dress to impress: what should you wear to a job interview?

Nowhere is change more pervasive than in the world of work. How you present yourself in a job interview is a moving target. It’s pretty safe to say what you’d wear to an interview with a bank may not be the same attire you’d select when interviewing at the foosball table at a new startup where everyone’s under 30. That said, regardless of where you’re interviewing or working, you only get one chance to make a good first impression. Opinions are being made of you within the first few seconds of the interview, before you’ve even uttered a word.

If you’ve been invited to interview in person as a result of a successful phone interview, you may have taken advantage of the opportunity to ask about the company culture, the dress code, how formal or informal the atmosphere, etc. Or you may have been so focused on answering the questions and remembering exactly what you said in your cover letter over the pounding of your heart that you forgot to ask or feel the phone call didn’t lend itself to asking. When in doubt, business professional attire is always a safe choice, but here are some other guidelines to follow if you’re unsure.

dress to impress interview dress code tips

stick with the classics

Fashions, fads and trends come and go but style remains. Find something that works for you and that you feel comfortable and confident in; make it your template for what to wear when you interview. You can style it up or make it more casual but it remains essentially consistent. Besides empowering you, it takes the worry out of one important element of interview preparation so you can focus on other important things.

neutrals are your friend

A classic suit in a neutral colour such a black, grey or navy never goes out of style. Of course, if you’re still sporting large shoulder pads or a wide lapel, it’s probably time for a new suit. Avoid loud or flashy patterns or checks. Buy the best suit you can afford in the most neutral and classic fabric. The better the material, the longer it’ll hold up. Avoid linen, no matter how much you love it and how warm the weather. Opt for a light wool in summer; linen wrinkles like crazy – it’s part of its charm in the tropics but probably not the right choice for a job interview.

accent your neutrals

If you’re feeling a little forgettable in your neutrals, it’s safe to add a little splash of colour and showcase your personality with a light pattern on your shirt, tie or scarf. Speaking of ties, keep it somewhat consistent with your shirt. Avoid crazy motifs that feature Darth Vader or your favourite cartoon characters. You can break out your funky wardrobe once you’ve got the job. For men, ideally you’d match your socks to your tie; however, in a Justin Trudeau world, pretty much anything goes. Though, let’s face it, it’s pretty unlikely the pattern on your socks will make or break a job interview.

avoid being too informal

No one ever got kicked out of an interview for being too formal (don’t quote me, I’m assuming.) Even if you know for sure the dress code allows jeans, it’s usually best to avoid them in a job interview. Same goes for running shoes, t-shirts, yoga pants – anything that’s a little too casual. Even though it may be normal attire for the office, remember that you’re putting your best foot forward and showing that you take this workplace and opportunity seriously. Unless you’re expressly told by your interviewer to wear jeans for the interview, stick to a business professional look.

to pant or to skirt?

The days where women are expected to wear a dress or skirt in the workplace are long gone. Women should feel free to select suit pants or a skirt, depending on which they’re most comfortable in. If you opt for a skirt, keep it around knee-length or longer to be safe. Avoid anything shorter or you’ll be focused on hoping nothing – or no one – is peeking. Play it safe and your attention will be free to answer interview questions like a pro, rather than focused on constantly tugging down your hemline.

looking for a change of pace in your career?

search job opportunities

khakis or slacks?

For men, khakis and a nice button-down are occasionally an acceptable substitute for a suit, if the role you’re interviewing for is more informal. Think: work in hands-on fields such as skilled trades, construction, or manufacturing where a suit would stick out like a sore thumb. However, if you’re unsure where the line is, opt for the more formal option as you’ll come across as someone who cares about making a good impression and being professional, even if the role itself is less formal. It’s also completely fine to shoot your interviewer a quick email to ask if there’s a dress code you should follow.

wear nice shoes

Ratty shoes can quickly ruin an otherwise pulled together, professional outfit. In fact, it’s an old ‘trick’ for interviewers to judge a candidate’s professionalism. Nothing says I'm desperate for a job louder than holes in your soles. Also, keep your towering 6-inch stilettos for weekends when you’re out with friends. Opt for a height that you can stand and walk in comfortably. If you’re teetering precariously from step to step, it isn’t a great look. You’re going for stylish but professional footwear. And yes, flats are completely fine for women. For men, loafers or anything that aren’t sandals or running shoes are fine. As a general rule, also stay away from anything with an open toe.

try on the outfit the night before

You don’t want to find out the morning of your interview that there’s a rip in the pants you were planning to wear. Scrambling to replace your outfit is an unnecessary stress when you should be focused on interview prep. Do yourself a favour and try on your outfit and accessories the day before the interview. Check yourself out in a full-length mirror, front and back. Make sure everything fits properly, looks professional, and that it’s all clean and in good repair. Do you feel powerful and that you’re presenting your best self? Can you move comfortably or does anything restrict your movement?

pay attention to your personal grooming

Make sure your personal grooming matches the care you’re taking with your outfit. Shower the night or morning before your interview. Brush your hair and teeth. If you’re wearing makeup, neutrals are a safe bet. Today is not the day to try out a cutting-edge new trend or flashy blue eyeshadow up to your eyebrows. If you have coffee or lunch before your interview, carry some gum or a breath mint to ensure you don’t have distracting dragon breath that’ll render your message secondary.

keep your accessories simple

Keep it simple. This is not the occasion to don Flavor Flav-esque necklaces that make a bold statement. Also, avoid knuckle-duster rings or excessive hand jewellery that will make shaking your hand a precarious task. Same goes for chandelier earrings or bangles that sound like Santa’s reindeer – you want the interviewer’s focus to be on you, not your musical jewellery. Keep your jewellery to a minimum and opt for classic simplicity.

Taking pains with how you look tells people you take pride in your appearance, that you value yourself and are ready to share your value with the organization smart enough to hire you. It tells your interviewer that you take this interview seriously and value your time as well as theirs. What you wear and how you present yourself in an interview are part of your marketing strategy for successful employment. Organizations establish departments and assign huge budgets to buildand nurture their brand; doesn’t it make sense for you to spend time and effort doing the same?

looking for more tips to pass your next job interview with flying colours? subscribe to our career tips newsletter.

sign up now

Taking pains with how you look tells people you take pride in your appearance, that you value yourself and are ready to share your value with the organization smart enough to hire you. It tells your interviewer that you take this interview seriously and value your time as well as theirs. What you wear and how you present yourself in an interview are part of your marketing strategy for successful employment. Organizations establish departments and assign huge budgets to build and nurture their brand; doesn’t it make sense for you to spend time and effort doing the same?