It used to be you pulled out your trusty black suit come interview time.
“Women have a lot more options than that classic pantsuit or skirt suit they were told to wear in the ‘80s and ‘90s,” says Jill Jacinto, a career expert at WORKS, a company that helps young women find jobs. That includes bright, tailored shift dresses, knit separates, and in some industries, fashionable trousers.
Credit that to a host of factors, including the influence of the Millennial generation with the mantra “you do you,” a general slackening of workplace attire, and third-wave feminism, which has told women it’s OK to indulge in fashion and beauty in the workplace.
But for women re-entering the workforce, cobbling together an appropriate, modern interview outfit in this kind of environment can be daunting.
The good news: It’s not as puzzling as you might think.
“Every industry has its own type of dress code, and then if you dig a little deeper you’ll see that each company has its own personality,” Jacinto says. “So before you do anything, look up the people you are about to interview with on LinkedIn and see what they’re wearing in their bio photos. Look up the company website; they may have photos of company events that can really give you an inside window into the type of culture that’s expected.”
The most important thing to remember, says Kellye Whitney, associate editorial director of Human Capital Media, is that no matter how casual the workplace has gotten, you still want to dress to impress.
“You shouldn’t give a recruiter or a potential employer any excuse to discount you,” she says. “People will notice if your clothes are wrinkled, if you need a lint brush—and they’ll comment on it.”
That’s especially true in more conservative industries like finance, where a perfectly pressed suit or modern shift dress is your best bet.
That said, “You don’t want to wear the same suit you wore to your last interview ten years ago,” Whitney says. “Even if your style is more conservative, you need to update it. Look at the fabric, the cut of the clothes, how it hangs on the body.”
It’s a good strategy for a job in law, too, where things aren’t necessarily more casual, but definitely have more flair than you might have encountered 10 years ago.
“You want to pull an outfit together that makes you already look the part, but also lets your personality and uniqueness shine through, so they’ll remember you,” Jacinto says. That means experimenting with color, even if it’s just with the choice of scarf or a statement cuff, or picking out a beautiful pair of pumps that adds some contrast to your more subdued shift and blazer.
“If you are really lost, see what other lawyers you admire are wearing in court or to the office,” she says. “Look at TV shows, though obviously you will want to tone that down a bit.”
Meanwhile, more creative workplaces—such as publishing, advertising, sales, or tech—have more leeway. Walk into a hip architecture firm or a fashion-design house in a tailored suit, and no matter how sharp it looks, you will probably be seen as too stuffy, particularly at a start-up, where many workers tend to wear jeans.
Still, you don’t want to appear too casual.
For interviews at more relaxed, start-uppy workplaces, “I would stick to dark pants—cigarette pants or straight-leg—with a heel, a blouse, and maybe a fun blazer and statement necklace,” Jacinto says.
But that doesn’t mean ignoring your signature style. “At the end of the day, you need to feel comfortable,” Whitney says. “Even if you are interviewing for a high-fashion job, you don’t want to go too avant garde, with random things poking you in the face.”
Back to Black
Yet if there’s one industry where a basic black suit may serve you well, it’s government, which tends to be impervious to anything too trendy.
“Pick one with a more modern cut—no shoulder pads, no boxy jacket—and pair it with a bright shirt underneath,” Jacinto says. “You’ll see that it really helps you stand out.”
And while you don’t want to ditch the accessories (a delicate strand of pearls or understated necklace are a nice touch), Whitney says a little goes a long way.
“I would recommend discreet earrings,” she says. “They don’t have to be invisible, maybe a pair of big pink pearls.”
The nonprofit sector also gravitates to sedate styles—particularly more established organizations like the American Red Cross or the Salvation Army, which want employees to reflect the virtuous work that they do.
In this case, a black column may be too severe. Opt instead for a tweedy shift or separates instead of a full-on power ensemble; just make sure hemlines stay G-rated, and avoid anything with a low neckline or that’s too tight. But, make sure you Google first. For example, if it’s an art nonprofit, you’ll probably want to go a little edgier.
In the end, Jacinto says, “Offices are really tribal, and you want to make sure you fit in with their tribe.”
For more guidance, connect with one of our career coaches.
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