February 2, 2010

Dress to Impress: Mastering Interview Wear

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It’s the spring semester, so if you’re a senior and you aren’t freaking out about next year… I’m impressed. Seriously though, seniors and all other years alike, spring semester is the time when we prepare for what comes next — jobs, graduate school, summer internships, TA-ships for the fall and so on. Some people, believe it or not, already have their jobs with Google squared away; for the rest of us mere mortals, there’s still a lot of grunt work to be done. After the application rigmarole, there is, we all hope, the interview — (dunh, dunh, dunh…) And so we come to today’s topic: What the f*** am I supposed to wear?!

As Courtney Jiyun Song, my fellow fashion columnist, pointed out last semester, it’s damn hard to figure out what to wear, and even harder to feel convinced that you made the right choice once you’re on site. This topic was a matter of rather dire personal importance last Tuesday around midnight when I was trying to pack for a graduate school interview, and was pretty sure I had nothing that was right. (This, I believe is almost physically impossible, given the sheer amount of clothing I possess — and my penchant for skirts.) Don’t worry, everything turned out just fine, but I wanted to pass my thoughts along for the general good.

Having to travel for an interview makes things a smidge more complicated, but we’re going to ignore that wrinkle for now (we might tackle the packing monster later in the semester). We’re also going to use the word ‘job’ just for ease. Here is the basic question used to think about dressing for an interview: What is the purpose of an interview? To see how you would fit in that place, in that job. This includes the skills they are assessing — both in the subject and personally. That is, they are trying to see if you are interesting, intelligent, and well-suited to the task. One of the elements they will evaluate you on, and one that you can automatically make an impression with, is your clothing.

It very much matters what area you are going into — artsy, business, not-for-profit, student-hood; basically you should be wearing what you would be wearing if you were already working there. So look into what kind of company it is, see if they have any prescribed interview wear, etc. The Cornell Career Services “Career Guide” has a pretty good overview of attire and grooming, with a few different scenarios outlined. As they say, big corporations tend to require more formal, conservative wear, and smaller businesses, not-for-profits, and the creative arenas, tend to be a little less so.

Another factor is location/activity. Will there be social aspects of the interview, such as a dinner, or might there be some hands-on work that you need to be capable of performing? Is there a day you might need to be in several different situations and might need a change of clothes on your person? How will you carry them? Remember that even at a dinner, a cocktail party, or whatever else the interviewers may have set up for you, you are still absolutely on the clock. This is true of what you are wearing, how you act, and what you say; I have heard stories of people who blew their interview at an “informal” dinner. Girls, make sure you are not wearing what you wore to Johnny O’s last weekend (do people really go there, by the way? It seems like it exists merely to serve as a rhetorical device…), boys, make sure you are not wearing what you wore to Johnny O’s last weekend.

Then there is the matter of displaying common sense and responsibility: what is the weather like? For example ladies, if it is below 50 degrees, there is no way you could possibly come off as intelligent in bare legs. Ditto open toed-shoes, high heels with no traction, and no overcoat. If you feel absolutely compelled to wear heels, you need to be able to walk in them very well and neatly — walking is, after all, a basic pre-requisite for most endeavors. If it is snowing or raining, consider wearing boots and changing before the interview. For everyone, winter dressing is difficult, especially in terms of keeping pants clean and free of salt and snow splashes.

Men, if it’s possible, it might be smart to wear a different pair of pants and change before your interview, or at least make sure you have wiped off the sludge that’s halfway up the calf of your suit pants. Wear a good coat, scarf, gloves; carry an umbrella if it’s raining — it does not speak well of your intelligence if you end up soaking wet or sneezing your head off. (If you are sick during an interview, make sure you have Kleenex or a handkerchief and use them; do not sniff the whole time, please).

You do want to be memorable and distinctive; if you are just another person in a terribly cut black synthetic suit, you’re not going to make a big impression, and that’s the truth. On the other end of the scale of “memorable” of course, is landing yourself on the front of Perez Hilton, so moderation is, as always, the key. Let’s say our basic template is a well-cut, grey or navy, wool suit (check out J. Crew, Banana Republic, even Target, for affordable but good quality suiting). Small details and embellishments will show you are attentive to detail, plan in advance, and also able to think about the big picture. For men, a sharp shirt-tie combination is killer; try muted complementary or near-complementary colors from the color wheel, like a light yellow shirt with a tie in a subtly patterned light purple. Or a classic light to medium blue shirt with a tie in a salmon or peach hue. Another way to go is a good shirt pattern: pinstripe or very light box checks.

For women, separates are a lot more acceptable, as are patterned or textured fabrics. I highly encourage you to try out a men’s patterned skirt like herringbone, tweed, pinstripe, houndstooth, and pair it with a feminine blouse and a solid color cardigan or jacket. If you strongly feel a two-piece suit is appropriate, try a patterned blouse or scarf in a cheery but not blinding color palette. Go easy on the makeup but do your best to look neat and full of joie de vivre.

I have run out of time today (here’s an extra tip for you: don’t ramble when answering a question) but I hope this is a helpful rubric to relieve a little of the panic I felt last week, and get you on your way to an interview outfit you can rock their socks in.

Original Author: Alex Harlig