What NOT to wear for an interview

posted in: Style advice | 4

I heard a funny but true story yesterday.

A very senior female recruiter was holding an evening event for the company’s most important clients. Her young researchers were on hand to mingle and ensure all the clients were being attended to. Across the room she spotted two of them chatting to each other. Horrified at the  short, sexy dress one of them was wearing, the headhunter told the researcher to go home and change. Turns out she was not a young researcher but a famous, moderately successful boss. Red faces all round.

Karren Brady - too sexy for work?
Karren Brady – too sexy for work?

Inappropriate Attire

In fact a skin-tight, short dress is not a good business look. It rides up, is far too revealing, and flatters very few. Other inappropriate outfits would include:

  • too casual a look
  • sportswear
  • holes, burns, stains, ladders, missing buttons
  • too much make up or perfume
  • obvious piercing or tattoos
  • noisy, jangly jewellery (cuff links, bangles)
  • bare legs
  • comedy socks or ties

The Traditional look

But what about this crowd?

Trad business attire
Trad business attire

They look OK, at first glance, but none of them look great.  In choosing the safest option they have  eradicated every last bit of individuality. While the models have been selected for their gender and ethnic variety, their clothes are virtually identical. Here is the formula:

  • black or dark grey/navy suit
  • white or very light pastel shirt
  • blue stripy tie (men)
  • flat black leather shoes
  • short or swept back hair

No colour, no jewellery, no accessories, no personality; a desperate desire to fit in and appear inoffensive. It’s like a school uniform without the retro appeal.

Why dressing right is so important

When I am not sewing for fun, I run a business with 1000 employees. I meet and interview people frequently, and while I would never send anyone home for failing to conform to my standards, I think there is a formula which works. At an interview you need to do two things at once a) fit in and b) make an impression. Most people do one rather than the other and you really do need to do both.

Firstly consider the culture of the firm you are meeting as there are different standards of dress in different countries, and industries. Clearly a bank and an software company will have different dress codes. So the advice here can only be general. Your appearance must convey the message that you will fit in – a team player,  who will do what is required, seamlessly join an existing group of people and have no problem working alongside them. When you come into the room you should look like you belong. I would err on the side of formal and smart (go to the hairdressers the day before) and dress for the level above the role you are applying for. It is better to overdo it a little, rather than the other way around.

But secondly consider how you can make an impact. If I am seeing  a dozen people how will I remember you? Looking great gives you confidence, instills confidence in the interviewer and helps you stand out from the crowd.

In my opinion you need to reference the traditional look, but also subtly subvert it. Make sure one element of your outfit is individual and chosen to enhance how you look or who you are. The dress below conforms to the navy and white formal work outfit rule but also looks completely fresh and stylish (probably best to avoid the hat). It’s Vogue 1629, from 1966 .

1966 Molyneux coat dress. Maybe without the hat?
1966 Molyneux coat dress. Maybe without the hat?


  • wear a dark business suit but wear a blouse in a strong colour that matches and enhances your eyes eg. emerald or bright blue blouse instead of white shirt (brighter colouring)
  • consider a patterned or statement blouse and take your jacket off
  • wear a patterned dress and coordinating jacket instead of a suit
  • wear a dress and coat or even a coat dress for a change
  • take a nice coloured handbag rather than a brief case
  • wear a scarf or piece of jewellery that tells a story about you
Neutral outfit, bright accessories
Neutral outfit, bright accessories


  • With a navy suit wear a brightly coloured tie (brighter colouring)
  • consider a shirt in a deep colour if your colouring is deep
  • don’t wear a tie, but do wear a silk pocket handkerchief instead
Jon Snow
Jon Snow

Both sexes

  • instead of black or charcoal wear a cream, camel or brown suit (if you have warm colouring), lighter grey or blue-grey (if you have light colouring)
  • wear a jacket and trousers/skirt that relate but don’t match eg dark grey and light grey
Skirt and jacket blend rather than match
Skirt and jacket blend rather than match
  • chose three shades of the same colour eg grey-blue for shirt, trousers/skirt and jacket (works well with muted colouring)
  • wear shoes and a belt which complement rather than match your suit, eg brown or tan accessories with navy or grey
Tan shoes and belt
Light navy suit with tan shoes and belt

 “Always be a first-rate version of yourself, instead of a second-rate version of somebody else.”  Judy Garland



4 Responses

  1. Joe Chambers

    This is a fantastic piece – just as I was wondering whether to wear a tie to my interview. Great tips couldn’t agree more!!

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