Emergency Reader Mail: What to Wear to an Informal Interview?

 Elie Tahari Exclusive for Nordstrom 'Ava' JacketWe haven’t answered this kind of question in a while, so we thought we’d answer reader K’s question…

My dream job has requested an “informal” interview for this week. The purpose is for the potential new boss to become familiar with my communication style; a formal interview would follow if I am successful. He is looking to meet at a coffee shop anytime during the day, evening, or even on the weekend.

How do I dress for an interview that is labeling itself as low-key? I’m not a JD or MBA, but I do have an advanced degree in a profession known for being a bit more casual. I feel like a cardigan should be included, but beyond that, I am clueless. Thank you!

First off: congrats on getting the informal interview, and good luck on the interview whenever it takes place.

Second:  Avoid the weekend interview at all costs. Talk about a confusing dress code!  On a weekday interview, if you’re overdressed, then maybe it’s because of your current job’s requirements.   It doesn’t matter if it’s in the evening or during the day, but the important thing is that you are coming or going to your job.

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For my $.02, I would avoid a cardigan for a job interview. It doesn’t convey authority, competence, or intelligence — or really any of the general things you want a prospective employer to think about you. It might convey that you’re demure — it will definitely convey that you’re chilly. (I have no problem, obviously, with wearing a cardigan to work — I am wearing one as I type this.) I think that for an interview — particularly a first one — you want to make the best impression possible, and that, to me, means a blazer at the very least.

That said, were it my dream job, I would bust out a full suit.  (Pictured, Elie Tahari Exclusive for Nordstrom ‘Ava’ Jacket, available at Nordstrom for $298. Also, be sure to check out our guide to interview suits here.) I’d probably stick with a pants suit for the “informal” interview — perhaps even in a “friendlier” color like a gray or a brown — and amp up to a skirt suit in a more severe black or navy for the “real” interview, but that’s me.  If it’s a job that really, really does not entail any sort of professional wear then I might go with a sheath dress and blazer, or perhaps a pair of non-matching trousers, paired with the blazer.  (Incidentally, I’m hard-pressed to think of a career that doesn’t require a suit occasionally — even a kindergarten teacher, who may be working on/near the ground with kids, would wear a suit from time to time.  I often think of doctors as being fairly casually dressed in real life, but I would still think a suit would be appropriate for an interview.)

Readers, what are your thoughts for reader K’s informal interview attire? Can anyone think of a career where a suit wouldn’t be appropriate?


  1. You can’t make a statement that a cardigan is inappropriate without knowing her field. As I have mentioned before, I work with Fortune 50 companies, all of whom, without fail, are solidly business casual (and often jeans on Fridays). Most of these are in more creative fields. A suit would look out of place, and a cardigan with a great silk shell underneath, maybe a belt, black pants and outstanding shoes would be as dressy and impactful as anyone needed to be in almost any situation. Be careful about taking your law-norms into other industries. The law-norms that look so impressive in a courtroom often come across as junior in other industries. In my position, if I were answering this, I’d want my clothing to make an impact and demonstrate something special, whether it’s a unique statement necklace or scarf or interesting pin or something.

    • I agree. I work in a creative industry and if a candidate showed up for an interview wearing a full-on suit, I’d make the assumption that they’ve done absolutely no research into the industry or our firm. I’d be just as likely to ding them for being inappropriately dressed as a law firm partner would a candidate who didn’t bother to wear a suit.

    • From my standpoint in biotech, I’m with Sharon whole-heartedly. The very senior people in my company in general dress quite well, but if I were to see a woman in top management wearing a suit I’d be highly shocked if it weren’t more funky styling than I normally see on this site (major public appearances *might* cause exceptions).

      My next promotion – occurring hopefully soon – will bring me to the level considered “senior management” in my organization. I dress at or above the company norm on any given day, and I don’t currently own a suit. An informal interview in my book would merit something very close to what Sharon described, and a formal interview probably a step up from that – perhaps a non-matching jacket and pants. The more advanced I’ve become in my career, in fact, the further I’ve gotten from the “full suit” look in any more formal settings (interviews, conferences, presentations, etc.), relying more on putting together something interesting yet professional to sell myself.

      • “The more advanced I’ve become in my career, in fact, the further I’ve gotten from the “full suit” look in any more formal settings (interviews, conferences, presentations, etc.), relying more on putting together something interesting yet professional to sell myself.”

        YES. This. Law may be different, but in creative fields and in the Fortune 50 companies I work with, the full-suit look is the junior wannabe look, and it’s a sign of professionalism and self-confidence to wear something that reveals more personality.

        My business partner and I explicitly discuss what we wear to our clients to connote the right blend of seriousness with creativitiy. We would go nowhere fast if we dressed like the typical Corporette mid-eighties navy blue or black suit. It would signal that we have no creativity or savvy in how we approach our work.

        • Anonymous :

          Law is definitely different. Polar opposite, really.

          • Yes, but the poster asking the question said that she is not in law. So there really isn’t any need for her to dress as though she were a lawyer.

          • Anonymous :

            @Lynette – I was responding to Sharon’s comment, not the original questioner. Sharon said “law may be different.”

      • And for further clarification, I am also an advanced degree holder on the technical side (but my assessment holds company-wide). And my company is fairly large and well-established, with a global presence – it’s not ten people sitting around a conference table – in case my post has caused people to think start-ups.

    • There’s something kind of pompous about this post and the subsequent ones, methinks. Like a, “let me tell you unstylish peon LAWYERS how we do things in the big leagues.” I have seen this before – especially when it comes to Lynette, who seems to revel in perversely loving everything everyone else hates and proclaiming how it would be fine in her “creative industry,” even when said item is ridiculously work-inappropriate and that’s even acknowledged by Kat. Is there a point to making people who dress conservatively feel bad about themselves? Or pointing out that wearing a suit is “junior-level” when a lot of the women who read this blog are, in fact, junior level? I feel quite sorry for the poor woman who, erring on the side of caution, ends up in an interview with Lynette and gets “dinged” for not being “creative” enough. Whatever “creative” means – and if Lynette is the one doing the determining on that, Lord have mercy!

      • Hmmm, I am not personally responsible for the fact that the law profession hasn’t changed with the times when it comes to what gets worn in professional settings.

        • Your comment rests on a false premise. Most creative fields are (almost by definition) not the typical “professional settings.” Lawyers, doctors (when not in scrubs), bankers, etc., where suits on days when it matters. In fact, that’s still the case in most jobs–even journalists and architects, for example, will often wear suits on interview day. True, law is stuffier than most professions in that closed-toes/stockings/skirt suits are still the norm, but when it comes to wearing a suit–that’s standard fare on important days in most fields. It’s just not correct to refer to wearing a suit as outdated or relating to the mid-eighties. And to suggest that lawyers, or the “typical corporette” is similarly outdated or unstylish because they wear suits is likewise inaccurate, myopic, and a bit more-stylish-than-thou.

          That said, it seems this interviewer has made a point of downplaying the formality of this encounter and showing up in a suit may show that you missed the clues. I’d go business casual with a blazer that you can comfortably remove if the interviewer shows up in much more casual dress.

          • “Your comment rests on a false premise. Most creative fields are (almost by definition) not the typical “professional settings.””

            Sure they are. Marketing? Advertising? Public relations? Retail companies? R&D / packaging people? How are they not “professional settings”?

            Twenty years ago, all of those people dressed the same — indistinguishably from lawyers and bankers. John Molloy Dress for Success. Navy or black or charcoal gray suits, white or pale blouses, hose, closed-toe shoes, and conservative accessories (pearls, diamond studs, etc.). Over the last twenty years, the businesses / professions that I referenced above — and many of their clients — have moved overwhelmingly to business casual. It may be smart and chic business casual, esp in Manhattan, but it’s business casual.

            The clients went one way, but the lawyers remained in traditional business dress. It’s not an insult — it’s just what it is.

      • @ Hmm. I’m sorry that it bothers you so much that I work in an environment that gives me a little more lee-way in what I can wear to work. And I didn’t realize that I had to subscribe to a certain “group think” when it comes to liking or disliking items that Kat features.

      • I understand that many, many readers of this site are lawyers, but many others, including the questioner, are not – we’re just “overachieving chicks”. I don’t judge what’s appropriate for the law field, and I don’t understand why advice given from the perspective of other backgrounds would elicit this kind of response.

        • Exactly. Hmmm, I don’t know why you’re so bothered that someone would dare to tell someone not from the law field not to dress in a super-corporately-law look. It’s appropriate advice for her field. For many fields.

    • Absolutely agree – not all industries are the same when it comes to dress codes.

      To the original question author: I think you probably have an idea of what your interviewer might tend to wear to work on a typical day. Your goal should be to dress just a notch above that. So, if you think he’s going to be in jeans and T-shirt, wear dress pants, nice top and cardigan. If he’s going to be in business casual (dress pants and shirt), replace cardigan with blazer. If he might be wearing a jacket and/or tie, then go with Kat’s advice and break out the full suit.

