What To Wear: The Job Interview

Rosiland Russell puts the “Pow!” in Power Suit – from His Girl Friday

Reader G wrote to me a couple of weeks ago, inquiring about appropriate job interview wear for les femmes d’un certain âge. I agreed with her that this is tricky territory and an excellent topic for a post, and went a step further, enlisting help from Lisa of the amazing blog ~Privilege who is posting her own ideas on this today as well. You can read her post here.

G’s current position will be ending sometime next year. She’ll be looking for another job in the same line of work (mostly administrative within a creative field) and wrote, 

The old standby – wear a conservative skirt suit, pumps and panty hose – seems to be out of date. Being over 50, living in southern California, and searching in the arts, I’m just stumped. Panty hose or bare legs? Open toed shoes OK or not? Skirt suit? Are pants OK? 

Let’s get this out of the way first: yes, pants are certainly OK.

Then it gets a little more complicated for most of us. While we always want to be considered for our skills and abilities, we still have to parse and control the messages our appearance delivers, even before we shake hands with the hiring manager. (If you’re job seeking in a strictly corporate environment such as big legal or accounting firms, financial services industries, or high level executive positions in most industries, head right over to Corporette for wardrobing advice. My focus here is on those quasi-corporate or even casual business environments typical of arts, entertainment, tech, research fields.)

First (and only) rule: keep it simple. This isn’t the time for pattern mixing, layering jewelry, trying out that creative silhouette. What you’re wearing should contribute to a harmonious whole, putting You in focus.

Currency: I agree with G that the suited skirt is probably dated and a bit overkill (especially in her field and locale). You don’t have to wear this season’s latest runway look, but be mindful of the silhouettes, fabrics and patterns that are current. It’s unfortunate, but we often are working against a bias that people over ___ years of age are “out of touch” so we don’t want our appearance to reinforce that impression. While Kate Middleton the Duchess of Cambridge may be sporting “sheer tights” and bringing what we used to call “nude pantyhose” back into vogue, in Southern California especially I think they still look dated. YMMV in your region of the world.

Open toe vs. closed toe?  I’m going to err on the side of caution here and say stick with a closed toe shoe for interviews.

She was also hoping to find pieces that she could incorporate into her regular work wardrobe. I’ve put together a couple of options that I think would look serious-but-not-stuffy and be appropriate for G’s particular situation.

The first is more or less a pantsuit, but in a softer silhouette (this is from Eileen Fisher, but I’ve seen a lot of these softer jackets out there). It’s a very simple and clean look with a single piece of statement jewelry. I’ve chosen a simple bag with an interesting texture.

Job Interview Outfit #1

You could swap out the loose shirt worn under the jacket above for something more fitted/tailored to take the level of formality up a notch.

The other option I suggested to G is to use coordinated separates.  I’ve shown with trousers here, but she could just as well wear a sheath dress and opaque tights with the jacket.

Job Interview Outfit #2

Again, I’ve kept the individual pieces fairly simple and straightforward, and if she’s investing in new pieces, she can pick items that coordinate with what’s already in her work wardrobe. I’ve used black and grey in these ensembles which are safe bets for an LA/arts venue, but you could work these looks in other neutrals as well.

What do you think?  Does your part of the world still demand a suit for interviewing regardless of the industry and position, or do you have more leeway?

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  1. I’ve been thinking about this because my last job interview was in 97- I’ve been at the Coalface since then but times are tough and there is no job certainty and I wondered if I might have to actually think about a job elsewhere.

    Then I wondered if I’d have to buy suits, which I haven’t worn since the revolution in the workforce in 2002 … I hope to God I don’t have to.

    I’m a lawyer and I really cannot face the thought of suits. But for interviews I’d wear one.

  2. Your choices are stylish and modern, and very re-wearable on a daily basis. I think a formal suit is expected in only the *most* conservative offices these days. Love the Lanvin bag – that would go with everything ; >

  3. Great post and I think always timely. Our workforce environments are frequently shifting. While in Eastern cities the business “look” continues to be required, it has even softend here. Your softer look jacket, sweater sets, and a looser shirt are acceptable. Next year, maybe not. As fashion bloggers assist the working lady, she is more confident in her look and in her presentation. Competition is fierce out there, particularly for ladies of a certain age. Fortunately, however, I think employers are more cognizant of their work history and their skills. Best of luck.

