How to dress for the job interview: Advice from designers of Scandal and The Good Wife

On popular TV shows, the power players are always perfectly dressed for any occasion: no missing buttons, no scuffed shoes, no fraying hems. Did you ever wish you could ask those characters how to dress for your own interview or big day at work?

Well, we just did it for you.

Ladders asked the real-life costume designers behind those perfect prime-time outfits for advice on how to look sharp. Here’s what we learned.

Make A Strong First Impression

When Scandal’s main character, D.C. fixer Olivia Pope, enters any room, all eyes are on her. Confident, poised, and dressed to the nines, everything about Pope projects her status and power before she has to say anything.

It turns out that a TV show is a lot like an interview: it’s all about what people think when you first walk into the room. Clothes have the biggest impact. 

Scandal’s Costume Designer Lyn Paolo tells us that how a character is dressed is often “the first impression an audience perceives when a character enters their world.”

Nail down your message

Every piece of clothing says something about you. Make sure it’s saying the right thing.

To figure out what each character’s clothing conveys to the audience, Paolo asks several questions: “Who is this person? How can we reflect who this person is through clothing? How do we tell this person’s story by dressing in a particular way?”

These are all questions you can ask yourself as you prepare your own outfit for that job interview or presentation.

Where to start? Picture the room you’ll be in. Paolo often tells her private clients to “look at their work environment as a place to tell their own story.”

She asks them, “what kind of impression are you trying to give today? Or in a meeting? Or an interview?”

Paolo believes “these same techniques can work for all of us in our lives. When Olivia Pope walks into a room she strides in with confidence…her white costume makes her stand out in a room full of people in dark suiting.”

Before you choose your own power look, Paolo says “I think it is important to do your research, as I do for a show of film. If you know the kind of environment you are entering for your interview, then you will be well informed as to how you should dress. If you are going to interview at a social media startup, then casual will work —but if you are going to a conservative law firm, that will not do.”

Don’t just look at whether you’re coordinated and your clothes are clean. What message are you sending with a suit at that interview with a startup, or a cool hoodie or chic bomber jacket?

Think ahead

Not everyone loves shopping, and it can be tempting to grab the first thing off the rack that’s the right price. That may work for weekends, but work clothes require a plan. What you wear speaks volumes about the kind of professional you are, but do some research before you shop. As Paolo puts it, “that little bit of research goes a long way in making sure that you are confident during that first meeting.”

Go to a tailor

 Emmy-nominated costume designer Daniel Lawson is best known for his work on The Good Wife, where he dressed strong female characters including Alicia Florrick, known for her “well-tailored, classic suitings,” Diane Lockhart, “known for her accessories and statement necklaces and pendants,” and Kalinda Sharma, “known for leather jackets and boots.” Lawson created individual looks to reflect their personalities as well as their style, with a little something extra.

He told us, “they also wear clothing that has been tailored for them, which adds confidence and control.”

In case you’re wondering, perfect tailoring is attainable for everyone, regardless of size, shape, age or gender. Women’s clothes favor tailoring, and men can also have everything from suits to jeans to shirts tailored.

“Finding the right style for you that looks good on your body is important, and then having that clothing altered so it looks like it was made for you is key. Anyone can throw on clothes; looking great and well-tailored will set the average person apart from the rest of the pack,” Lawson says.

Make a clothes budget

Yes, tailoring costs money, and you should factor it into how much you decide to pay for work clothes. Lawson says to “set aside at least 25% to 35% of your clothing budget for alterations.  Your investment will pay you back ten-fold!”

Keep it Simple

Overdoing an outfit is the biggest mistake most people make when trying to create their own memorable interview or career wardrobe.  

Cameron Dale, costume designer for Pretty Little Liars, says “You want the interviewer to remember you, not your outfit. This is not the time to make a fashion statement.”

She references a character on the show,  Spencer Hastings, who “has the best professional workplace style and the easiest look to emulate.”

 “Spencer loves a great blazer, which is the easiest way to effortlessly bump up your job wardrobe game. A blazer works over a simple dress or a casual Friday look of t-shirt, jeans and [actress Troian Bellisario]’s favorite, a classic pump.

Spencer’s pulled together, muted color palette says she takes her job seriously. Her unfussy wardrobe of suits, dresses and blouses paired with crisp denim sends the message that she takes pride in her appearance but doesn’t waste her time keeping up with the latest trends.”

How to do that for yourself? Scan your outfit for simple clean lines, an understated look and muted colors. When in doubt, a blazer makes anything — including a t-shirt — look sharper.

Men can have a great work wardrobe too

It isn’t only women on TV who have fantastic style. Allyson Lewis, CEO of The Tie Barsays “when it comes to suited-up style one can’t help but think of Don Draper on Mad Men. Nobody does it better than Don. He was always dressed to the nines from head to toe, impeccably fit, and well within the boundaries of appropriate business wear. When a TV character gave life to an entire modern trend in menswear you know that he was doing something right. We give honorable mentions to Matt Bomer in White Collar and of course Chuck Bass from Gossip Girl: nobody makes a bowtie look cooler than Chuck Bass.”

That level of fashion may be too costly for most people: a good well-made suit can easily run upwards of $1,000, Lawson acknowledges. The upside: it will last for years and make you look sharp through all of them.

Accessories can make an old outfit look great

Another game-changer can be accessories: watches, cufflinks and socks for men, necklaces, earrings and a great bag for women. Accessories are so important that in some places, like Silicon Valley, even socks can signal that you belong in the room.

“Splurge on the suit that will last you for years, save on the accessories and regularly update with the latest trends of the season,” Lawson says.

For men, Lewis suggests playing around with ties, textured shirts or even cufflinks to keep up with trends and project your personality. 

That said, men can get a lot of mileage out of good shirts. “Never underestimate a crisp white button-up or tattersall checked shirt. They will pair with anything you have and truly are the perfect work essential.”