      You want to avoid a situation where the interviewer is in shorts and you’re in a suit. It sends a message that you’re clueless really don’t know your industry at all.

      I second Kat’s recommendation to avoid the weekend interview because that completely removes your ability to predict what the interviewer might be wearing.

      My background: I do lots of software engineer interviews for my company. If someone dresses in a suit and tie and is not a new grad or coming from finance or some other dressy environment, it does come off a bit odd and potentially clueless. I’ve never dinged someone for dressing up, but it may have influenced my subconscious perception of the person as somewhat out of place.

      • As a lawyer, I think your advice is spot-on.

      • I second this. I’m in Silicon Valley, and I’ve worked as an software engineer for companies from tiny startups to Fortune 500s (before I went back to graduate school). The last time I thought it was a good idea to wear a suit for work/interview was when I was consulting on the East Coast.

        I’ve interviewed a lot of candidates. The dress standards for engineers are distinctly different. On the job, it’s a mark of pride to dress down, and the best software engineers are the ones who can wander the halls in socks and not get fired (mind you, I don’t condone this). In an environment like that, people who show up wearing full suits look like they either came in from sales, or like new grads who don’t know any better. Even if they’re competent, people are usually looking for cultural fit as well as technical skills, and nothing says “not one of you” like showing up wearing clothes that your interviewers would never wear unless someone died. (And even then they’d fidget.)

        Women are unfortunately especially on the hook for dress that shows they get the culture, since it’s still very much a boy’s club in software. I usually wear slacks and a jacket for interviews, and downplay the femininity.

        It pays to know your industry. Some times and places are just not appropriate for suits.

        P.S. Mind you, if you’re a good enough software engineer, you can wear socks OR a suit down the hall, and no one says a peep. Sartorial Zen.

  2. Why risk it? Wear the suit. If nothing else, it conveys you are serious about the position.

  3. I conduct a LOT of these informal lunch/coffee interviews – probably at least twice a month. My employer is big on these. Normally the men wear a button down and slacks, no tie, and the women wear a pencil skirt or slacks with a nice blouse. Basically, one step above business casual. I wouldn’t care if someone wore a suit but it’s not expected. I especially would feel sorry for a woman who wore heels if we ended up walking a few blocks for coffee.

    If the interview is at the office, however, I would expect the interviewee to be wearing or at least carrying a jacket if not a full suit.

  4. I had a “meet for breakfast” informal interview for my “dream job” once. and yes, I am a lawyer (but don’t hold it against me!). It was in August. I think I wore a yellow blazer and some nice chocolate slacks and a scarf that tied it all together somehow. My future boss showed up in (wait for it!) — cargo shorts and flipflops. I was cool with it. It was a work-from-home-day for him, and I didn’t feel overdressed; hell, I wanted to sell him on me, not the other way around!! It was a late breakfast (10:30am?) and I was starving, so I ordered the Lumberjack’s Platter (he guffawed at how much food I could hold down). Oh yeah, I got the gig! LOL.

  5. “Incidentally, I’m hard-pressed to think of a career that doesn’t require a suit occasionally — even a kindergarten teacher, who may be working on/near the ground with kids, would wear a suit from time to time.”

    Interesting. When are you imagining a kindergarten teacher would wear a suit? I’m not being snarky; I’m just at a loss. “Proper business attire” was one of the most baffling things I encountered when I entered the workforce, as I didn’t grow up around adults who wore suits. That’s why I’ve come to Corporette! My mother, an elementary teacher, probably wore one when she first interviewed for her job 35 years ago, though I have no evidence of that. My father runs a small business, and has a sports jacket for impressing important clients and a black suit for funerals. Period. I assume this is a geography or class thing– I grew up middle class in the Midwest– but it’s terribly confusing. Any be-suited teachers out there care to comment?

    • I did my student teaching in a wealthier school district in the Philly suburbs and teachers regularly wore suits to work (it was a middle school) and men were required to wear ties every day. Teachers dressed very professionally and there was really high expectations for them professionally (not just dress-wise), but they were also appropriately compensated. I now live in the midwest and that kind of professionalism just does not exist in the schools.

      • Fair enough! Thanks for clearing that up– I think it confirms my geography/class thesis. The only schools I attended were in low or middle income areas, and the teachers were decidedly business casual. The students did not wear uniforms, either, which I think might be a factor.

        Of course, if you’re suggesting my mother lacks professionalism, we’ll have to have a fight, hehehe. ;-)

      • s in Chicago :

        I grew up in a middle-class suburb of Chicago. I remember my father dropping me off at school one morning and being very angry because he saw one of the fifth grade teachers was wearing jeans. He said he would make sure I never was in his classroom. Just cracks me up because it meant so much to Dad–he saw it as a complete and utter lack of professionalism.

        I think times have changed. You would be hard pressed these days to find a grade school in my area (a much wealthier suburb of Chicago) where at least some of the teachers weren’t in jeans now and then. FWIW–I don’t think that’s a bad trend. It’s just practical.

      • This isn’t a geography or class thing at all.
        In the upper middle class East Coast town I grew up in, teachers would NEVER wear a suit. I mean never. Maybe, a male teacher here and there would wear a tie for the hell of it one day (can’t say I remember it). Maybe the principal might wear a suit.
        Maybe a female teacher might have on a blazer one day (not matching to the pants/skirt). But suits for teachers? No.

    • Agree – when is a suit necessary for a kindergarten teacher? It wouldn’t be out of place on back to school night, but it certainly wouldn’t be necessary or at all expected. Maybe if presenting at a conference, but that’s not something most kindergarten teachers do.

      • I concur re: public school vs. private school distinction. My daughter’s private Episcopal School runs the gamut. The principle wears a shirt and tie almost everyday. The teachers dress casually but neatly (no jeans unless it’s field day or something). On Chapel Day (every Friday), all the upper school kids wear blazers and the boys wear ties; the teachers spruce up a bit more too. The teachers wear nice dresses and/or suits on back-to-school nights, concert performances, and the like.

    • It’s funny. I vividly remember my elementary school teachers wearing very professional attire (late 70’s/early 80’s) including suits all the time. I grew up in the Northeast. Not sure what they wear today.

      • Oh and it was public school in a low-to-middle class area.

        • KelliJ, have I mentioned lately that I heart you? A fellow low to middle class late 70’s (high school, not elem), but we have a lot in common and I love your common sense :), about work and parenting, oh, and style. Perhaps a shared value from the low to middle class upbringing….

    • Same in the Pacific Northwest. I can’t imagine my middle school-teaching mom in a suit; she certainly hasn’t owned one as long as I’ve been cognizant of such things. Nor do I ever remember any of my teachers wearing suits – slacks and shirts, no ties, were standard for the men, and the women basically wore anything that wasn’t jeans (and sometimes jeans).

    • I have a close relative who is an elementary school teacher (early grades) in a middle class public school district in the suburbs of a major southern city. She does not own a suit. She wears the more, ah, basic styles of Clark’s or athletic shoes to work. Neat jeans with a school t-shirt are a-ok. No doubt, it varies by school district and grade level, but teaching has also changed from the earlier days when teachers sat at their desk or stood at the blackboard. They’re expected to be much more hands-on today, and I couldn’t imagine dealing with crawling on the floor with a room full of kindergartners in a suit!

      • Anonymous :

        It’s funny how dress codes have changed. When I was in elementary school in the early to mid 80s, even students weren’t allowed to wear jeans.

        • The variation is really so wide! (Same Anon from above, btw) I was in elementary school in the mid-t0-late 80s, and we definitely wore jeans. The only dress code rules I remember all through K-12 are: 1. No obscene writing on clothes; 2. Shorts/skirts must come to your fingertips when arms are at your side; 3. No revealing holes or see-through fabric. After I left high school, the dress code got a lot more strict, actually, though jeans were still allowed. I remember my teachers wearing jeans on Fridays, though not normally on other days.

    • Chicago K :

      Funny, I just had a conversation with a woman in my office (banking) who couldn’t believe the principal at her son’s private school showed up to the first day in leggings and a tunic. She said she went up to her and asked where the principal was – she assumed the principal would be wearing a suit.

      I would assume the teacher would wear a casual suit for parent teacher conferences and perhaps a blazer for a feild trip. Otherwise, I agree.

      • I am currently an elementary school teacher employed at an urban charter school. While I do not wear a full suit every day to school, I do wear sheath dresses often, pencil skirts, nice blouses, etc. At my school over 90% of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch, and they need to know more than any other children what professional dress looks like since it often isn’t modeled in their own homes or communities for them. If I want my students to grow up to have the option of a professional job, then I need to teach them all of the norms that go with that.

        • Chicago K :

          Great point!

          • LegallyBlonde :

            Wow–awesome point. As a former free lunch kid myself (now an attorney) thank you for being willing to be an example.

        • Good for you! Teachers should be role models, even if it isn’t the most comfortable position to occupy (or wear).

