The Subtle Art of Interview Dressing

There really is a time and place to wear sneakers to an interview

The start of the year is notoriously a big time for job hunting, as companies have new budgets and people are inspired to make career changes. Applying and interviewing for jobs is both tiring and exhilarating. I've personally interviewed for and have held quite a few jobs. It's a running joke between me and my friends. This used to bother and embarrass me, but I've come to realize in recent years that having had a lot of jobs means that I'm employable, know how to get hired and what I do and don't want out of a job.

Every interview I've had and every job I've held has improved my interview talking points, helped me articulate and increased my poise. But all this experience has also improved my ability to dress appropriately and with style to my interviews.

There's one genre of fashion articles that bug me the most, and that's the kind that dishes dos and dont's in absolutes. To the point where the style tips become so cliche and over-saturated that it actually makes people look worse. If you search "interview outfit ideas," what comes up is the super generic blazer and slim pants, blouse and pencil skirt, dress and pumps, etc. etc. You'll also find a lot of rules like no jeans, no sneakers, no shoulders, no open-toe shoes. So, what I'm saying is, don't take anything I say as law!

My friends, I'm hear to tell you that I've worn jeans and sneakers (not together) to job interviews. And I was offered both jobs. For one of these interviews, I wore a black jumpsuit with black adidas Gazelles. And the woman who interviewed me, no lie, walked in wearing the exact same sneakers. Instant connection.

Dressing for an interview is a very nuanced thing that depends a lot on the culture of the company, the industry you're applying for, and most importantly, your personal style.

I wanted to share the tips I've picked up and the ideas I've formed around interview dressing as well as some outfit inspiration for those who may also be grinding hard to find a new gig this year.

1. Know Your Audience

Simply put, if you're interviewing at a 5-person start-up in a suit, it's very likely that the person interviewing you will be in jeans and a t-shirt and it will feel overdressed and inappropriate. On the other hand, if you were applying for a job at a law firm, it'd probably best not to come in wearing jeans and a longline blazer. However, if you were applying for a job in the creative or fashion industry, jeans and a longline blazer is a great option!

I read a great tip a while back saying that the key to appropriate interview dressing, finding that middle ground, is finding out what the day-to-day office dress code is and dress one notch fancier than that in your interview. So say a company is of the jeans and a t-shirt variety, add a blazer and a heeled ankle boot. If the office day-to-day is slacks and a blouse, wear a chic midi dress with heeled boots. If a place is business formal like a law office, I'm sorry to say, but you're just gonna have to dress business formal.

The tricky part can be finding out what the dress code of the company is to begin with. You can surely make some assumptions based on the industry, but even then the culture from one company to another could be pretty different.

Some recruiters will let you know what the dress code is when scheduling your interview, which is super helpful. If they don't you should ask the recruiter if you feel comfortable. In some cases, you may know someone who works there who could give you the 411.

If those routes are a no-go, search the location tag of the company on Instagram. Often times you'll be able to find employees posting photos of themselves and coworkers in the office! Genius, right? Just a little something I picked up.

2. You Don't Need to Go Shopping for a Whole New Outfit

If you truly don't have anything that would be appropriate for industry and the company that you're interviewing with, then yes, by all means buy something new if you need it. If you can, try to find items that are appropriate, but are true to your personal style. This increases the chances that you'll get more use out it afterward and that you'll feel more confident and yourself.

If you already work in or adjacent to the industry of the job you're applying for, chances are you already own the pieces you need to put together an outfit that's one step above the company's dress code. Get creative, pair things you've never thought of pairing together. A chic black jumpsuit with streetwear sneakers. A denim midi skirt with a silk blouse, belt, and heeled ankle boots. You'll probably feel more comfortable and confident in clothes you already own than something you panic-bought just for the interview.

3. A Casual Jacket or Bag Can Bring Down a First Impression

I've been lucky enough to be able to sit in on a few candidate interview panels at a previous job. It gave me really helpful insight into how certain things look and come across from the other side of the table.

It's a good rule of thumb that you should always bring a copy of your resume and portfolio or writing samples, if applicable, for every person you're meeting with. This makes deciding what bag to take tricky if you want a bag large enough to carry your resume or portfolio.

On the couple occasions where I've seen an interview candidate walking in wearing a North Face jacket and a casual day backpack slung over their shoulder, I can't deny that to me, it gave off a sloppy first impression.

If you live in a climate or you're interviewing during a time of the year where you can forgo a jacket, do. If your interview is on a rainy day and you want to avoid having to wear a jacket with a hood, opt for an umbrella or take a Lyft of Uber if that's feasible. And if you must wear a weather-proof or casual jacket, take it off as you enter the lobby and carry it slung over your arm.

The same applies for carrying your documents. If you don't want to carry a large bag, simply carry them alone in their covers if weather allows. And if you must carry a larger casual bag or backpack, similar to the jacket, carry it by the top handle at your side while in the building.

4. Make It Personal

Don't wear anything that makes you feel stuffy or would never be caught dead in otherwise. If blazers aren't for you, don't feel like you have to wear them. If you're not a dress person, don't feel pressure to wear a sheath dress with a cardigan.

I personally like to keep accessories and jewelry pretty minimal for interviews, but I like having one statement piece that will help me standout and be more memorable. These days that piece is a gold nameplate necklace with a Nike swoosh underneath it.

5. Presentable Nails

Whether you paint your own nails, wear press-ons, have gels or just wear a coat of clear polish, make sure your nails aren't chipped or haggard. I really do think little details like this make a difference. Especially when you're going in for that handshake or are really expressive with your hands like I am.

A Recent Interview Outfit

This is an outfit I wore recently to an interview at a fashion company. I've been very inspired by 90s minimalism/Calvin Klein working woman vibes lately, which I want to do separate post about.

I have to tell you, I felt like a million bucks in this outfit. And that confidence translated to the way I conducted and articulated myself during the interview.

BLAZER: H&M (sold out, this is similar) | TURTLENECK: OLD NAVY (thrifted) | JEANS: WEEKDAY (out of stock, these are similar) | BOOTS: old | HANDBAG: old | Necklace: Nike Swoosh Nameplate from Etsy | WATCH: CASIO

Some Interview Outfit Inspiration

Lizzy Hadfield, @shotfromthestreet

Frankie Shop, @thefrankieshop

Just remember to keep it cool and keep it you! <3

Diana Le

Diana Le

Diana is the co-creator and Editor-in-Chief of Oatmeal Cardigan. She works as a fashion copywriter by day and moonlights as a texting guru by night.