If Kerry Washington has worn it in Scandal, it is suitable job interview attire.

What to Wear (and What Not to Wear) to a Job Interview

They say first impressions are important. What they don’t say is that they’re also not fucking fair. Like, not at all.

When you go in for a job interview, the first impression you make on your potential employer could determine the outcome of the hiring process. In fact, 30% of hiring decisions are made within the first five minutes of an interview. That’s why what you wear and how you present yourself are so important. So make it count.

Appearance-based discrimination happens all the time in the hiring process. And while you can’t help the color of your skin, your body size, or your gender, you can do something about what you wear and how you wear it to give yourself a fighting chance.

I interview job candidates all the time. I’m my company’s internship coordinator, and I also visit one of the local universities every year to practice mock interviews with their students and recent graduates.

So I’ve seen it all. Including the girl who dressed like Professor Trelawney on a bad hair day… and the guy I smelled before I saw him… and the girl who looked like she was dressed for our first date rather than an interview… and all the motherfuckers who dared to wear flip-flops to a goddamn job interview.

While it’s true that confidence and competence are the most important accessories for any job interview outfit, there are definitely a few hard lines where attire is concerned.

Here’s what I, as a potential employer, want to see job candidates wearing… and what I definitely do not want to see.

As a general rule, look sharp

I can’t believe I even have to say this, but… take a shower and launder your clothes.

What you wear and how you style yourself is slightly less important than basic fucking hygiene and cleanliness.

Iron your clothes so they don’t look rumpled. Don’t own an iron? Hang them up on a hanger in the bathroom while you take a hot shower. The wrinkles will steam out.

Better yet: find an outfit that doesn’t require ironing.

Tuck your hair behind your ears or tie it back. Your interviewer wants to see your face. They don’t want to have to peer through a jungle of side bang to make eye contact.

Your interviewer wants to see your face. They don’t want to have to peer through a jungle of side bang to make eye contact.

If you’re going to wear a tie… learn how to tie a goddamn tie. If your dad tied the only tie you own once three years ago and you’ve just loosened and tightened the knot for every tie-wearing occasion since then… the interviewer will notice. It looks sloppy and childish.

Wear actual clothes. I once had a potential intern come in wearing her pajamas. That shit might fly in your Composition 101 class, young lady, but not in my place of employment.

Keep your clothes on. I once had an interview candidate in a suit and tie remove his shoe and sock and put his bare foot on my desk to show me his tattoo. I CANNOT YOU GUYS I JUST CANNOT.

I literally don’t remember anything else about Pajama Girl and Foot Guy other than those enormous breaches of wardrobe etiquette. Certainly not their qualifications nor how they answered my questions.

They were memorable and distracting in all the worst ways. Do you really want to be known as “Foot Guy” in some personal finance writer’s blog post? DO YOU? I thought not.

If you look neat and clean, it gives you an air of maturity and professionalism that is more likely to counteract an employer’s natural prejudices. They won’t dwell so much on other aspects of your physical appearance if you present yourself with care and cleanliness.

Feminine presenting people

There is a subtle but definite difference between dressing for a job interview and dressing for da clerb.

Here is a handy table to help you gracefully walk the line:

JOB INTERVIEW DA CLERB
Sheath dress Bandage dress
Pencil skirt or knee-length A-line skirt Mini skirt
Button-up blouse Crop top
Blazer Romper
Close-toed heels or ballet flats Platform heels
Tasteful, understated jewelry Gaudy, eye-catching jewelry
Trousers/long pants Intentionally visible undergarments
Pantsuit or skirt suit Sundress
Natural looking makeup Full glam makeup

If Kerry Washington has worn it in Scandal, it is acceptable job interview attire. If Nicki Minaj has ever worn it at all ever, save it for da clerb. You can dress like her when you’re the queen of rap.

If Kerry Washington has worn it in Scandal, it is acceptable job interview attire. If Nicki Minaj has ever worn it at all ever, save it for da clerb.

My go-to job-interviewing outfit (whether I’m the interviewer or the interviewee) is a pencil skirt, a blouse with sleeves, a pair of 3-inch nude pumps, and some small, fake gold earrings.