  4. Having gone through this recently, I found myself struggling with what to wear – especially as I had several meetings over the course of time – and therefore needed several outfits.

    The suit is no longer required in a ubiquitous fashion, but I do find that a jacket is still a good idea. I also surprised myself by choosing neat tailored pants over a classic skirt. It seemed to work.

  5. I love these looks! THe studded jacket is a brilliant choice. Its a conservative color and style which conveys authority but the studs give it a little edge which projects modern– absolutely the right message.

  6. Whatever you wear, you should feel confident and great in it! You need to look in the mirror and say OH YEAH, they would be fools not to hire me! Going to an interview with a lack of confidence might be a deal breaker! I think the softer knit jackets are great options to the traditional suit jacket and i love the Eileen Fisher that you picked here. I also think bare legs are perfectly acceptable, and with a great pedicure in some places open toed would be. But, I really like the number of pointed toe flats available today, so you do not have to do heels if you are uncomfortable in them. I love these types of posts and you did an excellent job!

  7. I’m 59 and got a job in the arts field 3 yrs ago after leaving a conservative corporate office. My interview clothes were perfectly fit to my shape and neatly pressed – no tugging or gaps or squirmy too tight fit. I wore the black slacks of one suit and the gray jacket of another suit (already in my closet) with a deep red silk tank and colorful, closed pumps. Artsy but smallish earrings and a small watch. Short, polished nails, and a modern hairstyle. And no old lady overstuffed satchel of unnecessary items – a slim purse (but still large enough to hold an extra resume in a slim plastic folder). Good luck! – Nan in Minneapolis

  8. I was just today figuring out that I’ve been “retired” for 7 years, so I guess I don’t have any current interviewing experience. I spent most of my working life, in finance management type positions, wearing skirted suits, hose, and heels. The last 4 or 5 years I worked was during the switch to ubiquitous business casual; so I switched to khakis or tailored pants with a jacket or sweater set. Were I to interview now, I would probably go with pants, just to avoid the bare legs/pantyhose question.

  9. It’s true, back East here we are stuck wearing suits or tailored jackets and trousers, and individualism comes in pattern or subtle color. Ugh. But that’s only for interviews and big meetings. Every day wear is more flexible. Being stuck in Interviewland myself, I try to err on the side of extra conservative. Best advice for G? Walk tall and confidently, smile, and breathe before answering questions. It adds a bit of confidence, settles you, and that comes across positively in the interview.

  10. I do a lot of hiring for a home health agency type of company. As a relatively low paying field, we have a lot of staff who are of low socioeconomic status. Let me say my first priorities are

    no cleavage or thigh
    no visible tattoos or weird piercings
    no huge earrings

    Beyond that my personal preference is

    no holes – even on-purpose holes – in jeans (jeans are okay in this field)
    closed toe shoes
    no logo shirts
    current (not outgrown) manicure

    I’m looking for neatness and attention detail both in the application and in their personal presentation.

    In interviewing for my management job, I wore a black blouse and black kitten heels, gray suit pants, and a large but not distracting cocktail ring (onyx). I felt confident in that.

  11. Oh, what a wonderful post!! Thank you, Femme! I love the Fisher things, which I think work well in the arts, and I like the coordinated separates too. Pants do help avoid the pantyhouse question.

    It’s good to hear from Nan in Minneapolis that she was successful job hunting in the arts at 59. Encouraging!

    I am just starting to send out applications, so this post is great, and thanks for the link to Corporette and also Lisa!

    – g

  12. In DC, I would not go to an interview in Eileen Fisher. It says “ladies who lunch” to me. My uniform for interviewing and formal business meetings is: wool slacks, structured jacket, “shell” of some sort underneath. I never wear skirts because I am uncomfortable with bare legs and nylons are so dated. I’m moving away from slacks suits, but that may be because I finally feel that I’m senior enough that I don’t have to. For less formal meetings, I would wear a blouse or sweater (in winter) with jewelry or a scarf, but I don’t think I’d do that for an interview (again, in DC, that is.)

    What else – NO wedge shoes or platform shoes. Please!

