Guide to Basic Women’s Suiting

womens-suitsIt can be tricky for women to find a great interview suit — where to start?  

A General Note on Women’s Interview Suits: If you are interviewing for a conservative job (law, investment banking, etc.), the whole point is that your brain is what the interviewer is interested in — not your fashion sense.  Your resume and your words should speak louder than your clothes, and to that end, the entire goal of the interview outfit should be to make sure that it doesn’t distract the interviewer.  Show personality through your words, not your clothes.  (Pictured: Theory ‘Gabe B – Tailor’ Jacket, available at Nordstrom for $375.)

What color suit should you get? Most people will tell you that a navy suit or a dark charcoal suit is the way to go, if only because both colors are less severe than black. (Although black women’s suits are so popular that one reader wondered if she could “get away” with a gray suit for interviews!) Personally, I think a black suit is fine as well — and if you’re on a budget, it’s easier to break the suit into separates once you’re working. Please do not try to match different black fabrics to “make” a suit.  If you’re only buying one or two suits, though, do your best to avoid pinstripes — they tend to be more memorable, harder to accessorize, and the pieces tend to be harder to wear as separates. (If you do end up buying one, though, check out our tips on how to wear a pinstriped suit.)

What to wear beneath the suit? From a practical perspective, sleeves are a good thing — even if it’s a short-sleeved silk sweater rather than a camisole or “shell.” This will help you extend the number of wears before you have to dryclean it (and you shouldn’t have to dryclean your suit that often). Otherwise, for an interview you want something that isn’t too fussy — a white, blue or pink button-down can be great, provided there is no gaping. (Check out our Guide to the Best Tops under Suits.) A short-sleeved silk sweater can be great (like those made by August Silkicon; you can also occasionally find them at Banana Republic, Talbots, and Ann Taylor), or even a silk jersey t-shirt can be fine provided that it looks like new and is opaque enough.  While prints are acceptable, the safest way to play it is to go with a solid color that flatters your skintone.  (In fact, while a white blouse with a black suit is fine, it sometimes has just a hint of “I might be a waiter — or a hired killer” look about it with women — so be warned.)  Some people think a square neck is the best look of all with suits; other prefer to wear blouses beneath their suits.  In terms of what colors to wear with your suit, for an interview it’s probably best to stick with solid classics (white, black, or pastels like blue, pink, or lavender).

What accessories (shoes and bags) should I wear? Note that you can wear black leather with navy (as well as cordovan, a reddish burgundy that can be difficult to find in women’s shoes). In the men’s world, brown is often thought to “dress down” a navy suit. Our Guide to Comfortable Heels may be helpful to you, as well as the readers’ comments there — ultimately you should be looking for a closed-toe pump that you can walk in.  In terms of what bag to carry — I always like to carry an interview bag that is big enough to hold a folder with copies of my resume in it. (I empty the usual contents of my purse into the tote bag and just carry the one bag.) The bag doesn’t have to be leather (a nylon one is lighter, in fact) but it should be as nondescript as possible. We’ve done a few round-ups of tote bags, but in general note that TJ Maxx and the like can be great spots to find a black tote bag.  As for jewelry — think conservative here.  Your earrings should be posts, or at the very least things that don’t swish about if you nod your head.  (See above re: distractions.)  You should wear a watch (yes, even if you use your cellphone to check the time — they signify reliability to the interviewer).  I’m always a fan of a simple, high-quality pearl necklace; a chunkier statement necklace would also work provided that it fits with the rest of the outfit.  Avoid wearing bracelets that will make noise if you shake hands.

OK:  on to the suit itself.

Skirt or pantsuit? The most conservative answer here is a skirt suit — which, of course means yes, pantyhose.  This may change as more members of the “old guard” retire, but for now know that many older people in the business world (and their proteges) take the skirt suit seriously as a sign of respect.  (I’ve even heard of a blind judge who cared so much about it that he made his clerks tell him when a woman appeared before him wearing a pantsuit.)  Avoid a mini-skirt at all costs, and be careful of vents in the skirt — what seems like an acceptable side-slit may reach mid-thigh once you’re sitting down.   (Always, always, always do an interview mirror check:  pull your chair to the front of a full-length mirror and sit down in front of it, to assess your interview outfit.)  You may also want to check out our poll on hem lengths — it seems like just above your knee is a good length.  Please back away from the shorts suit; if you’re only buying one suit I’d avoid the short-sleeved suit.