If it’s winter and fucking cold, I’ll swap out the skirt for a pair of slacks and the heels for some ballet flats or boots. Sometimes I throw on a blazer. I also straighten my hair and put on a moderate amount of makeup.

Flip-flops are never, ever acceptable. I don’t care if it’s July and sweltering outside. Borrow some real grown up shoes from your mom or your college roommate. (A big retroactive thank-you to Kitty for letting this filthy urchin wear all her fancy heels back in the days when I thought hiking boots were acceptable city footwear.)

Masculine presenting people

To tie or not to tie? To suit or not to suit? Button-up or polo shirt? These are the decisions you will agonize over. I will rank them in order of formality and you may choose accordingly.

Note: These are your only options. Do not try to get around them by adding a fun vest or some shit. No one wants to see you in that vest. It’s bad. Same goes for your damn fedora. Put that shit in the garbage where it belongs.

  • The Most Formal: A suit, tie, and long-sleeved button-up shirt.
  • The Slightly Less Formal: Slacks, long-sleeved button-up shirt, and tie.
  • The Relaxed Formal: Slacks or khakis, long-sleeved button-up shirt with the sleeves rolled up, no tie.
  • The Business Casual: Polo shirt, slacks or khakis.

Short-sleeved button-up shirts appear nowhere on this list. Assuming you don’t want to look like Dwight Schrute… take note.

And again: NO FUCKING FLIP-FLOPS.

My friend Miguel is a paraplegic and he almost never wears real shoes. He doesn’t walk, he can’t feel his feet, and it’s really fucking hard for him to get into shoes. But you best believe he struggled into a pair of dress shoes for his recent job interview.

So if my wheelchair-bound friend can bother to find himself some stuffy business-appropriate shoes for an interview, so can you.

You’re going to face discrimination

Here’s where I bring in the dreaded sociological research. Studies show that candidates with straight hair are more likely to get hired than those with curly hair. Likewise, taller people and more conventionally attractive people get a leg up in the hiring process.

Oh and if you’re a person of color, elderly, or disabled? Yeah, getting through a job interview is going to be exponentially harder.

If that sound unjust to you, well…

There are a number of solutions to counteract this sort of discrimination. If you’re short, you could wear high heels. If you don’t consider yourself conventionally attractive, you could put on makeup. And if you have curly hair, you could straighten it.

But you can’t change your race nor your age nor your disability. So you’re going to have to kick ass so hard in that interview that the employer forgets their internalized prejudices long enough to recognize your brilliance.

Dwell with me for a moment on how unfair this shit is. And then go to that interview and make them eat it like the badass baller you are.

What about my tattoos/piercings/side-shave?

During a mock interview, a young woman once asked, “Do you think I should wear long sleeves?”

She had two full sleeves of beautiful tattoos. And she had clearly been told in the past to cover them up when meeting a potential employer. But as this was a mock interview and she was looking for advice, she wore short sleeves.

I told her no. I told her I loved her tattoos and I would’ve been disappointed if she’d hidden them during our interview.

As Kitty explained recently, sometimes looking weird at work can benefit you. It helps you to stand out, expresses your individuality, and catches the attention of people who might not otherwise notice how great you are.

But more importantly: do you really want to work for someone who thinks your body art is shameful? Do you want to work for someone who thinks a facial piercing is a sign of degeneracy? Who considers your violet hair immature? Who sees your tattoo as unprofessional?

I won’t answer that for you. Some of you may consider it very important to get in with the laced-up, bebuttsticked set of business professionals. And that’s fine.

But consider carefully your happiness in the workplace before coming to a decision about whether or not to cover your tattoos, remove your piercings, or dye your hair.

Consider carefully your happiness in the workplace before coming to a decision about whether or not to cover your tattoos, remove your piercings, or dye your hair.

“But the workplace is super casual!”

Err on the side of formality.

I wear jeans to work most days, but I still really appreciate it when an interview candidate shows up in a full suit. It shows that the candidate took the time to carefully consider every aspect of their interview preparation. It shows that they respect the professionalism of my workplace. And that speaks very highly of the candidate’s thoughtfulness and attention to detail.