          • Yes, agreed. I just completed three “back to school” open houses (elementary and middle – all public, but magnet), and while the teachers pretty much wear the uniform of the kids (khakis and a polo w/school logo), the ‘dedicated’ ones tend to do a more ‘dressed up’ look for the meet n greet (albeit not suits – it’s HOT in Fla in August and Fla underpays teachers so badly I respect their decisions to not spend $$ on a suit). And the principal and ass’t principal ALWAYS wear suits for any kind of ‘meaningful’ (parental encounters; teach in; honor ceremony days), even though they too frequently wear the kid uniform on field trip, field day kind of days.

            I guess what I am saying is thank God (or whoever/whatever you believe in) that we (and our kids) are lucky enough to have such dedicated and conscientious people being teachers – I for one would last as an elementary school teacher for about 13 seconds before hari kari…..

          • oops, I didn’t mean to imply that they ‘too frequently’ wear the kid uniform, I meant to say they frequently, too, wear it. :/

        • Never thought of that – that makes so much sense.

    • Anonymous :

      Both Catholic and public schools here, late 90s grad. Teachers definitely did not dress casually at any school I attended. Suits would be appropriate for parent-teacher conferences or graduation, and the principal always wore a suit.

      In my current city (DC) I have a few teacher friends and they actually are required to wear the same “uniform” kids are required to wear – khakis and a plain white shirt.

    • legalicious07 :

      Former teacher weighing in here….

      I worked in a wealthy private (ahem, independent, to be technical) school in the Northeast. I wore a suit to my interviews, but I never wore one again after that — not even on picture day or to parent teacher conferences. We couldn’t wear jeans, tees, or anything inappropriate, of course, but rather we were free to dress business casual (with some teachers emphasizing more of the “business” and others the “casual” parts) during the school year. I chuckle now to think that when I started law school, I was still dressing like a teacher — so much so that my sectionmates often asked me why I got so dressed up to come to class.

    • former teacher :

      I used to teach in FL in a district with a variety of income levels. I subbed at various schools in the district while getting my teaching degree and it was pretty much business casual with casual Fridays across the board. Many teachers will wear jeans daily with a polo or dressier shirt and no one really blinks an eye.

    • I grew up in the rural NW and a few male teachers wore a suit or jacket to work. (Usually either tie or matching jacket, not both). My mom is a special ed teacher and wore a suit to her interview, and wears it to “mediations” where a lawyer will be present. It’s not day to day elementary ed wear, but it does convey some authority and education. The principals, superintendent, and other authorities wore suits.

      However, my dad’s an electrician. His nicest outfit is black jeans, black shirt and bolo tie. So, I’m assuming that by “career” Kat meant to exclude “trades” which makes perfect sense to me.

      I wore a suit to my mail clerk interview back in the day. It wasn’t a career, or a profession, but I wanted to convey professionalism. Maybe it did make me look young or insecure. On the other hand, if I’d worn something that was risky, there’s a good chance I would have seemed not to know “the rules” and not to have valued the interview. It’s hard to be young! Everyone has an opinion about what you should wear and thinks you haven’t earned the right to break the rules yet!

  6. Personally I think a full on suit, unless it’s perhaps a bit more unconventional looking, would look out of place for a coffee shop interview, even if this were a dream job. This is especially the case here, I feel, since the OP suggests her field is one traditionally a little less formal to begin with. To me, black, gray (light or dark), brown (light or dark), and navy are very formal colors, especially for suits, and I just think wearing a suit of one of these colors could look stuffy and a bit ‘trying too hard’ if that makes any sense.

    However, I do think a more non-traditional suit of one of those colors could be okay, or alternatively, perhaps a more conservative suit would work if it were styled in a more relaxed manner as in the example picture (looser fitting blazer, untucked printed shirt, pants). Or, perhaps pair of black/dark dress trousers with an interesting blazer (think, subtle tweed pattern, shorter sleeves with a scarf, a jacket with a uniquely shaped collar) might work as well. I think a sheath dress and blazer or dress and cardigan/belt/scarf could be perfectly acceptable depending on the field/the assumption that the colors of the dress and accessories was not too wild (like hot pink). I like the suggestion of the commenter who suggested a nice pencil skirt and either a high-quality button down shirt or a very nice blouse.

    Ultimately though, I don’t think this situation calls for a full on, conservative suit because it would likely look out of place (especially if this is a less formal field to begin with) and take away from the OPs formal look in the real, formal interview. I think the OP should strive to look polished, clean, and well put together in a manner that’s perhaps somewhere in between business casual and full-on business formal.

    • Exactly – polished, clean, and dressed kind of like her counterpart or a little better.

  7. I would definitely not wear a suit for this. I’m in law and wearing a suit would simply tell the interviewer that you weren’t listening. Pencil skirt pr dress pants, blouse, cardigan is as formal as I would go. I have a nice black and white wrap dress from BCBGMaxAzria that I bought for occassions like this.

    • I agree 100%! Don’t wear a suit – it’ll make them say “Really? She can’t relax?”

  8. When I see “advanced degree”, “casual”, and “cardigan”, I assume “librarian” — but maybe that’s because I just got my MLS and just had a totally informal weekend interview in a coffeehouse, with someone with whom I had social plans later on in the day (which would run on late into the night). In another state, so no guarantee of being able to change. There was a wardrobe dilemma.

    (I decided it was nothing that a nice, but not too formal, jacket and good shoes couldn’t fix. Jackets fix everything, right? Mind you I think cardigans are always appropriate for librarians as long as not worn frumpily, but for an interview I’m happier with something more jacketish.)

  9. Why not pair a blazer (or even a cardigan) with a tank/cami and some dark jeans? I’m thinking “What Not to Wear” esque. Still very put together, but casual enough. You can definitely dress it up with some nice jewelry.

    • Anonymous :

      No jeans. Not even for a weekend interview over coffee. Denim is never appropriate for any sort of business meeting unless you work in a creative field or, I don’t know, are in-house for Levis.

      • Anonymous :

        I agree that jeans are too risky. But a wide-legged trouser might be a nice compromise between business and casual. I agree with JenM in concept though, other than the jeans.

  10. Like the last commentator, I’m a pseudo-librarian (I’m 1/3 of the way through my MLS and work as a library assistant at a university right now). I agree with full suit – even for an “informal” interview. Or at least something suit-like. We had a few open positions at my library recently where I was on the committee, and maybe I’m old fashioned, but I think a suit in ANY field is important. It shows your commitment to the job and to being a professional. I 100% judged our candidatures by how they were dressed for an interview.

    If it’s not a suit it should convey a suit-like feel. Informal or not (no matter how others are dressed) first impressions are everything. I had an interview for a non-profit on “dress down Friday” at Starbucks where I wore a skirt and blouse and she was in jeans. Sure, I was over dressed (and under qualified) but I FELT pretty and professional.

    • Interesting, we had someone come in for a “informal drop by interview”. He showed up in khaki’s and a polo shirt. My thought was “wow, this guy is confident”. (Actually he didn’t consider it to be an interview). 2nd sharpest technical guy I’ve ever worked with, certainly the least willing to cut corners in an envinroment where it’s pushed…. I’d hire him in a second (and we did, based on the reference from the sharpest technical (and equally ethical) buy that I’ve worked with in the past) — Note this was not someone on his reference list.

      However, getting back to the OP my thought would be
      Jeans that don’t look like jeans (I have a pair of black and gray striped jeans that I might use), dress shirt, and interesting flat dress shoes.

      or (kind of my “signature casual piece”) a conversation piece jean jacket (I have a couple, neither of which is denim)… with dress pants and shell.

      I guess it really depends on the interview. I know for my industry, a guy in a REALLY nice suit needs to work harder to prove themselves, and a women too nicely dressed looks too “delicate” (male dominated field).

      For a formal interview, suit is fine, (I’d say no short or 3/4 length sleeves) but not for something billed as “informal”.

      For creative, I’d probably want a “conversation starter” somewhere in the outfit — but I’m NOT in a creative field… and well, I guess an informal interview is a nice place to demonstrate creative.

      Having said that, an interesting suit (actually the one pictured with appropriate other pieces) could work well too.

      Question for the OP – do you want to use something you already have or look for something new?


    • Anon-Abroad :

      I got my MLS a year ago, and for both the jobs I’ve had since, one in the public sector and one in a global Fortune100 company, I’ve interviewed in a semi-formal tweed-skirt (that is a bit longer than my suit skirts) and a knitted semi-formal sweater.

      In both cases, the dress code at the companies is non-existent, (I swear, I saw a guy in a How I Met Your Mother T-Shirt the other day at the Fortune100 company) so dressing one step up from jeans was enough for that.

      When interviewing for my current job, I did look into interviewing in a suit, after reading the advice here at Corporette, but seeing as I’m not currently in either the US or the UK, I opted to go for the less formal outfit.

      And yes, I do wear cardigans from time to time at work, but that’s mostly to get some warmth – the AC is brutal.

  11. Chicago K :

    If you go for the week day interview, I agree with the sentiment to wear something on the nicer side of what you wear at your company today, presuming it is within the same industry as your dream job.