Do I really have to wear pantyhose?  In the past, readers have frowned on wearing tights for interviews — and bare legs are certainly not advisable.  Nude-for-you hose is the most popular for interviews — check out our advice on how to wear pantyhose if you’re having problems such as runs. For non-interview days, tights are fine — we’ve talked about the best opaque tights, how to launder your tights, and what color tights to wear with a navy suit.

Separates or a set? A number of suits are sold as a set, with one price (and one size) for both the jacket and the bottom.  In general, suiting separates are better — you can buy multiple pieces, and in the size you need for each part.  For example, there may be both a matching skirt and a pant, or sometimes even multiple jackets in different cuts.  Just make sure you dryclean all of the pieces together so they wear the same.

Before you wear your suit… at the very least, be sure to open any vents that are sewn shut (particularly on the back of the jacket or on the back of the skirt).  Pockets may also be sewn shut, but you don’t have to open these — a lot of times items seem to lay better if the pockets are closed. Tailoring your suit can make a big difference (and may be necessary if you’re petite).  We’ve talked about the most common tailoring alterations that women get, as well as specific topics such as how to tailor a plus-sized blazer.  Your blazer doesn’t need to button — at least not absolutely — but it should be close. Buy a suit that fits you — don’t obsess over the size — and wear it with confidence.

Maintaining your suit:  As noted above, you shouldn’t have to dryclean your suit very often, and you should dryclean all of the pieces together so they wear evenly.  In the rare event that your suit rips after just a few wears, your first line of defense should be to call the company; after that try taking it to a tailor.  When your suit starts to look shiny (or drycleaning doesn’t take the smell away), it’s time to get a new suit.

Which suiting brands are best?  Suit quality differs from brand to brand, but in addition to quality it can be a matter of finding which suits fit your shape.  For example, Theory suits are loved by women with a straight figure — but they can be problematic for curvier women, who tend to prefer Ann Taylor or Tahari lines.  Meanwhile, petite women’s suiting, tall women’s suiting, and plus-sized workwear  and blazers all have their own challenges.  Roughly, here are the different tiers:

Lowest price (under $150 for the suit): Some of the stores you frequented as a teenager do have a surprising number of lower-priced suiting options, such as The Limited, Express, and, yes, Victoria’s Secret — but while they may be more affordable, the quality may be lesser (and their cuts a bit more sexy) than the sometimes frumpier brands you can find at a sales rack at Smart Bargainsicon or Overstock.com (or their in-real-life equivalents like TJ Maxx), such as Kasper or Le Suit.  Macy’s has a great selection suiting separates and sets that are made for Macy’s by designers (their “Everyday Value” or EDV line” includes AK Anne Klein, Calvin Klein, and Tahari by ASL).  Spiegel or Chadwicks can also be a source of inexpensive suits if you’re really in a bind.  Great deals can also be had at some of the brands’ websites themselves; Anne Klein and Jones New York both hold regular flash sales.  Here’s our more recent discussion on the best inexpensive women’s suits.

Mid-level ($200-$400 for a suit). Many readers will swear that the quality has changed/is changing on these lines, but for the moment, I consider all of these brands to be the staple of many working women’s wardrobes:  Ann Taylor, Banana Republic, and J. CrewBrooks Brothers cuts can be a bit boxier, but they’re also a great source for mid-level suits; Talbots has also recently started making less boxy cuts for suits.

Expensive. Theory suits are considered the gold standard by many (and sold at Saksicon, Bloomingdale’sicon, Nordstromicon).  Hugo Boss also has lovely suits (particularly the Boss Black line, also available at Saks); as well as the Classiques Entiericon line at Nordstrom.