Besides, “super casual” doesn’t have to mean “jeans and a T-shirt.” I’ve provided you with lots of options above! Pick something that feels a bit more Jimmy Olsen than Clark Kent and rock it.

I guarantee you have much more to lose from underdressing than from overdressing.

What’s your go-to interview outfit? Share your lewk in a comment!

And then go forth, my darling job hunters! Bedeck yourself in confidence and competence and slay.

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30 thoughts on “What to Wear (and What Not to Wear) to a Job Interview

  1. Yep, either a black pencil skirt or black dress pants, depending on the weather, a button-down long-sleeve shirt (my fave is a dark forest green for some color), and a black blazer. Paired with either black heels or black flats. If I’m feeling really fancy/have a second round interview, I wear a black sheath dress with a blue patterned blazer and either blue heels or blue flats (yes, I own both despite not giving a shit about shoes because I like a ridiculous amount of color in my wardrobe). No make-up because I don’t really own any and don’t wear it anyway, and understated jewelry.

    And then those clothes go right back in my closet til the next interview because I’m in the non-profit world and life is too damn short to wear blazer-level professional clothing every day, even if we’re not casual enough for jeans.

    1. I bet you look GREAT. And that’s the awesome thing about only dressing up once in awhile: you don’t have to go to the dry cleaner all the time.

  2. I’m a suit and tie type for all interviews, in the corporate world at least. I interviewed at a manufacturing plant and still wore a full suit, even though many of my interviewers were in jeans and a polo (got the job btw!). In a situation like this, a suit with no tie or a blazer and no tie would have worked as well, but that is simply due to the very casual environment.

    I’d also say it depends on the profession and the job – in some industries or jobs, a full professional outfit may not be necessary or represent who you are/what the job is. The key is knowing what type of job it is and dressing for it, with a slight inclination to over-dress rather than under-dress.

    But yeah, no flip flops. Not even to that lifeguard interview.

  3. The whole interview process is so painful. “Look, I’m pretending to be a functional person, look at my smart but stylish shoes!” “Oh, yea, mwah, I completely I agree, I find the program to be very intriguing!” I’m a nightmare dressed like a daydream, you just can’t tell yet, until I get the position, go union and unleash the CRAZY. And you all wish you had hired the nice black girl with the dreadlocks. MWAHAHAHAHA

    1. LOLOLOL. But you’re right! It’s all a ritual. Get through the fucking ritual and then you’ll have the freedom to relax and focus on the actual job.

  4. I agree with Erin and J Savvy because, in the end, its just a game. You got the interview because of your skill-set from your CV. The face-to-face interview is all about presentation and how you carry yourself. They don’t care that you are the smartest person in the room, who happens to dress like a hobo out of the office. They only care about that very moment they meet you.

    I have always advised my staff of women and men to invest in a tailored suit. If buying off the rack, go to your local dry cleaner and get it adjusted. Perfectly fitting clothes exudes confidence and announces you before you enter the room.

    You have less than 5 seconds to make that first impression, not something I would leave to chance.

    Great post, BGR!!

    1. Thank you! And I love putting this in terms of a game. Just play the game for an hour of your life. Presenting yourself for the interview is all about determining if you CAN play the game. So just do it.

  5. I absolutely agree with the advice about not covering up your overall weirdness at an interview. Absolutely be professional (REALLY WITH THE FLIP FLOPS?!), but be your beautiful, weird self. I have multiple tattoos and I always make sure that at least one is visible when I’m at a job interview. If you’re not going to hire me because of my body art and purple hair, I really don’t want to work for you anyway. My clothing is always super professional (I err on the side of too formal), but you’ll know I’m a weirdo from day one.

    Then again, I’m also a fat woman, so I don’t have the mental space to add more worry about what other people think about my appearance. I’ll look damned professional with my black sheath dress, heels, and my tattoo of Matilda showing. You’ll hire me or you won’t.

    1. I wish I had included body weight under the section about discrimination. Have you read Lindy West’s “Shrill”? She writes a lot about getting flack for being fat.

      Your tattoos AND your outfit sound FLAWLESS.