    I wouldn’t go for a suit, but probably a button up with a pencil skirt / trousers.

    If you absolutely feel compelled to wear the suit, I would go for one of the trendier/casual suits that are sometimes shown on here and scorned for looking like something the assistant would wear. I think a casual suit would be more appropriate in this case.

    FWIW, working in finance for the past decade and in a large city, I have also been under the opinion that a suit is always appropriate. I am starting to learn from many around me that this simply isn’t true. Companies and industries have different cultures, and I tend to agree that if you show up in a formal suit you can look very junior – think Alex Keaten.

  12. How about nice dress pants, a patterned or richly textured top, and a cardigan belted the way this is being shown so many places today (think AT, BR…). Add some interesting shoes and subtle jewelry. As a Pacific Northwestener in a non-legal field, I rarely see people in suits. Showing up in one for an interview that’s explicitly designated “informal” and intended to assess communication skills (in which the major commandment is “know thy audience”) would be jarring. Good luck!! Will you let us know how it goes?

  13. I believe I have posted this story before. I worked for a firm where a couple partners wanted to hire an associate and another partner didn’t. One partner wanted to interview some candidates and then present it to the hold out. He asked candidates to dress casually so it wasn’t obviously an interview. The candidates didn’t know the back story. Most dressed casually, a couple didn’t. There can be a bigger reason behind a simple request. Follow directions.

  14. I just had my second coffee shop interview for an in-house legal position. For the first, I wore a conservative skirt suit and apologized in advance that I would be overdressed for the venue, but explained that I was headed to the office immediately afterwards. That was well received by the male interviewer (who wore khakis and a short sleeved buttondown shirt). I think that such a compromise let me look professional without making me appear clueless of my surroundings. For the second interview I wore slacks and a jacket with interesting jewelry. I looked dressed up but not embarassingly overdressed for a coffee shop. Tough if it’s a weekend interview because you can’t use the “heading to the office” excuse. I think slacks and a jacket would be great and if you feel terribly overdressed you can take off the jacket.

  15. Anonymous :

    I agree with people who said a suit probably isn’t necessary.

    I’m an attorney. I’ve had a few casual interviews, pre-interviews, networking meetings, etc. If the interviewer suggests that it is casual, I do not wear a suit. Looking professional is great, but you also want to look like you will fit with the office culture. I think a suit can be very stand-off-ish and alienating to some people.

    I either wear nice slacks/skirt and a blouse or pants, top, blazer combo.

  16. I think a blouse under a more structured cardigan or a tweed casual blazer/sport coat (they were all the rage two years ago) with a modest skirt or slacks would be nice. Add some statement jewelry or a scarf, a little makeup and maybe some funky heels. If you go with the skirt I think this is one of those times where knee high boots (as long as they aren’t too sexy looking, ie, not spike heeled or covered with studs) would be fine in an interview.

  17. This is great information–I have an initial interview with a recruiter this week in a coffee shop at Grand Central. The weather this week has been rainy and super humid, which will turn parts of Grand Central into a smelly sauna. The thought of wearing a suit to this was making me perspire! I think from these ideas I can closet shop something professional and more appropriate for the setting and weather.

  18. I think this question from the reader requires a specification of her location. If she is in DC, NYC, Boston, or Chicago, she should wear a suit to a weekday informal coffee. If she is in Denver, Seattle, or Minneapolis, she won’t need the suit jacket.

    I would wear a skirt or slacks, a casual or colorful shirt, and a suit jacket. At the coffee shop, if the interviewer is super casual, just take the jacket off. If the interviewer is dressed for work (in a suit), than you are appropriate.

    • Mary – I work in downtown Minneapolis, and I disagree with grouping it with Denver and Seattle. I’ve lived and worked in several cities, and the Minneapolis (ie, downtown) professional dress code is pretty formal by comparison. I wouldn’t go to a downtown coffee shop interview without a full suit.

      On the other hand, if it’s a suburban Minneapolis setting it might be more casual, but probably not in the trendy and polished way Denver or Seattle would be.

      • LOL from this Denver native at the words trendy, polished and Denver in the same sentence.

        • SF Bay Associate :

          I was in Denver last month to take a depo, and used a visitor office at our local counsel firm, which is a well respected large regional firm, but not “biglaw.” My depo was on a Friday, so I wanted to come in Thursday evening to do some prep. Nope, no one works after 6pm at the office, my local (very nice) paralegal informed me, nor before 8am on Fridays. Wow, awesome for you but confusing for me.

          I get to the office on Friday morning, in full black suit and silk shell, pumps, and a strand of pearls (depo uniform – easy), and I kid you not – I was surrounded by staff and attorneys in cargo capris, frayed jeans, ribbed tanked tops colloquially known as wife beaters (sorry, offensive, I know) with no covering tops, or tshirts from vacation destinations (think a white tshirt with HAWAII across the chest) and flip flops a la old navy- outfits I wouldn’t even go to the grocery store in. Bra straps, cleavage, accidental midriff, and chipped pedicures abounded. I. was. stunned. They also couldn’t have been nicer. And then they laughed nicely at me when I asked if anyone would be around after the depo (circa 5:30pm on Friday) to let me back into the office so I could ship things home.

          So, from my one experience in Denver, I also smile at the thought of a “trendy, polished Denver.”

          • It’s a different kind of trendy on the West Coast, though! At least, it often is – I’m from Portland, Oregon and “trendy” there looks very different from how it does on the East Coast. Polished, I will grant you.

            As for hours, I have rarely managed to catch our West Virginia local counsel when she’s in the office. It’s enough to make me want to move there.

          • Yep. Coloradans are not known for paying attention to clothes. I hate it when I go back because I love getting dressed up (always have) but if I so much as put lip gloss on my friends ask who I’m putting on makeup for.

          • Heh, I have to wonder if that’s the firm I summered with!

  19. Remember, it is still an interview. I suggest you have a snack before you go and make your coffee order relatively simple with not too many requests for the Starbucks person . Just my .02.

    Good luck.

  20. Thank you all very much! My initial thoughts did seem to be a bit too casual, so I’m thrilled to be corrected.

    • Hi K. There’s lots of good info among the ‘commentariat’ here, and I don’t have much to add, but I remember a recent threadjack or weekend open thread where KZ (I think) had gotten an interview with a federal judge (scheduled during her vacay to her somewhat rural coastal town in Fla (ie, fed cthse is in the post office; no other district judges around), and he told her not to wear a suit, just ‘come in casual’ – similar circumstances to yours, I think. There was a lively discussion, and I think the consensus came out to maybe a nice skirt and blazer or nice skirt and twinset….search KZ on the site, I think you will find the dialog for some more insight. Good luck!!

      • yep, that was basically the consensus. I ended up wearing a nice skirt and short-sleeve sweater. I think it was fine (though won’t hear back on the job until september-ish, so who knows…)

        • So, hope it went well :). Good luck! West or East coast of Fl, if you can share?

  21. A cardigan doesn’t convey authority, competence, or intelligence? Really? But you’re wearing one currently? I am so confused.

    • anon - chi :

      I *think* Kat’s point was not that there is anything wrong with a cardigan – just that a blazer or more structured jacket is a little more authoritative looking, whereas a cardigan is a little more soft/feminine/casual. So a cardi is perfectly fine after you’ve gotten the job, but you might want to go with a structured jacket for the interview itself.

      • I agree with this. I just think her statement was *really* harsh on cardigans, especially since that is an item that is often-recommended on this site. I would never wear a cardigan for an interview (I’m in law, and I agree that a suit is a must for law interview), but I think the statement was really poorly worded/not-qualified in a way that it should be to convey that meaning.

        • My my, this blog is getting cattier by the day… can we focus on the intent on people’s words and not the exact, possibly unfortunate wording?

          • I’m not being catty. I’m genuinely confused. If cardigans make you look unintelligent and incompetent, why would you ever wear them? I really do not understand what Cat meant, and I have no way of knowing if she meant what I hope she meant. It can’t be both ways, and I am usually good at figuring out what people mean and being generous in reading, especially on a blog. But this one has me stumped. Thanks for your understanding.

          • Jay, she didn’t say it conveyed that you were unintelligent or incompetent. She said that it *didn’t* convey intelligence or competence. In other words, it’s kind of neutral. Cardigans aren’t going to make you look bad, but they don’t do a lot to make you look (professionally, not appearance-wise!). Thus, they’re fine as an every day choice when you’re just working in your office or talking with people who know you/your work, but less so when you’re trying to convey a lot of positive things about yourself to someone who doesn’t know anything about you.

            Note: not a comment on this wardrobe dilemma (as a lawyer I lean towards trousers + blazer with a shell in a fun color, but it sounds like a cardigan could also be fine here), just on what I think Kat meant.

  22. I saw something at the Nordstrom Anniversary sale that would be a perfect compromise– it is a sweater/blazer, I think the sales associate called it a swazer. Think blazer (serious, confident, structured) but knitted (less formal, more approachable). Paired with a nice layering piece underneath and a pencil skirt or slacks (maybe some funkier jewelry if you are in a more “creative” field– I think it would be very appropriate. In any case, good luck on your interview!

