Guide to Basic Women’s Suiting

Guide to Women's Suiting | CorporetteIt 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. My two favorite suits are from Benetton – for some reason, the shape of those suits really fits me. But recently, the quality of the fabric has gone downhill – wool suits are increasingly hard to find.

  2. For the super petite Corporettes out there, meaning size OO in Theory, please share what conservative skirt suits you wear! (I know we discussed this in an old thread, but I do not recall suggestions other than Theory). Please feel free to discuss suits at diverse price points. Thanks!

    • I know this brand is often looked down on as ‘intern wear’ but I’ve really had some great luck finding 00 size pants at Express. I’ve put on 5 lbs so we’ll see how long that works, but they are a life-saver when Banana, J. Crew et al. don’t fit. Plus they are in separates so you can get a larger jacket if needed (I need their 4). I find the longer-styled jackets look more professional for me (I have long legs so it balances the look). Hope that helps.

    • I am in that size category, and would love to see other comments on this, because I am having a hard time finding suits that don’t require additional tailoring (besides hemming). As I said just above, I’ve had very good luck with Benetton – their size 38 pants and jackets fit me more often than not. Other than that, I have separates from Theory, Ann Taylor, and Banana Republic (just the jacket, all BR pants fall off me). Hope this helps!

    • I am very, very petite – 5’1″, and barely a OOP. I actually had surprising success looking for suits today at Brooks Brothers. Their OP is really tiny – and their OP button down was even too small! I was (happily) shocked!

  3. My suits are all Lafayette 128. You can get them at Nordstrom, Saks, Neimans, Lord & Taylor, or order direct from their website. http://www.lafayette148.com/StoreFront.bok
    They have a great sale going on right now. They are very pricey but worth it. They also have plus sizes.

    For tops, I prefer a short sleeve shell. Jones New York has a good basic silk blend short sleeve shell in a variety of colors.
    http://www.jny.com/Platinum-Silk-Knit-Shell/22956811,default,pd.html

  4. My suits are all Lafayette 148. Pricey but well worth it. You can buy them at Nordstrom’s, Saks, Neimans, Lord & Taylor, or order direct from their website — http://www.lafayette148.com/StoreFront.bok. They are having a great sale right now.

    For tops, I prefer a short sleeve shell. Jones New York makes a good basic silk blend shell in a variety of colors. http://www.jny.com/Platinum-Silk-Knit-Shell/22956811,default,pd.html

  5. Sort for the double post. Don’t know how I did that.

  6. Great post and just in time for me. I’m starting a new position at a hedge fund next month and I’ve been debating whether to go with the expensive Theory (Gabe B jacket + Max C pants) or a less expensive Ann Taylor suit. I honestly thought the BR quality just wasn’t worth it.

    My big problem though is what to wear underneath it. Button down shirts tend to gap on me even with my best bra (34D with broad shoulders and a small waist) but going with a softer shell doesn’t have the same professional look. Any suggestions?

    • I like to wear a sweater vest or a suit vest on top of my button downs- it solves the gapping issue and helps the collar stay in place better. It tends to add a preppy or menswear vibe to the suit, but I’m ok with both of those.

    • Check out Rebecca and Drew for custom fitted button downs based on your bra size/torso shape. I’ve never been able to wear button downs (I’m more like a 34 DDD) and I was able to order one that worked for me! They’re a little pricy, about $110, but if nothing else has worked for you and you really want a button down, they’re a great option.

  7. I recently discovered Tocca, very pricey, but the wool is substantial and conservative, the styling is interesting but not young, and i dont hate myself when i have to go wearing suits for a week or so straight. i’ve only bought a few heavy wool winter suits so far, but i bought the dress/blazer and skirt/blazer combos and am very very pleased

  8. Sam–I have the same problem (gaping button down shirts) but noticed that if I get a shirt of synthetic material (silky-type, no iron) I don’t have the same problem (even in button-down style). Wore one today — a little bigger size than I’d normally wear, but it was tucked into skirt and I had a nicely tailored jacket over, you couldn’t tell. I think this is a more conservative look than sweater under suit (although I wear that a lot in the office on more casual days).

  9. NYClawyer :

    I’m a huge fan of Theory. The best thing about it, for me, is that I can literally roll up a Theory suit in a ball, stuff it in my gym bag the night before, and it’ll still look flawless the next morning after my workout.