There are obviously other suiting brands out there, many of which I would put in the “power suit with personality” category, including everything from Rebecca Taylor and Nanette Lepore to Armani, St. John’s, Chanel, and Akris Punto — this is the kind of thing that we tend to explore with our regular Wednesday feature, Suit of the Week.

Readers, which are your favorite brands for suits?  What do you look for when you’re getting a suit tailored, or when you’re trying to decide between two suits?

Also, please don’t forget to check out other Corporette shopping guides!  Please note this page was last updated February 2014.

Comments

  1. Another women’s suit brand I don’t see mentioned is Pendleton. Pendleton suits are wool, they are cut well and they last forever. They sometimes produce several styles of jacket, pant and skirt in a given fabric so someone on a budget could buy several separates and have them all work together. I have especially found that their tweed wools work exceptionally well with anything I choose to put them with. Pendleton can be a little pricey – $275 for a jacket at full price – but they have sales about twice a year where separates go down to under $100 and it becomes very affordable to put a suit together.

    • I would second Pendleton. I love the quality and they come in petite sizes. As quality goes down at my old standbys of JCrew, Ann Taylor and even Talbots, I’ve been eying them more and more.

    • AnonymousFRA :

      Pendleton is also a good choice if you are looking for skirts in slightly longer lengths, as they typically have several 25-27 inch options (whereas JCrew is mostly 21-22inches which, while it may work for some women, is sadly too short for the office for my long legs).

    • San Francisco :

      St. Johns Knit pants for tall size 14 on the bottom is excellent, esp ‘Diana’ pants. With these in black you can wear any jacket. If you wear a separates black jacket and it doesnt match the pants. wear a longer length satin top or shirt that peeks out to break up and interrupt the “non matching black” appearance.

  2. Almost all my suits are from Brooks Brothers. I started buying there after I got pregnant and discovered the glories of tailoring. BB also makes clothes for people that are not size 6. The bad thing about BB is that they are not very trendy. The good thing about BB is that they are not very trendy (so the suits last forever). I try to jazz the suits up with the shirt. You can catch good sales there and they have a great outlet store outside of Houston.

    • Most BB stores will do free or cheap alterations. I’ve bought some great suits at the BB outlet and have taken them to a regular BB store for alterations.

  3. All of my suits are either Banana or J crew. They fit me well and are fairly plain, so can last for several years.

    When I was younger and trendier, I used to get BCBG suits, but now they are a little too much for me style-wise.

  4. What is the general consensus (or is there one) on wearing pantyhose/knee highs vs. bare feet in a pant suit?

    I just started a new job where I’m wearing a suit 3 days a week. Typically I’ve been wearing boots since it’s still cold and they’re just more comfortable, but when the weather warms I’m not sure what to do.

    • Anon in Ny :

      If your suit is lined, I’d go with knee highs. They’re just more comfortable for me, and easier for me to stick in a bag and slip on at the office. For an unlined suit, I can see why you’d want panythose on underneath to smooth everything out.

    • I go with bare feet in summer and knee-highs in winter. No way am I ever going to wear pantyhose under pants- talk about uncomfortable. I have a lot of unlined pants since I’m in FL and will wear a thong with thinner pants.

    • I think that it all comes down to what you feel comfortable in. Other than the bare feet, which, sometimes (depending on the shoe, pants, and circumstances) can look a little bit too casual (plus it can gross up your shoes a bit), no one else can really tell the difference.

      Generally, I go with hose in the winter (I don’t see a difference in the way the pants look with them, I just like the extra warmth) and knee-highs or bare in the summer, depending on the circumstances and what shoes I’m wearing.

      • Oh, and when I have a pair of hose with a run in them, or I just don’t like the way they look against my deathly white skin, I put a big X on the waistband in permanant marker, and store them in a separate bag in my bathroom closet. That way, I can easily grab those to wear under pants, and save the nice ones for skirts.

        • Sugar Magnolia :

          I love this idea! I just tried to put on a pair of tights this morning that had a big hole in the “control top” part, and was annoyed to find out that they were the same ones I tried on last week. Your solution is simple and effective.

