A Classy Suit Is a Perfect Fit for Any Interview

By Vickie Elmer
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 8, 2009

Jennifer McNulty recalls helping a recent college graduate prepare for a job interview on Capitol Hill. She thrust a suit and tie at him and told him: "This is not a frat party."

For an interview, put away that bright green outfit, no matter how much it reflects your personal style. Get out the basic dark blue, gray or black suit.

McNulty, head of the nonprofit group Dress for Success-Washington, couldn't think of a single employer or sector where a suit wouldn't be a good fit for someone seeking a new job. Even in the fashion field, you ought to wear a "very high-end, very fashionable suit -- still it's a suit, and it shows professionalism," she said.

"And the suit can often seal the deal," said McNulty, whose organization supplies professional clothing to women who are moving from welfare to work. "At Dress for Success, we call it a suit of armor."

Yet many job hunters want to express their personalities or look like the current staff, so they don't put on a corporate uniform before they head to the initial interview. Experts say that's a big mistake.

Even in a business-casual world, "it is always important to err on the side of formality," said Katherine Ponds, a Right Management vice president in charge of the Mid-Atlantic global transitions center.

For men, this means a suit, tie and well-polished shoes. The shirt need not necessarily be white, but it should be appropriate and fashionable, Ponds said. And the tie is essential -- even in the most casual technology firm. You don't want to presume that you are already "fitting in" to their culture before you've proven yourself and your competence, she said.

"Don't distract them from determining your competency," Ponds said.

Women should choose a dark blue or black suit, or in some cases a pants suit with a blouse -- the color depends on the office culture and on what works for the candidate.

If you're seeking an administrative role or a more junior position, you still need to exhibit professionalism, but a sports coat and tie or a less formal suit may suffice, Ponds said.

Ponds said a woman may carry an intriguing pen or wear a distinctive pin, especially if there's a story behind it -- perhaps it came from former staffers or was passed down through the family. "As long as it's tasteful," she added quickly. "When in doubt, err on the side of being conservative."

Some things are inappropriate for job interviews. Among them are blue jeans, short skirts and stiletto heels, dangling jewelry and fragrance. Also avoid suits that are too tight, ill-fitting or make you uneasy.

If you're not certain about an outfit, wear it to a networking event. Then you can discreetly ask a recruiter or a trusted friend for feedback on your look, including the suit, your haircut and that one simple pin on your lapel.

"You want a little taste of your style; you don't want to overdo it," said Margaret Lilly, owner of Lilly's Closet, a Washington personal stylist who works with individuals to mix their current clothes with some new items. She thinks a few vintage and ladylike items -- perhaps inspired by Michelle Obama's dresses -- could be incorporated in some interview attire.

She suggests women can go monochromatic but with a pop of color from a scarf, a belt worn over the jacket or an oversize necklace. Perhaps you'll pick out a vintage-inspired blouse with small polka dots, something subtle and not overwhelming.

"Your most trendy items, the really major fashion-forward items, you're going to leave at home," she said. "Definitely less is more."

If you want to show your personal style and creativity, shine in your work samples and your answers to the interviewer's questions.

And McNulty's final advice: Keep a simple clean interview suit in the closet. "Have it prepped. Have it ready. You never know when an opportunity will come up."

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