The world of work has changed immeasurably from when your dad was a lad. Back then, there was only one option for a job interview: a dark suit, white shirt and sensible tie. Shoes gleaming, hair combed, handshake practised. If he got the gig then he might introduce a few new shades of shirt, maybe a tie with a pattern. But officewear was, by and large, immutable. You wore what your boss wore. Your boss wore what his boss had worn. Repeat to fade.
Then the workplace exploded. Start-ups. Flexitime. Hot desking. All extremely mutable. The world’s wealthiest men took to wearing chinos, or jeans and hoodies. If you wanted to be like them, were you supposed to dress like them? If you wanted to present yourself as a go-getting, entrepreneurial sort, was this the new job interview aesthetic?
Well, no. The Mark Zuckerberg look is best accessorised with a billion-odd dollars. But also, yes. Roll into your tech interview in a charcoal three-piece and they’ll assume you’re there to discuss their corporate insurance. “You’re dressing to give a good impression to the interviewer and show that you would fit in well with the company,” says Sarah Gilfillan, founder of personal styling service Sartoria Lab. Which means your clothes need to fit their company culture.
To help you make sense of the new world of work, we spoke to some of the country’s finest image consultants, to get their read on what works where. So whether you’re interviewing at Goldman Sachs or Gold’s Gym, you’ll be dressed the part.
The Corporate Job Interview
Even the City has relaxed its dress codes somewhat over the last decade. But if you’re interviewing for a job with responsibility, you won’t get points for wardrobe creativity. “This is not the time to try a new look or mess around with convention,” says style consultant Penny Bennett. Keep it safe and nail the details. You’re going for ‘safe pair of hands’, not ‘fly-by-night maverick’.
Number one: wear a suit. Or don’t turn up at all. In the hierarchical corporate world, you should never be less smart than the person on the other side of the table. “Dressing casually just doesn’t show respect for the person interviewing you,” says personal stylist Daniel Johnson, “the person who can potentially change the course of your career.”
But that doesn’t mean you need to overdo it. Smart is not the same as flashy; if your watch is worth more than your interviewer’s car, you could come across as a playboy. For your tailoring, stick to safe colours like charcoal and navy and avoid anything more than the subtlest of patterns. Keep your accessories equally muted; think striped or block-colour ties and, if you must wear a pocket square, white beats polka dots. Once you get the job you can add more personality, but at the first hurdle you don’t want your clothes to distract from your CV. Look at how the contestants on The Apprentice dress, then do the opposite.
More important than what you wear is how you wear it. “Always go for the best materials you can afford,” says Bennett. A grey, cashmere-blend suit speaks louder – and says better things – than polyester checks. Fit is equally important. Designers may have reinvented the boxy suit, but to the uninitiated, you’ll look like you’ve got it wrong. A safe centre ground is best: not spray-on, not baggy. Pay particular attention to cuffs and trouser hems; the former should hit the heel of your thumb, the latter should have a slight break on your shoes. “It’s an easy fix and will make a huge difference to how your outfit looks,” says Gilfillan.
Finally, shoes. “There is no point getting a bespoke suit made and teaming it with scuffed and worn shoes,” says Bennett. “In 2012, researchers at the University of Kansas found we can glean 90 per cent of someone’s personality just by looking at their shoes, including character traits, salary and political inclinations. So invest in appropriate shoes that show you are dependable and indispensable.” Think dark colours, premium materials, leather rather than rubber soles, and laces, not buckles.
The Fail-Safe Outfit
“You can’t go wrong in a navy suit with a white shirt and burgundy tie,” says Gilfillan. “It’s an ultra-classic shirt and tie combination for formal attire. The high contrast between the navy and white makes you look sharp and authoritative.”
Pay particular attention to your shoes. Brogues are too casual, so stick to Oxfords. “Wear oxblood, chocolate or black shoes. Avoid tan, which will look too casual.” And please, make sure they’re polished.
The Professional Job Interview
Welcome to the prototypical British office, home to understocked kitchens, overstocked personal politics and a dress code that’s slowly inching from not-quite-corporate to business casual. Quite what business casual means is anyone’s guess. “But don’t go too casual as it shows a lack of respect and looks like the interview is not important to you,” says Gilfillan. “If you’re not sure, err on the side of smarter.”
Appropriateness is in the eye of the beholder. It doesn’t matter what you deem workplace acceptable, you need to meet the standards of the person asking the questions. To figure it out, grab your phone.
“One great trick that I like to use is to do a hashtag search on Instagram and search the place I’m going to,” says Johnson. “You’ll get a real, candid view of what other people are wearing and you’d be surprised at how many people post things at work.” The company’s website should also offer an idealised version of how they expect their staff to dress, and stalking employees on LinkedIn can also offer clues (bonus: they’ll see your activity and you’ll seem keen). To be on the safe side, make your outfit a notch smarter than what your hopefully-future-colleagues wear every day.