  5. Classiques Fan :

    I love Classiques Entier suits from Nordstrom. They are expensive at full price ($200 for a jacket, $175 for pants/skirt) but they almost always go on sale, or you can also try finding them at Nordstrom Rack. The brand is particularly good for pear shapes/those with ample hips or derriere. Some of the suits are wool, some are a poly mix.

    • I find it odd that Brooks Brothers is deemed more affordable than CE, but that’s about their price point; in fact, sometimes more.

      • Alias Terry :

        Cost per wear.
        A suit that costs less but becomes worn out sooner costs more per wear than one that costs more upfront but lasts for several years. A BB suit is probably going to last 4 times as long as a CE suit.

  6. What great advice about dry cleaning all pieces of the suit together so they ‘wear’ the same. I was fortunate to find a jacket, skirt and pair of slacks in the Semantiks line at Nordstrom a few years ago, and it’s held up well. (I believe Nordstrom is doing away with this line in favor of Halogen.) I also like the no-iron Foxcroft button-downs from Nordstrom. I have several colors and styles, and they’ve held up well and work nicely with suits.

  7. I’m not so sure about Nordstrom as a reliable resource for suits. I just went shopping for a new interview suit and all they could offer me was Theory. Which is fine — Theory is definitely an acceptable option, if they work on your body. But that’s all they had. And they had only one skirt option in only one color. I buy all my suits at J Crew. They are the only ones who do plain, plain, plain. I have a navy, navy pinstripe, gray pinstripe, and khaki colored suits, all in good quality 100% wool (not something you can reliably get at Ann Taylor, btw) with classic styling. If they ever go out of the suit business, I think I’ll just have to go to Asia and get a bunch made for me. I really don’t know where else I could shop.

    • Chi town lawyer 2 :

      I agree about Nordstrom. I was disappointed in the selection. I was disappointed that the Hugo Boss suit they showed me was unlined, and the sale gal tried to convince me that “all the finer suits are unlined.” I do wish you could find wool suits more often.

    • Hmmm…it may depend on the store. I shop at the flagship Nordstroms in downtown Seattle and they have a ton of suits and suiting options. It may be that the location you were at targets fewer working women?

      • Jade Moon :

        Yep. I live in Honolulu, and our Nordstrom is hopeless when it comes to suits. I was so pleased when they opened here, but now I find I still most go to S.F. or Seattle for my professional apparel.

  8. An additional benefit of Talbot’s and Brooks Brothers is that they usually have the full line of suit pieces in each fabric/color. Talbot’s has even gone to having two different pants (side-zip and bootcut) and two different jackets with some of their suiting lines. I always try to buy a skirt, pants, a shift (when available) and jacket. They hold up very well, and if you decide to venture into the world of seersucker, Brooks Brothers can’t be beat.

  9. Does anyone have any advice for styling a khaki suit? I bought a lovely khaki pant suit from J.Crew (120s wool, not linen), but I cannot figure out how to style it.

    • I would like some suggestions about this too. I wore a camel colored suit yesterday and while I got several compliments on it, I just felt strange in it. I usually wear black or gray suits and was trying to “break out” a little but I think I need some suggestions on what to wear with the suit, so I don’t feel out-of-sorts when I have it on.

      • Jewel teal is my favourite with camel. Burgundy, ivory, cobalt, kelly green, aqua, navy all work as well. I have more camel basics than black(black doesn’t look great on me)! I am an Indian with olive skin/raven hair and can pull off these colours. Pastels like mint, rose, lemon should work too.

    • I think any light, pastel colors would be great with a khaki suit, so think light pink, baby blue, mint green. I think cream or white would obviously be doable as well. I think blouses and layering pieces should be kept a bit lighter, so nothing too heavy in terms of fabric- think whispy/light/delicate blouses or shells, perhaps in silk crepe or georgette of sorts. Silk scarves in the same colors and light fabrics would also probably do well to put under a khaki suit. I would keep shoes/accessories lighter as well, so think light/reddy browns, creams, bones, or pearls. I think dark brown might work as well, depending on the other outfit choices.

