Five years ago, I wore a full suit and starchy white shirt to an interview at a tech company ― on a casual Friday, no less. I felt oddly formal and out of place during a time when I was desperately trying to fit in and prove myself as an essential fit to the company culture.
I haven’t worn a suit to a job interview since. And it’s never stopped me from getting a desired job.
I attribute it to the fact that I work in a creative field, and thus, should dress more creatively, but I began to wonder if the less-is-more, hyper-casual trend seen in street wear of late applies to arguably the most formal invitation of someone’s life: a job interview.
As it turns out, casual isn’t just for day-to-day office wear ― it’s for job interviews too, but only under the right set of circumstances.
“For companies that consider themselves innovative, as many of these companies with relaxed dress codes do, wearing a suit and tie can signal being ‘behind the times,’” says Peter Nguyen, a New York City-based private personal stylist for men in tech. “As someone interviewing for a position, it’s beneficial to avoid anything that makes you look out of touch. That means ditching a traditional full suit look.”
Cinedapt CEO Michael Kureth suggests thinking about interview work wear in more abstract terms. “Beyond the hiring process are the day-to-day requirements and tasks that are required for the specific role you are applying for,” he tells HuffPost.
He recommends thinking of the job you’ll be performing and dressing for that as a way to influence hiring managers and increase the odds of landing the job: “For example: If you are [a man] interviewing for an IT position, wear comfortable shoes, a sport shirt and business casual pants to help the hiring manager better visualize you in the role during the hiring process.”
What to wear to a job interview instead of a suit
While ditching the suit seems like a nice idea, the silver lining of the suit interview “rule” means less outfit guesswork at a time when nerves and emotions are already high. Without the suit, the question of “what to wear to the job interview” almost becomes overwhelming.
Nguyen suggests, “The key to nailing a professional interview outfit on the casual side is to mix formal and casual pieces. This will give you the best of both worlds ― it tells the company you’re professional while still fitting in with a casual culture.”
As a stylist, Nguyen offers examples of ideal non-suit attire for interviews. “For men, a great example outfit would be a long-sleeve navy polo, wool dress trousers and clean white sneakers,” he says.
For women, Nguyen suggests a “smart-looking” blazer thrown over a silk top paired with solid jeans and a nice heel or flat.
“I always recommend being a little conservative with the color choices,” Nguyen notes. “Stick to neutral colors like navy, gray, black and white, as these will help you come off more professional. Feel free to add a splash of color with your accessory though ― for men this could be a watch, or for women a small bracelet, a purse or scarf.”
Times you may still need to wear a suit
Kureth still advocates that suits have a place and time: “During more formal social events such as award ceremonies, cocktail receptions and galas.”
“Some industries ― such as law, investment banking, corporate sales, etc. ― still respond positively to suits, but the casual practicality of startups and the tech industry has eradicated much of the need for suits during actual interviews,” he says.
And while suits may still be the default for many corporate offices and more “traditional” industries like finance and law, I also asked the experts about non-traditional interview scenarios. In a world full of increasing remote work opportunities, what do you wear to an interview at a coffee shop? Or over a nice dinner at an industry conference? Or, ahem, if your interview falls on a casual Friday?
Nguyen suggests imagining the interview as if you were going on a first date. “You wouldn’t wear a suit to a coffee shop, but at the same time, you wouldn’t show up in a plain T-shirt and your gym sneakers,” he says. “Dress to impress.”
Both Nguyen and Kureth advocate for a casual dress shirt and sport coat for an interview over dinner, although women can wear a more casual dress with a blazer on top.
A final piece of advice: Don’t overthink it. Spend the bulk of your interview prep time researching the company and practicing your answers to interview questions. The outfit is only one component, and it isn’t the most important part.
The most important thing is not necessarily what you wear, but that it be clean, not damaged and in overall good condition. Polos, sport coats, jeans are all good fits for casual non-traditional settings. However, if your clothes are dirty, wrinkled or worn out, it won’t matter because your clothing will be a distraction and an eyesore.
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