    • Speaking of the Nordstrom Anniversary sale, any one else just kicking themselves now at passing up on some great deals? I had been “looking” at a couple pairs of shoes and never pulled the trigger. Now I am obsessing over the same shoes but cannot bring myself to pay full price. Sigh.

      • I pulled the trigger on quite a few things at the end of the sale (last day), and now have a lot of returns to make. I couldn’t make it to a store and ordered on-line. I’m keeping only one pair of boots. :-( I’m actually using it as an excuse to make an appointment with a stylist at Nordstrom. Obviously, I can’t pick clothes that look good on me, so maybe a personal shopper will be able to do a better job. ;-)

        • I ended up keeping about half of what I ordered, but wish I had gotten a few more things.

          Report back on your stylist experience – I’ve been really interested in hearing about these. Can’t quite get myself to pull the trigger, though.

    • Oooh, swazer – what a great name for a great concept! I’ll try googling for it :) I can’t wear a blazer to my job, I’d look like I’m crazy, but I love cardigans that masquearade as blazers a little bit.

  23. “I think this question from the reader requires a specification of her location. If she is in DC, NYC, Boston, or Chicago, she should wear a suit to a weekday informal coffee. If she is in Denver, Seattle, or Minneapolis, she won’t need the suit jacket.”

    I’m in Chicago and I disagree. She already said she was in a non-law field. Unless she’s already explicitly going to be on her way to her regular office wearing a suit, a suit looks like overkill if she’s meeting someone for coffee.

    It is interesting to me why law remains such a hold-out when the rest of the world — including some awfully high paid professions and high paid people — have already gone to business casual years and years ago. I wear jackets and pants to clients (with great shoes!) — but a suit would brand me as being stuck in the 80’s and dated. This is especially true since I’m in my forties.

    Honestly, I have more need for dinner suits for personal dress-up events than I do “business-type” suits.

    I’m leading a meeting for a major multinational company this Friday. I just got off the phone with the client. These are VP’s and directors from various locations and we’re meeting in a hotel. They will all be in jeans or khakis. If I show up wearing a business suit, they would chuckle at how dorky it was.

    • Why do you need to repeatedly insult the act of wearing a suit?
      My experience is the complete opposite of yours–it’s not law that is the hold-out, but your profession that is unusual. In most professions people still wear suits on “big” days (ie: interviews). Often times lawyers where suits when they meet with clients precisely because the clients will be in suits.

      And for what it’s worth, most law firms are business casual on a day-to-day basis too.

      • How can it be my profession, when I’m talking about clients who are in all different industries and who span the range of professions within those industries? (marketing, R&D, legal, finance, sales, packaging, etc.) These are food / beverage companies, pharmaceutical companies, personal services, cable television, personal care products, cleaning products, gas / oil, restaurants, various clothing retailers. They are sort of a short-list of corporate America. Almost all are big household-name companies, multinational in scope, and every single one has been business casual for years now.

    • As for why law is a hold out, part of it is certainly the general risk adverse, slow-to-change nature of the profession. But there is at least one good reason for that that I think deserve not to be treated with contempt, which is that, for all that most lawyers rarely see the inside of the courtroom these days, the courtroom and its accompaniments are still an important part of how the profession constructs itself. And lawyers dress in “uniform” suits for court for the same reason judges still wear robes and sit above everyone else on a bench. We’re talking about proceedings where the power of the state is used to lay down mandates as to people’s rights and even their freedoms. So yeah, we invest the process with some formality and ritual. That’s not a bad thing and it does make law substantively different from a lot of professions.

      And hell, unlike some countries, we don’t actually have to wear robes when we’re in court, so in that sense American lawyers are moving along with the times.

      • Makes a lot of sense.

        Plus, your bills are being payed by clients who pay by the hour for advice – any industry where looking trustworthy is important tends to dress better than average.

        In other words, in industries where there’s a specific product you sell, you don’t have to be so image-conscious – but in law, consulting, and a few other industries, it seems to me that you are the product, so you better market it well.

        Still doesn’t explain the great skirts/pants debate. But definitely explains why lawyers get to dress way better than I do :)

      • A-freaking-men. My theory as a lawyer is that I am being paid hundreds of dollars an hour by my client. I should never, ever find myself in a situation where I am dressed more casually than them. To me, that would feel insulting to my client and inappropriate to my profession. Plus, I am a litigator. I truly could be pulled off to court any day that it’s open. So I wear suits. I understand Sharon’s point that law is different, but I don’t necessarily agree that that difference is deserving of scorn and should be changed. And I don’t know why we needed it repeated multiple times.

    • I think your tone, in this post and your first one, comes off as very judgmental and somewhat rude. I assume that this was unintentional.

      Moving on, I think there’s a big difference between being overly formal for a first interview and for being overly formal at a business meeting where you are interacting with clients. In the former situation, it makes the interviewee look serious and perhaps a tad nervous (which is fine). In the latter situation, it looks like you don’t know or understand your clients (which is bad).

    • Anonymous :

      My aunt is in finance in Chicago; she’s high-up at a big corporation. Her office dress code, and that of her previous company too, is far more formal than that of my big law firm. Business formal, no open-toe shoes. So your experience is far from universal.

    • I don’t know what area of Chicago you work in, but in the loop / financial district I would say at least 50% of men you would walk by during rush hour are wearing suits or sport coats. Women tend to bend the rules a bit more, but suits are certainly not uncommon. Wearing a suit here certainly won’t make you look like you are from the 80’s unless you wear one that’s boxy with shoulder pads, or actually left over from the 80’s!

      On a weekday, I would feel more out of place in jeans at a Starbucks here than in a suit.

      Now in Lakeview or Wicker Park, sure, I’d certainly stand out in a suit at a coffee shop. So the bottom line is – know your area, know the culture, look professional and like someone who will fit in to the prospective comapny.

      • “So the bottom line is – know your area, know the culture, look professional and like someone who will fit in to the prospective company”

        This comment puts it all in a nutshell.

  24. I’m a geography processor. Suits are not required and could easily make you look silly in the same kind of trying too hard way you mentioned in the weekend interview. For resarch in archives, I wear something comfortable, for research interviewing people, I dress on the formal side of whatthere likely to wear, but not so distant that they’ll think they’re talking to someone in authority and therefore change their responses. In the classroom, I’m likely go have on a kakhi skirt. Conferences involve khaki and some people wear jeans; everyones trying to look like we’re about to go into the field, or at least give our friends Indy or Laura C advice. I suppose one might wear a suit when making a colloquium presentation, but it certainly isn’t required.

    I’ve yet to read the other comments. I felt so put-off by the looking down your nose effect of your comment that I didn’t check out what others had to say. I realize that this blog focuses more on fashion than on the other stuff that occassionally comes up, but the gender-related career questions interest me a lot more than this attitude towards clothing that sounds lime it came right out of a mean girls cafeteria conversation.

    • Anonymous :

      Agreed. It seems every topic involves a personal attack on someone. And it seems so ridiculous considering that it starts over discussing something like shoes!

    • By “looking down your nose” comment, are you referring to Kat’s original post? I’m confused because I don’t see that at all.

      • Eeep. I call time. It’s hard to figure out who is even looking down whose nose….like somebody said earlier, Kat is really the only person who’s moderating comments here, so who is any one of us to call out another on their comment. Skip it if you don’t like it, don’t say anything if you can’t say something nice (orsomething meaningfully constructive).. Seriously – keep the sisterly/supportive feel going on…I am thinking I might need a little fire extinguisher for telling people ‘how to be’ but I just hope we don’t disintegrate ourselves by way of a lot of (unecessary) sniping at each other…..

        *hugs to all*,


  25. In law in Boston here and even I wouldn’t necessarily wear a suit in Boston. Know your profession and your audience. (Even my clients, mostly big companies, don’t expect me to be in a suit.)

  26. I have been in Human Resources for over 20 years, albeit in a government agency and we have never held “informal” or “coffee shop” interviews. Really, I have never heard of the concept! Interesting idea, I can see some advantages for the company and perhaps the applicant but my first thought was the process is open to more than the normal amount of subjectivity and problems down the road. (Applicant is not good looking enough, professional enough, thin enough, for our company.) Maybe I am off base here, just my two cents…

    • SF Bay Associate :

      Can you elaborate? Just curious on the not good looking/professional/thin enough factor(s). Of course they shouldn’t come into play EVER, but why would they come more into play in a coffee shop interview? Do you find these factors are an issue in interviewing? Really, just curious.

      • Forestgirl :

        I don’t know what Jen meant, but I could see risk in having a single person “screen” applicants out of the office–there is simply less accountability if other people don’t see them/interview them, etc. The interviewer could feel more free to let his or her biases come into play. Not to say that would necessarily happen.

    • Anonymous :

      Well, govt hiring (assuming you mean federal) focuses less on fit and more on scoring. so that’s why. At smaller places especially, fit is a big, big deal.

