It can be difficult to decide what to wear to an interview at the best of times, let alone when you’ve been away from the work place for a while. The following tips are designed to make it an easier experience and to help you make the best impression.
Dress as though you already work there
When you meet the interviewer(s), you want them to see you immediately as someone who would fit in. What do you know about the brand? How formal/traditional is it? Is it a creative organisation, a charity, a start-up? What type of outfit would best reflect this?
If possible, go and look for yourself beforehand by loitering inconspicuously near the entrance to see what people are wearing as they come and go. Do you notice any kind of ‘uniform’ or a more diverse range of outfits? Is it an organisation that calls for conformity or encourages individuality? Some places have sub-cultures where, for example, the sales people might wear suits, and the creatives, casual clothes. Find out what you can about the department you’d be working in.
If the dress code looks to be very informal, eg jeans, err on the side of ‘smart casual’ such as a tailored pair of trousers with a top/jacket in a flattering shape and colour or a more creative dress.
|Massimo Dutti - see here|
I remember going for an interview at Channel 4 straight from my job at KPMG when I hadn’t had time to change. I felt incredibly conspicuous in my suit as I waited anxiously in Reception. I made a joke of this when I met the interviewer as I wanted to show that I understood that a culture change would be involved. Thankfully they looked beyond the corporate suit and I got the job!
Choose something that reflects you
Find some common ground between what sort of outfit would reflect the brand and what feels representative of you. For example, if you are interviewing with a traditional city firm, and yet your natural style is more contemporary, choose a tailored dress or suit with a more cutting edge style and team it with a statement necklace or a coloured bag. While you want to fit in, you want to retain a sense of who you are and be remembered for this.
|Finery - see here and Zara - see here|
If you usually live in jeans and jumpers, find a smarter outfit that still feels comfortable. There are lots of work clothes that fit this brief, eg tailored trousers in soft fabrics look great with a crisp shirt/soft silky top, gently structured jacket and brogues or loafers (flat or heeled).
|M & S - see here - Jigsaw - see here - Warehouse - see here|
Now is perhaps not the time to experiment with a whole new look that doesn’t feel like you.
I might be guilty of overusing the ‘contemporary’ word, but I think it’s particularly important in the context of returning to work after a break. Some ‘classic’ work clothes that we’ve kept may stand the test of time but, more often, some details (eg width of collar, shoulder padding) will make them look dated. If you like shopping, you’ll no doubt know what the current styles are; if not, have a browse online or ask a stylish friend for help.
While I would always opt for style over fashion, looking contemporary will influence how interviewers perceive you. Even though age discrimination is unlawful, we know it sometimes happens and we are often competing with younger candidates. Arguably, it shouldn’t matter, but wearing anything that looks dated or frumpy might affect how you’re viewed. That said, I would never advocate the ‘mutton dressed as lamb’ trap that we can fall into. My teenage daughters keep me firmly in check on that front! If you want to be taken seriously, avoid anything too frilly, flowery or girly.
Business dress has moved on with many alternatives to the suit, even in some of the more traditional companies/professions, eg. a tailored dress or trousers/skirt and a tailored top/sleeveless jacket.
|John Lewis - see here - Massimo Dutti - see here - H&M - see here - Massimo Dutti - see here|
A good coat option is a trench coat which looks great with formal and informal wear:
|Massimo Tutti - see here|
Don’t overdo the accessories
One statement piece, eg necklace, ring, oversized watch can look great but stick to one, maybe two, unless you’re looking to work in fashion/the creative industries where a more dramatic style might be embraced!
Choose colours that flatter
Make the most of colours that suit you so that you stand out from the sea of black that often dominates the work place. Your best colours will be those that match your natural characteristics on the following 3 scales: Deep or Light, Warm or Cool, Bright or Muted. So, if your natural colouring is Light, Cool and Muted (not much contrast between eyes, lips, hair, skin tone) consider greys and blues without much contrast between them, as opposed to black. Black tends only to suit those who have Deep, Cool and Bright characteristics. For the rest of us, it can drain us and cast unflattering shadows on our faces. Incorporating some of your best colours into your outfit, as close to your face as possible, will help you to stand out as well as look good.
