Breaking the Rules of Interview Dress Code
There are some tried and true rules when it comes to dressing for interviews, and while this advice (and your well-tailored black suit) will never go out of style, sometimes it is acceptable to stray from the norm and customize your outfit. To spare you from looking a fool, we tapped our sources in an array of industries to find out what they had to say on the topic. Here's what we found:
Be remembered. While you'll certainly offend no one by wearing a mild-mannered suit, it's also true that you're not likely to make a distinctive impression on your interviewer with such a conservative costume. Consider the case of Pam, who felt her previous career as an insurance defense attorney put her at a disadvantage as a candidate for a creative position at a startup publishing house. "In order to prove that I wasn't square," says Pam, "I wore purple Hush Puppies to my interview. They were a great icebreaker and a huge hit. They're now a part of company lore and even made it into the summer barbecue trivia contest."
Be creative. Depending on what kind of position you're seeking, the industry you're searching in, and the personality statement you want to make, you'll have to decide how to best express yourself through your clothes.
Melissa Weiss, director of human resources for an Internet startup who has seven years of experience as a recruiter in the telecommunications and advertising industries, declares that "the day of the standard navy blue suit is over," and insists that black is a more contemporary choice. For those looking on the creative side of advertising, she suggests something more stylish, perhaps "a snappy pantsuit—you're advertising yourself and you aim to be remembered."
Amy, a recent college grad and an assistant to a literary agent, advises: "If you're looking for something in the entertainment industry (publishing, film, arts, design, and more liberal PR and advertising agencies), then you should really assert a little of your individuality lest you look like a fool. Just make sure that it's your most presentable self, and not your lounging-about-the-house self."
Be single-breasted. Rahul, an associate at an investment bank in New York City, aced his interviews in a double-breasted suit with a light blue shirt and dark green tie. However, if he had to do it all over again, he'd opt for a single-breasted suit, because "they generally look better, especially since you end up sitting down and therefore unbuttoning the jacket to feel comfortable. They're easier to unbutton." He'd also wear a "louder color shirt just to look different." He's pretty sure he could get away with that because, according to him, he "exudes confidence."
Be yourself. In interviews, as with any audition, the objective is to put your best foot forward. Canned as it may seem, when the emphasis in that bit of advice is shifted from the word "best" to the word "your," the meaning changes entirely. If you feel completely uncomfortable in your interview garb, it might be time to reconsider whether you really fit the job profile.
Take it from Jen, a marketing consultant whose "skin bristles at the touch of gabardine." She grudgingly wore "an expensive designer suit that I despised, as I despise all suits" to her first interview at her present company. "I wanted to look professional and mature. I was just out of college, so looking older was a big concern," she recalls, "but I felt totally uncomfortable the whole time." Jen, attracted to the job because it was advertised as a "creative" business position, reports: "Now I'm stuck with a job I pretty much hate that requires me to wear suits all the time. I guess that's what I get for masquerading as someone I'd rather not be."
When in doubt, it's better to err on the formal rather than on the casual side of dress. In general, you want to wear the best that you can afford and be impeccably turned-out, showcasing your natural attention to detail. Save your perfume and cologne for dates, but don't leave home without deodorant. If this is too much to remember, at a minimum, recruiters say kempt hair and clean hands are absolutely requisite. (You'll thank us for this when your interviewer reaches out to consummate your job offer with a firm handshake.)