    A lot of people have commented that these suits only fit a certain body type. I think that’s true to some extent, but I’d encourage you to try a range of sizes. I’m consistently a 4 in pretty much every brand, but I’ve worn everything from a 2 to an 8 in their suits. Also, this definitely isn’t a line for petite ladies. I’m 5’10, and I’ve had to get these shortened.

  10. What about a dress and suit jacket? Perhaps with a very light, thin silk scarf? Would this be appropriate for an interview or just once one’s been hired?

    • Law Student :

      I think it really depends on your profession, and where you work. However, I would not wear a dress and suit jacket to an interview. It may be alright wearing the outfit once you’ve been hired.

  11. My tip is that bigger-busted ladies should look for more buttons on a suit jacket (preferably 3-button suits) so as to de-emphasize the bust.

  12. Kat, can you clarify if “curvy” means hourglass, or a euphemism for someone carrying extra weight? We’ve all got to shop, but I have an hourglass figure and find that the term “curvy” is often co-opted for the latter. I’d love to know!

  13. What about made to measure and custom suiting? I have 2 made to measure suits from NYC designer Kal Rieman (www.kalrieman.com) and have worn the 2 pieces separately and together so many times it factors out to pennies per wear. I wear both with her double collar button down shirt and always receive compliments. Great high quality alternative to buying off the rack.

  14. I’m a 2L and recently bought several suits online for some upcoming interviews from Smartbargains.com. They fit well, but my pant suit turned out to be made with a midnight blue denim material (from far it looks like a tight pinstripe). I’m interviewing for entertainment law positions (not necessarily in firms) which are usually a little bit less conservative… can I wear the suit (it’s my favorite cut of the 3 suits I own), or should I just chalk this suit up as a loss?

  15. To echo JessicaD’s comment – Are shift dresses / sheaths with a jacket appropriate for an interview? Macys has a number of options for shirts, sheaths, pants and blazers in their suit selection and I havent read much about this type of suit for interviews? Thank you!

  16. I have some major scarring on my lower legs, so I feel that skirts are completely inappropriate. However, I do want to be taken seriously in a pantsuit. Is this really such a big deal on the skirts vs pants?

  17. Halfway through my first year of law school (3 years ago now, eeep), I used my tax return to hit up an awesome sale at J. Crew and invest in a “Super 120s” 100% wool charcoal grey skirt suit. It was the best decision I ever made. It is my go-to interview suit because it’s timeless and conservative yet feminine when paired with a shell in a muted color. It has also worn very well (all I do is steaming between wears to get the wrinkles out while stretching out dry cleanings). I like J. Crew suiting because the petite versions fit my 5’3″ frame without alterations, and they offer (or at least used to offer) 3-button jackets, which seem to be pretty much the only style I can wear well. The pieces are very affordable if you can get them on sale, and well worth the investment.

  18. The current styles were founded in the revolution during the early 19th century that sharply changed the elaborately embroidered and jewelled formal clothing into the simpler clothing of the British Regency period, which gradually evolved to the stark formality of the Victorian era. It was in the search for more comfort that the loosening of rules gave rise in the late 19th century to the modern lounge suit. Thanks.

  19. Dooney13456 :

    I keep coming back to this thread in the hope that some loyal Corporette follower can recommend a suiting option for petites who are frustrated by AT’s lack of offering in petite sizes and who want to invest on great work pieces that are classic but current. Talbots ebbs and flows but still leans towards a more mature style and JCrew is better for my 23 year old daughter than me. I love Theory but their jackets are just to larger overall for a 5′ 108 lb frame. Any suggestions? I’m in a shopping mood and want some great pieces for Fall.

  20. Hi- First of all- thank you for all your posts!! I have an interview next Tuesday and I live in Michigan. It’s at the corporate HQ of a manufacturing/plant environment. The recruiter advised me that it’s a very conservative environment (and I sense it’s also a male-dominated and not very fashion savvy environment), fwiw. So I was wondering if a very plain black sheath dress with black blazer and black tights and black Tori Burch ballet flats (the standard ones with the gold metal symbol on them) and some pearls would be too severe looking or ok. I cannot wear heels and feel a bit dorky wearing such flimsy flats in Michigan, but I am also unemployed so if I can get away with the flimsy shoes, I guess I should :). If not, I’d appreciate suggestions about other kinds of flats. Thanks!!

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