  27. Anonymous :

    I’m in engineering, and the only time I wore my suits is to interviews. I suppose I think the opposite of Kat on this one, I can only think of a few professions in my area that require or would occasionally require a suit.

    • I’d have to agree and say most of engineering is this way. However, when consultants are visiting their clients, they’re usually in a suit, or whenever we visit the head offices, always in a suit. Whenever there’s an engineering association meeting, men and women show up in suits, which is nice. I wish we had the opportunity to dress more formally more often(believe me, jeans and steel-toed boots are not comfortable all day, every day).

  28. Ok, I’ve read the other comments now and have a question about something one person stated explicitly here & I’ve felt in the background of a lot of CorpOrette discussions. That is the idea that dressing up will give the impression that one is serious about the job. Really? Can someone explain that to me, please? I’m starting to freelance beyond my field, so have to be able to understand where other people are coming from and how they might read things.
    My initial assumption when I see someone in high (over 1-2″) heels or wearing full foundation & make-up or with an obvious professional manicure is that she spends a lot of time thinking about and maintaining her appearance. Rare exceptions would be my professor who interviewed bank presidents for the diss, or a colleague whose work involves research with secretaries. As I mentioned before, good interviews usually require letting the research subject feel comfortable, so one dresses in a way that’s normal for the settig and the person being interviewed. Otherwise, I can’t imagine trying to pay attention to how people are reading social space while I look out for uneven pavement, or taking 20-30 min to ‘do’ hair & makeup when I could be reading an article or two.

    That’s my assumption, and I’m perfectly happy to change it when I see I need to. Could someone please explain to me the assumption that spending time on appearance (beyond basicly being pulled-together and tidy) means anything about one’s attitude towards work besides ‘i’ll get to it later, when I have to’ ? Thanks!

    • If you’re already spending the time to look pulled-together and tidy, it doesn’t take more time to put on a suit than something business casual (this is assuming you’re in a field where more formality = better). Formal dress has always been part of being professional in the business world; only recently has business casual replaced suits as standard attire. In these settings, formality conveys that you take the job/interview seriously and that you care enough to present yourself in the most professional way. If someone is expecting you to wear a suit and you don’t, they might think that you don’t care enough about the job, or are clueless (it works the other way too).

      Also, just because someone wears 2 inch heels, make-up and a suit does not mean that they spend “a lot” of time thinking about and maintaining their appearance. Plus, that is the whole point of this website – advice for women on how to present themselves in the workplace. Like it or not, what you look like matters.

    • Anonymous :

      I think it all depends. I’m a lawyer, and it’s an image-conscious profession. The way you look conveys a message. Where I work, that message needs to be competence, authority, professionalism, attention to detail. A suit, manicure and nice jewelry shows that you took the occasional seriously, paid attention to small details, it conveys authority, etc. I want to interview people who are attentive to their appearance because it shows me that they care about how the clients perceive them. In your field it sounds unnecessary and in some cases, unhelpful because it won’t put research subjects at ease.

    • From my perspective, the important thing is dressing appropriately for *your* role/company/etc. – this is how you show you are serious about your job. If my job required me to wear a suit every day due to the corporate culture, so be it. It doesn’t, so I need to be attuned to what the expectations are.

      • “My initial assumption when I see someone in high (over 1-2″) heels or wearing full foundation & make-up or with an obvious professional manicure is that she spends a lot of time thinking about and maintaining her appearance.”

        I’m not sure I understand. Are you saying this is a bad thing? As I look around my office every woman that is seated in an office is in heels, wearing make-up and has a manicure. The ones who are not are sitting in cubicles. This made it a very easy choice for me. Appearance counts.

        • Anonymous :

          “As I look around my office every woman that is seated in an office is in heels, wearing make-up and has a manicure. The ones who are not are sitting in cubicles.”

          Very well said. I’d add that there are some sitting in cubicles wearing heels (or appropriate flats), makeup and with a manicure, and in a couple of years they’ll be sitting in grad school and then in an office themselves. Dress for the job you want.

        • Your office is like opposite!my office. Which definitely goes to show that the point about office culture is not one to understate.

          • Tired Lawyer :

            same here. I used to love makeup, manicures, and dressing up, but these days I’m billing ~60 hours a week and really do not have time for it. I can still dream about it though!

      • Very well put, AD.

    • “My initial assumption when I see someone in high (over 1-2″) heels or wearing full foundation & make-up or with an obvious professional manicure is that she spends a lot of time thinking about and maintaining her appearance. ”

      Are you talking about visible makeup, or any makeup? Well-applied makeup shouldn’t be all that obvious, IMO. I think having a nice manicure is not necessary, but is a good, polished finishing touch. Regardless of whether we’re talking cardigan and black slacks :-) or whether we’re talking full-on business suit and pumps, I see no reason why someone wouldn’t want to look polished and pulled-together, all else being equal.

      Shoes are just that, shoes. It takes as little effort to slip on a pair of moderate heels as it does a pair of cute flats, so as long as they go with the outfit in question, I’m not sure why you think it would mean that someone slipping on heels is high-maintenance.

      • Jen notes that she’s a professor, which means that she probably spends significantly more time on her feet than most commenters here would (lecturing, etc). In that context, heels may very well be higher-maintenance, since they’re typically not as comfortable for that type of environment.

        • Or at least I think it’s the same Jen from earlier in the thread – sounds like an academic environment.

      • I don’t consider 1-2″ heels to be high heels or somehow high maintenance. I spend all day on my feet and always wear 3″ heels. Besides, putting on 3″ heels takes the same amount of time as slipping on flats. I’m confused about how this signifies someone who is high maintenance.

        • I’m always confused by the heels-inches debate to begin with. My girlfriend is about 5’1″ and looks like a little girl without her 3-4″ platform heels. I’m 5’10” and look overpowering in anything over flats. The same shoe rules do not apply to us both in an office setting.

          That said, I always apply my own personal rule that the higher the heel, the more conservative the rest of the shoe needs to be (i.e. by the time you hit a 3″ heel for the office, the rest of the shoe is a matte, unembellished, closed toe, leather in a neutral color, preferably black.)

          At the end of the day, I just ask myself if my first gut reaction on seeing the jewelry/outfit/horribly slutty peep-toe man-slaying harlot shoes is “female VP” or “receptionist”. And I only buy the former. Works for me.

    • I’d say that the general idea is that dressing well and being well groomed shows respect for your company, co-workers, and clients. It gives an immediate first impression that says that you pay attention to details. Well-dressed and well-groomed shouldn’t look fussy and it doesn’t have to take a long time, either. If you have a good haircut that works for you with minimal effort, a tried and true quick “natural face” make-up routine, getting ready in the morning and looking good can be fast.

      It’s the same reason that if someone looks into an office (sans office-dweller) that appears to be neat, tidy, and organized and then looks into another office in which files, half-drunk coffee cups, and wadded up napkins are strewn around, many people will assume the former office-dweller is the better worker. You can, of course, overcome negative first impressions with quality work, but it is better to avoid having to overcome anything!

      All that said, I think professional dress is, to some extent, a status symbol. If I’m wearing high heels and a pencil skirt, it’s obvious that I’m not doing manual labor.

    • Jen,

      Not necessarily so.

      – Shoes take zero effort to slip on
      – I get a mani/pedi during my lunch hour, so what’s the effort there?
      – Makeup (all of 5 mins since I use no foundation/concealer/mascara, just moisturiser, loose powder & lippie)

      Honestly I look pulled together and it’s not a big deal. The same goes for most folk, I assume.

    • Another Sarah :

      “Could someone please explain to me the assumption that spending time on appearance (beyond basicly being pulled-together and tidy) means anything about one’s attitude towards work besides ‘i’ll get to it later, when I have to’ ?”

      I was always taught that spending time on your appearance, including being basically pulled-together and tidy, means that you respect yourself enough such that other people should respect you too. To me, it doesn’t mean “I’ll do my work once I finish re-applying my mascara and filing my nails,” which is how I took your last sentence (if you do think this, that’s cool). FWIW, I rarely get a manicure (once every couple years), don’t wear foundation, and my idea of “full makeup” is tinted moisturizer, mascara, and blush. In college being a file/docket jockey for the State’s Attorneys, I dressed and acted in such a way that I was regularly mistaken for one of the State’s Attorneys. I was 21. I almost never wore a full suit, but I was always a step or two above “basically pulled-together and tidy.” At the time, I was dressing for the job I wanted, not the job I had.

      I makes sense to me that, when conducting research and research interviews, that one should dress to make their subject feel comfortable. In (legal) job interviews, however, my impression has been that the object is not to make the interviewee feel comfortable. On the flip side, the interviewee wants to make the interviewer comfortable that they can command the respect and they have the skills to do the job. To me, this requires more than just being basically pulled-together and tidy.

      IMO, If you dress like you know what you’re doing, then people will think you know what you’re doing.

