Lose the ‘frump factor,’ win the job
The right look can increase your confidence, show your personal style and make a lasting first impression.
By Joyann King
In a perfect world, we would all be judged on our inner beauty and the most qualified candidate would always get the gig. Unfortunately style, charisma, connections and the proverbial cool factor all play an influential role when considering job candidates. If you haven’t thought about your look since the ‘80s (or even within several years), chances are your go-to-interview look could use an update. You don’t want to dress too young for your age, but who doesn’t want to appear 10 years younger?
It’s true you spend hours revamping your resume , researching the company and practicing your selling points , but if your outward appearance does not reflect your energy and enthusiasm about the position, chances are someone else’s will. The right outfit can increase your confidence and make a lasting first impression.
The word “fashion” can be intimidating, but what you are really trying to do is update your personal style, not look like a runway model. If you like classic cuts and play-it-safe solids, then stick to what you are comfortable with; just focus on finding a modern cut and a flawless fit. Have a penchant for flair? Try wearing interesting shapes and statement accessories.
Below are my simple rules to ensure that whatever your personal style, your professional look is modern and memorable (in the good way!):
Women and Men:
1) Clothes have an expiration date.
Secretary blouses, pleated pants, mid-calf anything — if these items listed are in your work wardrobe rotation, chances are they weren’t a recent purchase. Unless it is a custom-made Armani suit, several years’ wear and tear alone are reason enough to lay clothes to rest. Take this chance to rid your professional wardrobe of anything more than five years old, except for a couple investment pieces that were made to last you a lifetime. This will ensure that you are rid of dated shapes and any fabrics that might not appear fresh.
2) Fit is a factor.
If it is too tight or too big you will not only feel uncomfortable but look it as well. Common problem areas are snug jacket arms that pull across the back, blouses that ripple across the chest, and pants that are too tight in the middle or sag in the seat. Rid your closet of those pieces you hope to fit back into one day and those baggier pieces that you have been “meaning” to take to the tailor. When shopping for replacement items, it is normal for most women to fall in between sizes. Rule of thumb: Size up and find an impeccable tailor to fit it to your body.
1) Choose shapes that flatter your body.
This tip seems obvious, but unfortunately we have been programmed to reach for certain silhouettes when it comes to dressing for a formal interview — pencil skirt and button down, check. The truth is these two cuts don’t look great on most women. Pencil skirts are unforgiving if you have even the slightest of hips, and button-downs are notorious for bulging open in all the wrong places. Instead, if you are curvy, opt for A-line skirts and dresses that provide a slimming effect on the lower body and scoop-necked shells that lay smooth under jackets. If you are petite, try a fitted sheath that falls just above the knee. It will highlight your feminine figure while elongating your legs.
2) Hose are a thing of the past.
Yes, you can start celebrating: Hosiery, at least any that is visible, is no longer a requirement for women in the workplace. They should be avoided altogether, except for women who want to smooth their legs. In that case, they should be very sheer and match your natural skin color. (No tan, please!) On the other hand, opaque tights are acceptable and encouraged during the winter months, when boots are the only suitable shoe option. They also look chic when worn with patent leather pumps. But unless you want to look like Rainbow Brite, stick to black tights, even when wearing neutral colors.
3) Shoes and bags are your style outlet.
It is a myth that an interview requires a basic black shoe and masculine briefcase. In fact, when keeping your clothes simple and chic, your shoes and bag are a great way to add sophistication and style. Have fun with oxford-inspired booties; patent-leather pumps; peep-toed Mary Janes; and tastefully colored totes and animal-skin satchels (faux if you prefer!) The only rules are no white shoes and no strappy sandals, ever.
4) Wear a dress.
While a skirt or pantsuit is always appropriate, so is a great dress and jacket. From simple sheaths to A-line styles, a dress is the most flattering silhouette a woman can wear. Stick to solid wovens, tweeds and delicate pinstripes. If you are more fashion-forward, try a cocoon shape, ‘60s shift or a ’50s-style dress with a fuller skirt and wide belt. Bonus: A dress takes the guesswork out of the what-blouse-to-wear dilemma.
5) Wear navy, black and gray — together.
Navy, black and gray should be the three staple colors of your professional wardrobe , with a few brightly colored accent pieces. These colors look great with everything and even better when worn together. Try a black tweed suit with a navy silk blouse for a sophisticated look. Wear a black fitted blazer with a navy shift dress and black patent belt for a fashion statement. Try a charcoal-gray chiffon dress with a navy cropped jacket if you prefer ultra-feminine pieces.
6) Add some flair.