    • I have a khaki suit. I wear it with short sleeved, light, form fitting sweaters. I have two I got years ago at Gap of all places. One is light pink and the other is a baby blue. Add pearls, brown shoes, and it looks nice.

      • I have one light camel colored suit and one kahki suit, and I think they are among my most versatile. You can go preppy as mentioned above by wearing with pastels. Or, one of my favorites is to wear with a simple black form fitting top and go minimalist in a chic calvin klein sort way. Or, sometimes I like to go “city safari” — e.g., wear with a brown or army green august silk top and interesting ethnic jewelry. When I go this route, I usually wear cute brown or metallic flats.

    • You can wear almost any color with a khaki suit since the suit itself is neutral. I don’t wear pastels so pair my khaki suit with jewel tones of green, burgundy and even purple.

      • Eggplant purple looks quite rich with khaki and can also be used with black and gray suits. I love Eddie Bauer’s scoopneck 3/4 sleeve tees for work. I bought their eggplant colored one to go with my khaki work pants and I wear it allll the time.

    • Oh, I would love to own a khaki- or camel-colored suit one day! I’d pair it with a black cashmere turtleneck (for a “classic American sportswear” look), or maybe red or a dark green.

  10. As someone who needs plus size on top and can fit standard range on the bottom, I’m a big fan of Nordstrom’s Halogen suits (they used to also carry a house brand called Semantiks, but now they have a plus-only brand called Sejour that has some nice pieces). And this might surprise folks, but I bought a plain black lightweight wool suit from Land’s End, and it’s great. A smaller plus designer I like who sometimes does suiting is Darren Trentacosta.

    • Ms. Basil E. Frankweiler :

      I’ve been eyeing some items in Trentacosta, but was concerned about the quality. Can you speak to that?

    • Sugar Magnolia :

      Thank you for posting about larger sizes. I am in need of some new work clothing, and have been at a loss.

  11. Re Theory suits:

    I bought one recently, as have several of my newly minted attorney friends. No less than five of us have had the same exact problem with the skirt suit RIPPING up the back. It might just be their current line or the fabric they are using, but we all have holes in the back of the skirt. I’ve even taken mine to the tailor and had an additional seam sewn in where the holes were appearing. Now there are new holes. Horrifying, considering the money spent.

    YMMV. For the cut I agree they are beautiful and hands down the gold standard. But yours truly, along with about four friends, are not at all impressed with the quality.

    • If you bought it at Nordstrom, I’d say take it back. They are excellent about returns, and if you bought it recently and the quality is bad, I’m sure they would take it back.

      • Update to this – I bought the skirt over a year ago at Bloomingdales. The first time the holes appeared, I took it to the tailor. The second time, when I took it back to the tailor, she told me I should try to take it back.

        I took it to Bloomies yesterday, without the receipt, and they gave me a brand new skirt with no questions asked. I LOVE that place.

        • I also had issues with Theory stuff–looked great, but wrinkled immediately and the dye of the jacket bled onto my white silk blouse. They took it back, but I think there are issues with the quality with theory.

  12. I am in the market for a new suit now. I had a fabulous black one from JCrew that I wore for 10 years+, everything from funerals to hot parties. It finally gave up the ghost.

    I really like extended-tab pants … does anyone know where I can find them? I’ve looked at the usual suspects and it’s hook-n-eye everywhere. I like the extended tab because the regular one has a tendency to twist and poke out during the day, even if it fits fine.

  13. J. Crew is my favorite go-to suit. Their longs (36”) are actually long enough for me to wear with heels and the material is fabulous for the hot and humid summers in San Antonio. I always buy the slacks, skirt, and jacket so I can get the most out of the suit. Does anyone have any other suggestions for tall women because I have found many longs are 34” and for me, that doesn’t cut it with heels. I would LOVE to not have to tailor all of my slacks!