    • I agree that dressing up makes you look serious. However, dressing up waaaaay too much makes you look ridiculous. So, if the “normal” attire in your context is, say, pants and blouse, add a blazer to dress up; but if the “normal” attire is jeans, sneakers and t-shirt, than dressing up means wearing something like nice jeans, blouse and flats; and wearing a suit in that situation will make you look completely out of touch.

      There really are lots of different worlds out there, clothing-wise. I’m in a field that’s way more casual than I’d prefer, so on days I need to project a look of competence I dress down a little – so that I’m just a tad bit more dressed up than others. But if I wear, say, a sheath dress, pearls and heels to a meeting, I’d better be pretty darn sure I have a lot of credibility built up, because everyone’s first thought is going to be “oh wow, she looks so out of place”.

    • “My initial assumption when I see someone in high (over 1-2″) heels or wearing full foundation & make-up or with an obvious professional manicure is that she spends a lot of time thinking about and maintaining her appearance.”

      Oh, heavens to Betsy, Lord forbid someone would spend any time thinking about or maintaining their appearance, which is how 90 percent of the world judges you! It’s too bad people are so superficial, right, because otherwise people could just wear sweats all the time and never wash (or God knows, BLOW DRY) their hair and no one would care!

      In my neck of the woods, nice shoes/nice clothes/”done” hair/makeup/manicure is considered baseline personal appearance maintenance for women. Women who dress frumpily, never wear makeup, and have bitten, un-manicured nails are made fun of, and not taken seriously. If you walk around looking like a schlub in my area, you would rarely get jobs and you would never get dates. There’s kind of a minimum level of personal upkeep that’s expected, and frankly, I like it that way. I can’t stand it when I see women of any age, who would be quite attractive if they would just put half an hour of effort into their appearance, stomping around in clumpy shoes, wearing sweatsuits or some marginally work-appropriate equivalent, without even a smidge of colored lip balm on their face. My husband calls this the “Marmy Effect,” meaning “ugly old schoolmarm.” And it does matter. Like it or not, people do judge on appearance. I would judge someone who showed up to pitch their services to me appearing unkempt, and I would judge them poorly. We work with all kinds of people and looking presentable is an important part of what we do. This is not to say someone has to have 4-inch spike heels, a girdle, inch-long acrylics, and Tammy Faye Bakker makeup on – in fact, that would also leave a bad impression. But yes, it does matter whether someone took 15 minutes to think about what they look like before walking out the door of their house into the wide world. Otherwise I don’t have much confidence they think about how they, or their work, are perceived by our clients, and that is important. Very important.

  29. Forgot to click ‘notify me of follow-up”

    • I can see both sides of the issue but I think it all stems from the fact that most people judge based on appearances. Especially in a situation where you only have 20-30 minutes to meet the person. As a result, I was raised to err on the side of appearing too formal. I once interviewed for a childrens ski instructor position in a cardigan, slacks, and brown flats. All my interviewers were in jeans and sweatshirts and I’m sure some of them thought I was an uptight east coast b-tch but I was uncomfortable going to an interview in less formal attire so I just tried to play up my fun side using my tone of voice, facial expressions, and responses to their questions. (I did get the job).

      Also for some of us, dressing more formally actually speeds things up in the mornings. My office is business casual except when we have client meetings, etc. but I wear a suit and heels most days because it actually speeds up my getting ready time. It’s a simple calculation in the shower of what suits have I already worn this week vs. what shirts/sweaters are clean. My outfits basically pick themselves that way. I really struggle when I dress in anything else and usually spend a lot more time agonizing over all the choices. Most days I get out of bed at 8 am and leave the house at 8:30 in a suit, heels, foundation, coverup, powder, and mascara (although with wet hair).

      • This. I will start wearing suits once summer is over (more relaxed dress code during the summer where I work) even though my office/position is more business casual because it’s just so much easier. I’m terrible at figuring out what goes together when i need three pieces (shirt+bottom+cardigan/blazer)–way easier to just throw on a suit and stick a shirt under it, especially since all my suits are neutrals and go with anything.

      • Exactly. I’ve worked in both formal and business casual environments. Once you’ve purchased the wardrobe for it, formal wear is easier to manage for work than “business casual” – pick a suit, or a skirt/pair of pants and shirt (and maybe a jacket or cardigan), shoes are all pretty similar, throw on the watch and pearl/gemstone studs and – bam! – ready to go! The colors are all based in neutrals (black/navy/gray/tweed for me) so they’re pretty interchangeable. If I want a little variety for the weekends, I go to Nordstroms and buy some cute Nanette Lepore or Classiques jackets to wear over my matching skirt or pant/shell ensembles.

        With business casual, I end up spending more to update my more “colorful” and “personally expressive” wardrobe because I can’t wear my favorite wine-floral dress again, and I’ve already worn my black pants/button-down combo twice that week. And the question of “too casual/too formal” for the office is always hanging over my head.

  30. Advanced Degree + informal –> I’m thinking scientist?

    If you’re in the sciences, I’d recommend simple khakis or black pants, some kind of blazer+cami or simple button-down shirt, nicely fitted. Do not wear a lab coat. You could even go with jeans if the kind of job you’re going for is the type that requires proficiency with a soldering iron and crawling into spaces between racks of servers. You want people to feel comfortable around you, and some people in very techie fields don’t necessarily feel comfortable around full suits.

    Styles differ widely between East Coast and West Coast. I’m lucky enough to work in an environment that cares little about how you dress. That previous statement is actually false. You do not want to be “too slick” or “too corporate” if you want people to think of you as being the geeky brain-in-a-vat they hired you to be. It’s an attitude that pervades a lot of geeky circles on the West Coast. If you wear a full suit, that’s because you’re an investor, or you spend your time doing marketing or your training is in a field that’s interested in profit motives. Mostly it shows that you’re barking up the wrong tree.

    Once again, it really depends on your field. (There is so much outside the “corporate”-to-“creative” dichotomy most posters are thinking here.)

  31. I once interviewed at a big multi national for an in house position. The interviewing lady was leading that particular legal department. She wore old ratty clothes for our interview. *shudder* I mean I am not expecting you to dress up for the interview, but wearing old ratty clothes to work? COME ON

    Ladies, acknowledging that we are still quite a bit old fashioned in our dress code (and how), we have to still acknowledge that some other “professions” are just not as …uh…professional …like legal profession! Hence the snark and 80s references.

  32. Actually in reading the original question, the first thing that popped into mind was “european style”…. which I’m having some trouble describing, but very pulled together and not a suit in sight – when I worked in europe, (technical field), people were well dressed but not usually in suits — and not a lot different dress on the weekend — still VERY pulled together and elegant.


  33. “Incidentally, I’m hard-pressed to think of a career that doesn’t require a suit occasionally — even a kindergarten teacher, who may be working on/near the ground with kids, would wear a suit from time to time.”

    Really, Kat!

    For the OP, how about a pencil skirt/A line /trousers + cashmere sweater? Depending on the outfit/weather, add a scarf/colourful bag/jewellery.

  34. Sorry about any confusion over handles. I (professor Jen) realized after my first post that there is another Jen, who is in hr. I should change my nom de plume here bc I’m such an infrequent contributor, but I’ll leave it the same for the rest ofthis thread to avoid confusion.

    Thanks to those of you who explained a bit about what things look like from the “other side”. The idea of attention to detail showing in careful detail in ones dress I can understand, as well as the argument that if that’s what you’ve got in your closet, it’s easier than if your closet’s contents are like my closet’s

    About the heels: university profs rarely spend more than 10 hrs teaching per week, so that’s not the issue as much as the impression they give. Women wearing either lope like clumsy gazelles or actually straighten their knees with each step, so their hips swing. I do the latter, but would not want to draw attention to my hips swinging or accentuate my sexuality in any other way when the focus is supposed to be on something cerebral.

    Several people commented that it’s basically respectful to clean up for clients, colleagues, students…I’m not sure they read the whole post. I certainly do try for a neat, together appearance, just one that draws
    away from my person rather than highlighting my presence.

    Now after reading those comments I’m trying to think of what sort of outfits I should wear for meetings relating to freelance or parttime work. I’m in a Florida city (w coast, not Miami) and am thinking of translating, editing, writing, tour guide, museum docent or curator. Buying a suit would make me feel phony and self-conscious but if the “don’t let em see you sweat/don’t be a striver” ethic from academia is going to imply I don’t care, then… I care. I’m thinking linen pants or skirt and a simple, neat-ooking top. Is that likely to give a better impression than the “I’m off to the field” lok of academia?

    • Another Sarah :

      I think the outfit you picked out (the linen pants/skirt, simple top) is going to give a better impression than the “just off the field” look. *Harkening back to my vacay last week in Naples, FL :-)* I think I would go for something just a step more formal, like a nice (cotton) sheath dress or skirt and a nice, simple shirt/blazer.

      In my view, academia is supposed to be cerebral. And I think professors and academics just naturally go first to the person’s thoughts and vocabulary and not how they are dressed. Which is nice of them when us brilliant students wear our pajamas to class. :-) Outside of academia, however, you have to convince the other person you know what you’re talking about before you even open your mouth.