The right belt or earring can make your otherwise boring and predictable outfit impressive and memorable. Wear a wide belt in patent leather or a skinny gold belt to accentuate your waist. Try delicate gold hoops instead of stuffy pearls to modernize your basic jewelry. Wear a necklace in gray beads or any soft color to highlight your neckline and create an air of sophistication.
7) Experiment with fabrics.
Rayon and polyester are not executive-worthy textiles. Fill your closet with lightweight tweeds, linen blends, silks blends and even boucle. Texture in a suit or dress can add a personal touch and keeps your look seasonal. In the winter opt for a tweed jacket over a black wool sheath, black opaque tights and patent-leather sling-backs. In the summer, a linen pencil skirt, crisp white blouse and neutral pointed-toe pumps look elegant and fresh.
8) Purchase a versatile go-to.
There is no need to purchase a whole wardrobe just to update your look. The key is working with a couple investment pieces to create a versatile, modern look. Invest in a black sheath that flatters your body type, a navy A-line skirt and a black tailored jacket with slimming bracelet sleeves. The black sheath will work with the jacket, alone with a statement belt, or with a crisp button-down or soft blouse layered underneath. The navy skirt can be paired with a printed blouse and jacket, crisp white shirt or a camisole and belted cardigan. Shop for solid basics in flattering silhouettes and make them work for you. In other words — wear them all the time!
1) Pleated pants add bulge.
If you think your pleated-front pants are slimming your spare tire, you are unfortunately mistaken. The excess fabric is only adding bulk to your midsection and causing you to look heavier than you are. Opt for a flat-front suit pant, and voila: ten pounds thinner.
2) Put your best shirt forward.
Your dress shirt is not a place to get creative. Save your style statement for a sharp-looking tie and a sophisticated watch. Avoid white contrast-collar shirts; gingham prints; fussy cufflinks; and, most importantly, short sleeves. Dress shirts in solids or small stripes in white, blue, ecru and gray are the most versatile investments.
3) Wear a power tie.
This term is not limited to solid red. Look for ties in blues, yellows, black and mauve, as they are the most versatile. Don’t be afraid of a small design or wide stripe; just make sure it is easy on the eyes and not political.
4) Give them a try — slim-fit suits.
“Slim fit” is a word that has been misconstrued. All that a slim-fit style suit refers to is streamlined tailoring. They cut the bulky (sometimes saggy) fabric out of the upper leg and the middle of a coat, and the lapels tend to be narrower. This causes the suit pants to hang more nicely through the leg, and you avoid a boxy-cut coat. Slim-fit suits are not just for the younger crowd, either; all the major suiting retailers are designing slim styles.
5) Love your tailor.
And listen to his advice. He has seen more than his fair share of suits in his day, so take heed. Fit is the most important factor when it comes to a suit. An expensive suit that doesn’t fit might as well be from the Goodwill bin. The same goes for a less expensive suit; if exquisitely tailored, no one will be the wiser. Confused about pant cuffs? The modern rule is a two-inch cuff or no cuff at all.
6) Your shoes, belt and briefcase matter.
These key accessories should not be the oldest things in your closet. For an updated briefcase, opt for an over-the-shoulder messenger-style in a rich leather. Wingtips are the go-to shoes if you want to look sharp; for a more relaxed look, try a penny loafer. Wear a belt with detail, whether in classic black skin or with a structured buckle. Your shoes, belt and briefcase don’t all have to be cut from the same leather; choose leathers that complement each other but have a slight variation in colors to avoid looking too “matchy-matchy.”
7) You look better in navy.
It is natural to lean toward investing in a black suit, but navy is proven to be a more universally flattering color. A dark-blue suit in a solid or delicate pinstripe is less harsh on most skin tones. Hate navy? Your second-best choice is charcoal.
8) Two-button coats slim you.
Trade your classic three-button for a leaner-looking two-button suit coat. They make you look slimmer through the stomach compared to the three-button style, which can cause rumples and rolls when buttoned.
9) Wear complementary colors.
Your suit, dress shirt and tie must all be in a palette of colors that work with each other. A navy suit worn with a gray shirt and yellow tie is not complementary. Some palettes to refer to when choosing your interview attire:
- gray, steel blue, mauve and white
- black, red, yellow, white and powder blue
- navy, French blue, lavender and ecru
10) Pay attention to details.
Avoid argyle socks and political tie clips. Tie clips should be solid metal with small design details, while socks are best in blue or black solids. Pocket squares in classic white are also a nice touch for a formal look.
Joyann King is a New York City-based fashion editor and stylist. Currently the Digital Director at Harper’s BAZAAR , Joyann oversees all digital initiatives for the magazine as well as online editorial content. Follow her on Twitter at @JoyannKing .