It 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. 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. 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 Silk; 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 probably 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 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 your mid-thigh once you’re sitting down. (Always, always, always 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.
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.
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 Bargains 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. Crew. Brooks 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 Saks, Bloomingdale’s, Nordstrom). Hugo Boss also has lovely suits (particularly the Boss Black line, also available at Saks); as well as the Classiques Entier 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 2013.