  14. My favorite suits are Elie Tahari (not Tahari by ASL, etc the other brands) — and I actually prefer them to Theory suits for people on the small end who don’t fit into Donna Karan, Banana Republic, J.Crew suits. I’ve been able to find these at Macy’s in New York and Bloomingdales.

  15. Anonymous :

    Kat, can you include at least a few plus size options in your where to shop recommendations on these style guide posts? Thanks.

    • Anonymous :

      My favorite for plus size suiting is Talbots. Especially their Womans Petites. I’m 5’2″ and it’s the only place I could find with suits that didn’t need to be hemmed/tailored and didn’t make me look like I was playing dress up. Plus they sometimes have some pretty amazing sales if you hit them at the right moment.

      • Second Talbots! I need a womens petite on top and a regular womens on the bottom. It’s nice to be able to mix and match. My one caution is that their unlined suits do not hold up. I still will buy them, but only at deep discounts.

  16. Just want to say. For many corporations, where one is not a lawyer, a skirt suit would actually scare employers off.

  17. In some companies and industries, tech in particular, a skirted suit for an interview is too formal, and therefore outside the culture.

    • I have to agree, and add into that geographic area. In my city women only wear skirt suits for formal charity luncheons or dinners, or to very dressy weddings, and then the suits are the kind of thing Corporetters have said are not office-appropriate – bright colors, tweed or boucle fabric, feminine detailing, etc. The most “conservative” thing I ever see anyone wear is a plain black pantsuit, and even then people usually wear big jewelry or a bright-colored shell to “jazz” it up. The only women you routinely see in navy, black or gray skirt suits are religious missionaries. It’s something to consider for women from the East Coast, Chicago or San Francisco who may be interviewing in Sun Belt state that is less formal. YMMV.

  18. Ann Taylor makes suits in a lovely fabric called “tropical wool”–mostly wool with a bit of synthetic for stretch. They have pants (curvy, modern, and signature styles), jacket, and pencil skirt, and occasionally a sheath. They’ve been making suits out of this material for at least the past few seasons, so you know that what piece you’re buying will match what you already have purchased. It seems like every season they have black and charcoal gray, and then a third more “casual” color (right now it’s a light gray pinstripe, a couple months ago it was some shade of brown, methinks).

  19. I am a 1L, and just had to buy a new suit for interviews. Law school has, sadly, led to some weight gain and I refused to squeeze myself into a slightly too small suit!

    Regardless, I ended up going with the Anne Klein separates at Macy’s. I was able to get a full skirt suit for under $150.00. It is charcoal grey, single button, very plain but cut really nicely.

    I should mention that I am 5’7″, have long legs for my height, and a very curvy hourglass figure. It can be a challenge to find suits that are flattering to my figure without being either too boxy or too sexy-looking. This one hit just the right chord, and since it was separates, I was able to go with a 10 on the bottom and an 8 up top and avoid tailoring. I have gotten multiple compliments, both from the people in my career services office and my colleagues. I even had an interviewer mention that they liked it. VERY pleased with my purchase, and thought I’d share in case anyone else was looking for a suit on a budget!

    • Hey, thanks for posting that!
      I too am 5.7 ten on bottom and 8 on top!
      My main problem is to get the suit to be long enough to cover half my heel! I hate pants that look too short and I like wearing 4-5 inch heels.

  20. My favorite suits are almost all from Tristan in Montreal (Tristan is the women’s side and America is the men’s – http://www.tristan-america.com/). They also have a store in NYC at 49th & 6th, but I love to hit their sale racks in Montreal whenever I get up there – great deals, and great clothes. They are conservative, but with a modern twist – I like to call it “funky conservative.” I can find clothing that is conservative enough for the most professional of settings, but that lets me show off my own personal style and doesn’t leave me feeling frumpy. They are nicely tailored, well-made, comfortable, and last a long time. Plus, they are a little different, so you don’t feel like you’re wearing that same thing that everyone else is wearing this season too.

    • I didn’t know that there’s a Tristan in New York! I bought a gorgeous dress from the store in Ottawa. Will definitely head over to the NY store for suiting options.

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