  6. I love your rants and the chart. I used to hire interns at my old job, and it always surprised me how CASUAL they’d dress for interviews. It really made me wonder if I was some sort of outdated old-fogey who was not up to snuff with what the city youngin’s were up to. Example outfit they showed up in: trench, slim, clean jeans, and flats. I expected a LITTLE more effort, you know? It didn’t stop me from hiring them, but I was surprised about it. For me, I don’t do full-on suits anymore. I’ll usually do a dress or a button down tucked into cropped skinny pants, plus great heels.

    1. That’s a baller look (your cropped skinnies and heels, not the casual interns). I feel like a lot of them get away with dressing casually for class, and think that’ll fly in a workplace too. It doesn’t occur to them that for a lot of industries, we have clients coming in and out who need to be impressed with the optics, etc.

  7. The guy showed you his tattoo… by putting his FOOT ON YOUR DESK?!? WTF?!?

    I laughed all the way through this. I help to interview candidates for our company’s internship program and I would probably laugh them out of the room if they wore flip flops and/or pajamas. I mean, come on, seriously?

    I think you are spot on with the body art/piercing/hair style. It’s you, don’t hide that. If the employer wants to take beef with that, then that may be their loss (because they can’t get over their own bias to see the intelligent person who happens to be adorned in the way they prefer).

    1. I wish I was joking, but the Foot Guy ACTUALLY HAPPENED.
      I think people have made an unnecessary correlation between “looking professional and neat” and “looking absolutely bland and devoid of personality.” You can look professional while still having a little self expression!

  8. This is SO on target. I used to do a lot of interviewing for executive level employees and these were NOT entry level jobs. I continue to marvel at the crap some people wore to an interview for highly paid positions or what they said. I had a woman show up to interview in running shoes and a jogging outfit as she was trying to “maximize her time” and she was exercising afterwards. Another truly looked like her next job was turning tricks on the corner. The one that stuns me to this day is the professionally dressed woman who launched into a diatribe about why it was hard to be successful in her town and her assessment was it was the “damn Jews”. She ranted for several minutes and then finally noticed my open mouth and look of horror and shut up. It was a short interview.

    More than one candidate has started trying to negotiate special hours, time off and,p benefits on the very first interview. Save that shit for when I’ve already decided you are my favorite candidate and might be inclined to go to bat for you rather than start this search over.

    Finally, save the sob stories. A woman who interviewed well and was ranked highly for a job wrapped up her interview telling me about how her ex-husband had screwed up her credit, set her car on fire and really might come looking for her to KILL HER at work….could we guarantee her safety??? Uh, no. I felt badly for her but not enough to put other people in the office at risk of collateral damage if he came after her. Don’t tell your interviewer your personal problems even if it is just that your cat barfed on your shoes before you left the house. I really had to control myself to not stare at the shoes after that bit of sharing!

  9. I haven’t interviewed many people, but when I have, I’ve been amazed by what some people have worn. Jeans and sneakers? T-shirts with holes in them? How does anyone think this is appropriate?

    As for the body art/piercings, I think it’s very dependent on the field a person is in. As a stodgy old-school physician, I don’t think large tattoos or prominent piercings are acceptable for most people providing patient care. (That being said, there is one nurse who draws blood at our hospital who has sleeve tattoos on both arms, and I think he’s awesome. So I’m inconsistent in my views). If I were advising someone interviewing for a position as a nurse or physician (or student in either field), I would definitely advise them to cover/remove all but the most small and tasteful of tattoos and piercings.

    1. I think this kind of industry-specific advice is super important. Having worked in childcare before, I might advise the same, especially as kids tend to be grabby with piercings and hair. Kitty has worked in more creative positions, where personal style can be an asset in the interview. We all should take some time to educate ourselves on industry standards before interviewing.

      And my dude I am SO afraid of needles that the mere mention of your awesome nurse had me recoiling.

  10. Here’s a question for you: internal interviews at your current company, where the interviewers know you and see you every day. Do you make an effort to fancy it up, acknowledging the fact that this is an unusual experience outside of your daily routines and you should dress like any other job candidate? Or does it just seem awkward, especially if the office has a very relaxed dress code for everyone, even the higher-ups?