    • Linen pants or skirt and a nice blouse sounds fine. None of the jobs you mentioned sound like they require dressing up more than a professor does. Linen wrinkles easily so if you want to look even more pulled together, pick a skirt or slacks in a different fabric, maybe even a nice seersucker skirt since it’s Florida.

      Regarding your shoes comment below, I can’t walk in heels either and I’ve never worn them, and I’m a lawyer who wears a full suit half the time. But you really should get pedicures. It feels good and relaxing, plus it’s actually good for your feet. I bring a book with me and read the whole time.

    • I’m from your part of FL and I think a cotton or linen skirt/pants with a nice top would be fine. Few people I know outside of the legal sector own a suit, so I’d think you’d feel really out of place if you showed up to a meeting wearing one.

      FWIW I don’t love getting mani/pedicures either. My nails are too weak for manicures and I don’t find pedicures particularly relaxing. I will get pedicures from time to time, but it’s probably a few times a year at most.

    • I am a college prof and regularly wear heels. What else am I supposed to wear with skirts, skirt suits, and dresses? Trust me, I’m able to look professional in heels. On my (small-town, Midwestern) campus the standards for professional dress tend toward the conservative; of the women with offices on my floor, none of whom do labwork or studio work, most look professional and pulled-together every day; some wear skirts/dresses with heels, some don’t. A few are total fashion disasters (sweats and Hawaiian print shirts on a regular basis, for instance.) Modeling professional attire for students is always one of my goals when choosing clothing for the day, and most of my female colleagues seem to have the same approach.

      I also can’t imagine attempting a total separation of the corporeal and the cerebral via my fashion choices, nor working to hide all evidence of myself as a person from the classroom… but maybe there’s a significant difference in our fields, geographical areas, institutional norms, etc.

  35. Also about the shoes–it’s not the amt of time to put them on–it’s the attention that must be paid to where and how you’re walking that strikes me as high maintenance, and taking the associated time for footcare. Pedi during lunchbreak? In a profession where many people (over 60% of women) don’t have kids because they distract from a life of the mind, I’d have a hard time explaining how taking time out in the middle of my day to zone out from work and focus on something mundane and based on my body was useful, especially since I’m a single mom.

    Still, interesting to hear perspectives from other fields thanks for helping me understand.

    • “Pedi during lunchbreak? In a profession where many people (over 60% of women) don’t have kids because they distract from a life of the mind, I’d have a hard time explaining how taking time out in the middle of my day to zone out from work and focus on something mundane and based on my body was useful, especially since I’m a single mom. ”

      Who would you have to explain it to? For all the observer knows, you painted your own nails last night. While reading Anna Karenina or watching America’s Next Top Model, whichever works.

      Would you have to “explain” away getting your hair cut, as well? That’s basic body maintenance.

      • I totally agree. Not to mention, I find taking time to zone out and do something mundane helps me relax and refocus on work. I also sometime use it to decompress into the weekend. If I work all day on a Saturday, I’ll try to get a pedicure when I leave work so I can relax and not be so antsy and still focused on work in the evening.

  36. I have an advanced degree in a technical field, and the kinds of jobs that I’ve done involve some working with my hands in lab settings. For interviews, I’ve always tried to convey the impression that I could start doing the job right then, if necessary, which means that I avoid skirts or shoes that expose my feet while still looking neat, put-together and a tiny bit stylish.

  37. I do a lot of human resources law and am also puzzled with this concept of a coffee shop inerview. It just does not seem to make sense. I was once interviewed in a sort of fancy restaurant. I thought that was strange. I had trouble eating and aswering questions at once – three interviewers. Not a good plan. Interviewer needs to take notes. How to do that in a coffee shop?

    I like Candace’s concept of dressing to set an example for kids; and V on the subject of how lawyers dress and why.

    • It’s not a formal interview, but an informational interview. The interviewee gets to ask questions about the company and vice versa. Usually when I do them there’s not even an opening, the interviewee’s just hoping to get on the short list for when there is one. It’s a great way for an interviewee who doesn’t already have an “in” with my company to get one. It also enables me to have a pool of preferred candidates ready when I do need to hire someone, and the fact that the interviewee usually got the interview because s/he has some connection to someone at my company means I already have a reference and have been assured of his/her quality.

      • The interviewer takes notes the same way as always — on a pad of paper with a pen or pencil, presumably.
        Given that Starbucks and similar places seem to be the daily office for many people, it’s not at all unusual to see several people huddled over a pad as someone draws or explains something, or someone talking and someone else taking notes. It could be an interviewer and a high school student applying to college, or several professional colleagues discussing a given matter, or the informal interview that we’re talking about. Is this not the case at these types of places in your area?

  38. This is a meet and greet. NO SUIT! You’ll look way too eager. Depending on your climate, I would do some version of casual Friday. Here are a few options (1) black dress pants with a colored (deep pink?) modal shirt and a white/black stripped linen blazer and Kitten heels; (2) light grey suit and a fabulous top underneath -depending on how casual the interviewer is, you can slip off your jacket and profess to either coming from your current job or from another interview; or (3) pencil skirt and a printed shirt with a solid colored blazer that doesn’t match the skirt (i.e., navy skirt/tan jacket). Good luck.

    • I like these suggestions.

      I agree that, if its in a coffee house, a full matching suit is probably too much. I’d go with the blazer/pants combo or some of the other suggestions from Cathy. Great ideas!

  39. I think the cardigan can be perfectly acceptable as long as she’s got a neat dress, skirt or pair of trousers underneath. Definitely no sandals. A belted cardigan is probably even better. I do agree that she should avoid the weekend interview at all costs. The prospective boss can’t be happy about the idea of taking time out of his or her weekend for work.

  40. I’m 36 and I have never owned or worn a suit in my life. Admittedly, I have worked with people who do wear suits, so it’s not that the suit is inappropriate, just that it is not required. I’ve worked in the catering industry, as a school teacher, in churches, in academic administration and as a lecturer. I’ve always been able to dress smartly and appropriately without resorting to a suit.

  41. Thanks Mel!

  42. on the topic of work wear how about a little maniacal mad men for inspiration….

  43. Anonymous :

    These days its not about suit v. nonsuit, its about, do I look like an attorney? or someone who works in the clerks office? A hard to articulate line, but, I ask myself every morning if I would be confused with one of the clerks – whether its my hair, or my outfit, or my shoes or everything.

    I love this blog, but dont ever take it too seriously. Somedays, I get away with dressing more casually because Im just “feeling” confident. Some days, I need to wear the suit in order to feel and convey authority. I mean, “it all depends” about sums it up… An interviewer is probably looking less at whether your heels are 1-2 inches or 3, and more at how does this person carry themself?

  44. Anon at 10:26, am I correct in assuming that you’re in a B-school? My finance prof often wore very matchy dressy outfits that would be completely out of place at the social science conferences I’ve been to. Humanities types seem to be dressier than us, but not in the “professional” kind of way of business school folk. Am I correct?
    Sharon and K, that’s the point–if it’s a calling, you’re not supposed to waste your time on empty headed stuff. There is no separation of on- vs. off-clock hrs, at least not for the academics I know (but I suppose people at teaching colleges with very little research commitment might see it differently)

  45. Dress like you would for a client meeting or a witness deposition. That is, wear one of the “fashionable suits” featured in this blog’s regular “suit” column. It doesn’t have to be black or navy or super-conservative, but it should look like you are trying to project a professional and authoritative demeanor on behalf of your company or firm, and nothing does that as well as a blazer/suit jacket.

  46. Love the comments. Lots to read. I work in science and I have only used a suit for my PhD defense. We basically are never required to wear suits but as I learned from my very successful and gorgeous female friend: Hot girls need to dress professionally to be taken seriously. So a suit is never too much. Even in science.

  47. I would go for nice trousers in a neutral color and a crisp white shirt. Dressed without being overdressed.

  48. Anonymous :

    Still need to read through all of the comments (got about halfway before my head started spinning). I’m in a similar situation to the OP, I’m currently going to interviews in a technical field (PhD scientist positions at biotech companies). For the on-site interviews with presentation, I wear a dark gray suit. No one has questioned this choice, even when some of the interviewers were dressed in jeans and plaid shirts with snaps (very chic in biotech right now). It’s the same level of dress that I expected of candidates during my last job, when I conducted a lot of interviews.

    For the informal or coffee shop meetings, I was initially at a loss, so I thought about what I would expect of candidates if I’m conducting an interview. Now I have two options based on my body type and the level of formality in the field. Option 1 is a sheath dress with (yes) a cardigan and heels. Not a slouchy, V-neck cardigan, but a crewneck, Kennedy-type cardigan. Option 2 is dark gray dress pants, heels, a silky shell or top, and the same cardigan from option 1. Both options are safe business casual. I dislike blazers, and my chest and very short torso prevents me from looking good in almost any button-down shirt. Unless someone tells me different, I’m sticking with these options.

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