  13. I like your suggestions (pictured) and agree they exhibit a more contemporary look. I’ve spent my career in broadcast sales (advertising) and always wore the obligatory suited skirt, nude hose, pumps. But that was back in the day. I even recall one of my favorite outfits was a knife pleated winter white skirt that fell below the knee paired with a pale pink silk collarless longsleeved shirt with a cloud jacquard style print and a pale pink linen jacket &matching pale pink heels. It was to die for which is probably why I still remember it. I would have interviewed in that any time.

    I still think one should project a certain amount of conservatism for an interview so a blazer or jacket is a safe choice whether you wear it with pants or a solid dress or a skirt.

  14. I’ve been on on the hiring side of the desk many times, in both formal and casual business settings. I’d worry about underdressing (a sweater instead of a jacket, for example, or scuffed shoes) more than overdressing in a skirted suit and nude hose. The hiring manager *knows* you are better dressed than you will likely appear once you’re hired, and also knows you are nervous. Bare legs would be fine in warm weather, but in one company a woman who arrived in a very chic red jacket and pencil skirt was DQ’d partly because she wore no makeup; her naked lips just looked like she forgot to dress. (The job was GM of a prestige hotel.) Also, reduce visual clutter: not too many necklaces, charms on bag, rings, so YOU stand out, not your accessories.

    Sweater sets are fine for very casual settings, but assuming it is not an entry level position, I still like the polished look of a jacket, even a soft one. New shoes-or ones that look it- are important.

  15. Finally gathering up my scattered self to come and post here. First of all, Deja, thanks for inviting me to participate in this discussion. I too have been doing hiring lately, so this topic has been on my mind.

    One more thing I notice. Each of us picked clothing that work with our particular silhouettes. I can’t wear Eileen Fisher, because with broad shoulders the drape looks more like curtains:). Whereas I imagine for more female silhouetted people, my t-shirt and jacket might not flatter.

    So, in sum, it’s always good to understand your silhouette and your general style, then work the interview outfit within those parameters.

    Had to say parameters, just for good measure:).

  16. This is such a tricky event to maneuver, especially due to what you’ve mentioned for 40+ folks — not wanting to seem TOO conservative.

    I’ve come to believe there is definitely a “reverse clothes snobbery” sort of thing going on in the places that have a more casual and/or creative dress code. When younger folks dress up for interviews I swear people seem to assume the clothes are borrowed, but when we more mature types do it’s a sign we’re uptight or out-of-touch vs appropriately dressed for the occasion!

    My last true interview (summertime SoCal, conservative industry, creative position) I agonized and then shopped because I was worried I would look too staid. I eventually went with classic shapes and colors + flashier elements…sharkskin blazer, silk grey/black animal print blouse, black dress pants, pearlized grey pumps). So more or less along the lines you have illustrated.

    [I was the runner-up but one of the interviewers was wearing the skirt to my blazer so we had a good laugh.]

    I recently interviewed two over 40 candidates for a corporate creative position, and since I do daydream about interviewing quite a lot these days I admit I checked out their outfits in addition to focusing on their skills. Partially because both made choices I wouldn’t have necessarily made, ha!

    [Trying not to violate privacy, but one was stocking’d but bare armed, the other in a very flattering sleeved print dress but sandal’d. Not a blazer, knit or otherwise, to be seen. ;)]

    I have to say the fact they seemed CONFIDENT in their (polished yet non-Corporette approved) choices went a long way, and since they were highly skilled it just contributed to an overall sense of ease with themselves.

    It actually made me think I need to be careful about skewing too far on the conservative side the next time I’m on the other side of the fence….

  17. Only thing I’d add is for a job in the arts, I’d search out one or two pieces artisan, hand-made jewellery – just to show that you support local artists. A necklace OR earrings. A statement ring if you like. And maybe some slightly funky shoes i.e. Fluevogs?

    Good luck!


  18. Here in the Northeast there’s no way I’d go to an interview without wearing hose (if I were wearing a skirt). However, I’d make it black opaque tights instead of nude pantyhose (assuming coordinated shoes and outfit). In anything but summer weather, boots or pants take care of the hosiery question. I’d also like to add that many of us have spider veins or similar, so bare legs/nude hose aren’t an attractive option. Sure, one could have them addressed by a dermatologist; otherwise, they must be camouflaged.

  19. I really liked your ideas for interview ‘suits’. I have an interview coming up for a tech position at a small company. I like to wear skirts and was wondering what you might suggest. Thanks in advance.