    I went the first route when I was internally interviewing for my current higher level position, especially since this was a move to a managerial position from a support staff position and I wanted to look like a grown-up. My interview was a half day series of panel interviews from 1-5, but I was expected to work my usual assignments that morning. So I dressed in my usual casual clothes for my morning work and then changed into a Professional Boss Lady Claire Underwood style sheath dress and blazer at lunch for the interviews. Most of my colleagues were kind enough to pretend that they hadn’t seen me stumble in that morning in a Doctor Who t-shirt and a short skirt, but a couple made some comments like “We have seen you every single day for two years. That is not your style at all.” Even if it was a bit awkward, the Power Dress did make me feel confident and help me get into “interview mode”, which is definitely a plus.

    1. This is a GREAT point (and I think you probably looked great in both outfits). I know that when I go in for my annual review, I typically dress a grade above my usual casual attire, even though I’m just sitting down with my boss who I see everyday. I think in your case the confidence boost was nice, but making the shift a little more subtle (throwing the blazer on over your Dr. Who shirt and swapping your comfy shoes for heels) would probably be more appropriate for this kind of thing. That’ll make it easy to change in the middle of the day too. 😉

  11. Off topic, but young Cary Elwes as Westley caused my sexual awakening. I think I entered a fugue state just now watching his lips in that gif…

    (and the rest of the post was great too, yadda yadda moar Cary Princess Bride gifs pleez)

  12. So here’s a question for you: what do you think about shaving? (legs, armpits, etc). As a nonshaver I still usually shave my pits before an interview and then I either shave my legs or wear “nude” nylons. But this is a question I’ve been thinking about a lot lately with regard to professionalism in the larger scope as well. Masculine-presenting individuals aren’t generally called to wear shirts that expose their pits at work, and in the more formal fields they also rarely wear pants that expose their legs, yet feminine-presenting people wear both, which makes the line less clear then “men aren’t asked to shave so women shouldn’t have to either”. I don’t think body hair should be shamed, but there’s a part of me that wonders where the line is in terms of a workplace environment. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

    (My go-to outfit is a light pink and black peplum with a blazer added if it’s cold out, and a pair of gray wedge heels. I pull my hair up into a side bun so it’s out of my face and formal but hopefully a little more interesting — but I just cut off about 18 inches and got an undercut, so it’s time to figure out a new style!)

    1. First off, your outfit sounds adorbs. And congrats on your new undercut!

      I’ve thought about it, and I think I classify body hair on feminine presenting people under the same category as tattoos, piercings, and atypical hairstyles. Choosing not to shave is a personal choice about your presentation, and it’s part of your self expression. So think carefully on it just as you would with a tattoo. If you’re truly worried about being judged for it, wear longer sleeves and pants rather than a skirt for the interview.

      I’m hairy af, like most girls of my ethnicity. I used to be super embarrassed to show my bare legs in public because of my thick body hair, and I almost always shave. But these days I’m loving how not shaving is becoming more acceptable among feminine presenting people. Maybe someday I’ll build up the courage… or just stop giving a fuck.

  13. Definitely industry specific. As a new graduate I was rejected for a job in TV because I was wearing a suit/looked like my mom and they were looking for someone hip and youthful for the position.

  14. I’m a Young Person and i live in a country much less formal than the US (that also has a warmer climate than most of continental US), so i basically wear for interviews an “upgraded” or fancier version of what I’ll usually wear to work. For example, for the interview to my current position, which is an office job with almost no client interaction, i wore casual pants (not jeans) and a colourful knit sweater, with nicer boots than i usually would wear to work and more makeup. If i were to work with clients more, i would go to an interview with slacks and a button down/blazer, but probably not a suit unless the position would be very senior or the clients very particular on formality.

  15. I would add: DRESS TO YOUR BODY TYPE. I am a very short, very young-looking person (college senior, look like a freshman at best). I’ve absolutely faced times when I’ve walked into an interview and the interviewer assumed that I was much younger than I am, based on that alone. If I wear something that looks even slightly large on me, I am immediately going to be looked at as someone who is naive and unqualified, even though my GPA proves otherwise. I spend ~way~ more on tailoring and correct fits than most of my friends, but for me, it’s absolutely crucial.

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