Cool colours are considered to be more business-like (ie colours with more blue in than yellow) so, if you suit warmer colours, try to find warmer versions of, for example, navy and grey. Steer clear of browns.
Scarves can look fantastic and are a good way of introducing colour, but approach this look with caution. I went through a phase of wearing scarves to the office and was asked routinely by one of my male colleagues when the plane would be landing!
If you’re unsure about your best colours, consider having these identified as it will save a lot of time and money when shopping. You can edit a shop floor in minutes!
|Biba@ ouse of Fraser - see here - Ted Baker - see here - Jigsaw - see here|
Choose shapes that flatter
If you’re not confident about this, here are just a few of the many guidelines that might help:
- The curvier we are, the drapier the fabric we should wear. Trying to force curves into structured garments made from stiff fabrics is a challenge. You will look and feel uncomfortable. Choose clothes that are more fluid, but still smart.
|Winser @ John Lewis - see here and The Fold - see here|
- Choose trousers/skirts/dresses that skim the hips, thighs and bottom without clinging.
|Hobbs - see here|
- If your shoulders are narrower than your hips, try balancing this by adding more structure to the shoulders or wearing a wider neckline or collar.
- If you want to create the illusion of looking taller, vertical stripes (eg pinstripes, trouser creases, edge-to-edge jackets) will help. Same-colour trousers/tights/shoes will lengthen the leg. Anything that creates a horizontal line, eg a belt, strong contrast in colours, pockets, wide lapels, etc, will have a widening and shortening effect.
- Dress to suit your frame: smaller frames need lighter-weight fabrics, smaller patterns and accessories, while larger frames can take heavier fabrics, bolder patterns and larger accessories. If you’re petite, getting clothes tailored can make all the difference.
Give your outfit a test run by wearing it at home for a while to check that it’s comfortable, both when standing and sitting. Make sure that buttons on shirts/blouses don’t gape, skirts don’t ride up when you sit down. Check hems are in place, no loose buttons or marks/creases, etc. Choose shoes that are comfortable to walk in (or have some flats in your bag to change into). If you wear heels, the good news is that there are many styles currently in the shops that have block heels and will help keep you grounded.
|John Lewis - see here|
Hair, make-up and nails
Again, probably not the time to experiment with radical changes but a good haircut and some light make-up will help you look and feel confident. I hesitate to say this, as it seems obvious, but ensure your nails are clean and tidy. I’ve seen a few interviewees over the years turn up with dirty nails or chipped nail polish and these are invariably remarked upon after the event by the hiring manager. Rightly or wrongly, people will make assumptions about what this says about you.
Plan your outfit well in advance
Choose your outfit well in advance, including shoes, coat, bag, jewellery, nail polish if you’re going to wear it, the right coloured tights, etc, so you can then give your full attention to the most important aspect: mental preparation and avoid a last minute panic.
Where to Shop
Where to Shop
If you need to buy something new, and don’t know where to start, consider somewhere like John Lewis or House of Fraser where there’s a good range of styles and prices. Browse online before you shop, so you can be more focused when you get there. Other brands worth looking at include Zara, Massimo Dutti, Cos, Benetton, H&M, Whistles, Jigsaw, Hobbs, Finery, Pinstripe & Pearls, Reiss, M&S and Jaeger. For bigger budgets, or for inspiration, have a look at Boss, Adolfo Dominguez and The Fold (although not so much for petite frames.)
I always chuckle to myself when people describe clothes as an investment (who are we kidding?), but ‘cost per wear’ is a more truthful and useful gauge, so try to choose ‘building block’ garments that you think you’ll get plenty of wear out of to justify the cost.
If your budget is tight, have a look in places like TK Maxx and there are some great charity shops, especially if you go to the ones in smarter areas where you can pick up some good quality bargains. There’s also a fantastic charity called Smart Works which helps women to choose free outfits to help them get back to work.
Above all, spending some time choosing the right outfit will enable you to project yourself as confidently as possible. Making a favourable impression at the outset will give you an advantage.
Natalie Hunter is a Women Returners Coach and trained Colour/Style Consultant and offers these services separately, or together, for clients. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to find out more.
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