Randstad US states that even though most workplaces now have casual dress codes, 65% of employees still think it’s important to suit up for the job interview. HRs agree too with 33% saying that candidates should always wear a business formal suit to a job interview.
But 37% also strengthened that the interview outfit choice should correlate with the position/department the person is applying to, plus the industry they work in. For instance, formal suits are preferred by 44% of HRs in finance, insurance, and real estate industries. However, only 23% of managers expect retail candidates to show up in one. All of this brings us to point one – always do your research!
Work from Backwards: What Not to Wear to an Interview
While most offices today are pretty lax and informal, allowing the folks to dress the way they like, there are still some big universal no-nos when it comes to your interview attire. The same Randstad survey indicates:
- 76% of respondents name ripped jeans inappropriate as workwear.
- 56% think the same about leggings.
- 55% name high heels (over three inches high) as unprofessional.
- 40% have the same feeling about open-toed shoes of any type.
In addition to that, you should avoid:
- Flashy jewelry and designer logos unless you want the interviewer to involuntary to obsess over these.
- Loud, busy prints. Just as logos, big patterns can steal the spotlight from you.
- Non-seasonal clothing – a fluffy sweater in mid-summer makes the other person question your choices.
- Poorly fitted clothes that are either too tight or too loose since these make you look sloppier and unprofessional.
- Anything wrinkled for the same reason as above.
- Anything revealing as this will likely make the opposite party feel uncomfortable, plus send the wrong message about you.
Ask About The Dress Code In Advance
Lastly, if you cannot find enough information to guide you then it wouldn’t seem impolite to ask. You will need to confirm your invitation for the interview anyway, so add a quick note about the attire. Your question can go like this:
Just wanted to confirm the interview on Thursday, February 9th at 1:00 pm. I’d be promptly on time, waiting for you in the lobby as you’ve previously noted.
Could you also please advise me on the appropriate dress code at your company?
Thank you very much in advance.
What to Wear to an Interview: Men Edition
Once you’ve decided whether you want to go business formal, business casual, or smart casual, your further choice boils down to the details.
Suit: For the guys, it is more traditional to go for dark and sober shades such as black, navy blue, or dark grey. While suits never really go out of fashion, it would help to choose a smart suit in a muted shade. Rock stars and celebrities may be able to get away with wearing shiny suits made from a material that could coat a frying pan, but you certainly should never wear one for a job interview!
Cotton material is preferable as linen tends to crease too easily leading you to look overly crumpled for your interview. During colder weather, opt for a wool/tweed suit and wear a formal coat over it or a warmer neutral colored sweater beneath.
Shirt and tie: Again, opt for neutral colors – white, blue, beige, brown – that complement your complexion well. If your sense of fashion is limited, choose a plain shirt or one with small, non-busy patterns.
The same goes for the tie. Your tie should complement your whole outfit, not stand out from it. So try to avoid distracting the interviewer by wearing a garish, bright tie. Also, if you are going with business casual, it’s OK to drop a tie unless you are aiming at the highest degree of formality.
Shoes: Yours should be dark, plain, and polished. Nothing creates a bad impression like a scuffed and tatty looking pair of shoes – no matter how smart your suit is!
Belt and socks: Match it to the color of your shoes. Same for socks – avoid flashy colorful patterns unless they are an integral part of your creative smart casual outfit. But remember: not everyone can successfully pull off a Justin Trudeau!
What to Wear to an Interview: Women Edition
Gals have more options! First, of all, you have a choice of wearing a skirt or trousers for a job formal interview. As a general rule, the skirt hemline shouldn’t be too short. Most skirt suits you can buy off the peg tend to have the skirt cut to about 2 inches above the knee, but you can buy suits with longer skirt lengths too.
Trousers should be well-fitted, but not too tight. Also, choose your pantyhose and lingerie carefully to avoid any awkward lines.
Suit or Jacket. If you want to get dressed in business formal style, opt for a conservative suit/jacket in dark colors – black, grey, navy, or dark brown. Depending on the season, it is perfectly acceptable to wear a lighter shade of suit, especially during the spring or summer.
Avoid cheap synthetic materials as these typically don’t fit well, plus have an awkward shine. Cotton, wool, and tweed mixes typically work best.
For formal interviews, it is wise to keep suits plain, but you can add a dash of interest with a patterned scarf or elegant jewelry piece.
If you opt for a business casual or smart casual look, you can replace the jacket with a cardigan, paired with a skirt, pants, or a business dress. Again, opt for something neutrally colored without many adornments. Also avoid wearing those huge, wooly, and fluffy cardigans even if the weather’s chilly.
Shirt or top. For formal interviews, choose a neutral colored button-up that doesn’t reveal any cleavage. Silk blouses will certainly look more elegant, but they wrinkle a lot, so make sure yours is freshly pressed. Otherwise, opt for a standard cotton shirt or top.
Turtlenecks and pullover sweaters in neutral colors are a good alternative for colder weather. Again, make sure that you choose a well-fitted garment without any bright patterns or “pills”.
Shoes should also be kept at a sensible heel height and be quite regular in design. Avoid stacked heels and bejeweled toes – leave those for a night out with the girls. Flats are alight for a business casual/smart casual outfit.
Accessories. Opt for dainty jewelry, instead of bling pieces. Consider removing ring/bracelet stacks unless they are part of your ‘signature’ creative style that works well with the rest of your outfit.
Bring a professional leather purse or briefcase to stack all the tidbits you need to bring for the job interview. Ideally, it’s best to avoid anything with flash logos unless you are certain that your statement bag will convey an extra ‘power’ message to the recruiter.
Plan your interview outfit the day ahead and make sure that all your items are clean, well-ironed, and looking good together.
If you are still in doubt after giving your interview outfit that final check, take it one step further on the formal side. It’s always best to appear one notch above the people you are interviewing with than a tad underdressed for the occasion!
This article has been originally published on September 28, 2016 and has been extensively revised and updated on January 7, 2021.