Your best bet is a suit, says Gilfillan. “It works for any kind of interview.” But you’ve got a touch more leeway with the details. Great fit is de rigueur, but you’re less likely to get marked down for a jazzy (not novelty) tie or pocket square. Coloured or even patterned shirts are also fine, although keep them classic: stripes good, florals bad.
If a suit feels too dressed-up, break things up with separates. But bear in mind that by dressing down your tailoring, everything else needs to step up a notch – white shirt, muted accessories, very sensible shoes. “Don’t forget to consider your grooming,” says Bennett. “You will undermine all the effort and effect of your outfit if you’re unkempt. Get a haircut the week before, tidy up any facial hair and check that your nails are trimmed and clean.”
The Fail-Safe Outfit
“A grey Prince of Wales check suit, ice blue shirt and dark green tie,” says Gilfillan. “The pattern of the suit and the combination of colours keeps your look interesting but still formal. Add a pocket square that includes both the colours of the shirt and tie to pull the whole look together.”
The Creative Job Interview
The adage of ‘dress to impress’ is what leads men towards garish ties and loud shirts. Instead, you should think of interview style as avoiding missteps. For formal gigs, that means colouring between the lines. But in creative offices, you’ll get marked down for being boring. You need clothes that prove you’re not, but which don’t distract from your ability to actually do the job.
A creative interview is, perhaps, the trickiest to dress for. On one side, the risk of being dull; on the other, the ambush of flamboyance. To navigate safe passage, stick to the tried and true.
You might think a suit’s too fusty, but it’s not if you add your own smart casual spin. “It could be a cotton two-piece with a T-shirt and trainers,” says Gilfillan. By remixing a classic, you toe the line but express some personality. Which is also how you want the entire interview to go. Again (and we really can’t stress this enough) that doesn’t mean novelty. Paisley or eye-popping patterns are the wrong kind of unique. But shades that aren’t grey and navy – think beige and light blue in summer, green and cobalt in winter – set you apart subtly.
“For creative roles in creative companies, you won’t need to be tailored,” says Bennett. “But you will still need to look put-together.” Knitwear is your best friend here; as your mum knew, a nice jumper is smart, but not too smart. “You can mix good quality fabrics with relaxed silhouettes. A shirt under a knit, cotton chinos and leather trainers.” That’s right, trainers, to a job interview. If they’re as subtle and well-made as traditional work shoes – and the company’s creative enough – there’s no reason not to.
Which brings up the thorny subject of accessories. Less is more, here. Leave the eagle-headed belts for the weekend. “Carry a leather document holder or appropriate-sized bag for your CV, or samples of your work,” says Bennett. “Don’t turn up with a huge gym bag or backpack, it’s overwhelming and may give the impression you aren’t taking the interview seriously.”
The Fail-Safe Outfit
“If you are not sure how formal or relaxed you need to be in an interview, why don’t you do a bit of both?” says Bennett. “Opt for a tailored blazer in a textured fabric, and instead of a shirt try a knitted polo shirt. Adding texture softens the look but the tailoring still keeps it professional.
“Keep with the textured theme and try a brogue instead of an Oxford shoe.”
The Skilled Job Interview
Whether you’re going to be working in a coffee shop or on a construction site, your outfit isn’t the prime concern. Odds are the working day involves either a uniform or specialist clothing, so this is more about being presentable. If it’s a customer-facing job, then pay particular attention to your grooming. “Never have dirty hands,” says Johnson. “It’s so easy to solve.”
The big risk here is dressing too far down. You’re not auditioning for a modelling gig, but you still need to show that the interview is important. “I hate when people arrive for an interview and they’re dressed for whatever they have to do later in the day,” says Johnson. Make sure you’re wearing something that’s for the actual interview – if you need to stow a change in your bag, so be it.
A suit might feel too formal, but it also shows effort. So if in doubt, make that your fallback. “I once dressed a friend for a job interview at a builders,” says Johnson. “He was going to be a labourer and had just left school. I made sure he was suited up, shoes polished and tie on. Out of 20 applicants he got the job and got promoted within six months. He’s a grafter, of course, but I can’t help but think making that little bit of effort to stand out really helps.”
Again, you’ll want to avoid too much flair and focus on the little things. “Never go in dirty or rumpled clothing,” says Gilfillan. Chinos, a jacket and an open-neck shirt are often fine, so long as everything’s pressed and pin-sharp. If you’re driving in for the interview, try to hang the blazer so it doesn’t crease. Make sure you leave enough time for a quick once-over in the bathroom, too. A lint roller in your bag will also pay dividends.
The Fail-Safe Outfit
“A charcoal suit, white shirt and striped navy tie is ultra-simple, classic and sober,” says Gilfillan. “It shows you’re serious about the job.”