Privilege Blog

What To Wear To A Job Interview In Midlife

The wonderful Dejà Pseu invited me to post with her on the topic of job interview attire. She’s done the same today, and you can find her ideas here. I’m not looking yet, so as to see what we come up with, independently. All in the service of dispassionate information for you, the best readers in the world, who I hope will also contribute your opinions.

More narrowly, let’s talk  job interview dress for women over 30 who work in offices.  Given my background, this advice will be especially relevant to the software industry.

First, we have to set aside the Suitdustries. You know who you are, oh Wall Street, oh BigLaw, oh Engineering departments of some oil companies in Texas. Commenters please chime in with other Suitdustries I’ve missed. And head over to Corporette for resources galore.

But suits are rarer and rare in most workplaces, and hence less necessary in interviews. What to wear if it’s not Ol’ Gray Suit herself? Let’s rule out what you can’t wear. Almost nowhere will you want to interview in jeans – even if all the employees show up dressed that way.

What does work? Let’s extend Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink” hypothesis. He posits that everyone makes an assessment in the first few seconds. Our extended hypothesis states that in the first few seconds of an interview people decide if you are weird, and then they spend the next 30-60 minutes deciding if you have the right skills, experience, and DNA for the job.

Job interview outfits should therefore signal that you are not weird. Weird is a relative term. Weird really means “outside the norms,”  and “noticeably divergent from our corporate culture and expectations.” Therefore, choose an outfit that:

  1. Includes vestigial suit components in generally accepted corporate color schemes. Everyone knows we used to wear matched suits to interviews – you want to indicate that you are familiar with the code, but can master its evolution.
  2. Can be made more or less formal quickly – you want to match your environment
  3. Look authoritative when you’re standing, and friendly when you sit down – we all like authoritative when it’s easy to work with

By vestigial suit components I mean jacket, of course. But this is business. Why use a simple term with complexity available? I like to wear a short-sleeved or 3/4 jacket, which is like wearing a shirt with a sign on it saying JACKET, but, um, not. Then if I find myself sitting across from someone in a tee, I take the jacket off and we’re on the same team. Hi buddy! Let’s get the job done! Together!

Oh, and black, grey and white are serious but not boring. I counsel that you avoid statement jewelry. Nobody is hiring your necklace.

Flexible job interview garb

But then I don’t like statement jewelry to begin with, so take my advice with a grain of salt.

This strategy has some flexibility. A while ago a young woman asked me what to wear for an interview in 90 degree heat. It was a moderately creative job, if I remember. When it gets really hot, you can move your color palette south, i.e. warmer and lighter. It’s remarkable how many shades of blue we embrace in corporate America. They are all your friend.

What to wear for a job interview in the heat

And as for shoes, just don’t totter or strut. Flats are good, heels up to 2 1/2 inches are good, heels above that are OK if everyone you’re talking to is under 40. We over 40s still hear the old song Good Girls Don’t Wear Stilettos, in the back of our minds. Why kick the hornet’s nest of our mothers’ expectations if you don’t have to?

Finally, non-sartorially, my best advice is to make a connection with your interviewers by listening to them carefully.

Your clothes won’t get you the job; just make sure they don’t keep you out of contention. Now go see what Pseu says. I’m certainly going to, if only to remind myself that two competent people can recommend different approaches, hence proving the point that there’s no single code.


36 Responses

  1. Great minds… heh! I see we’re on the same wavelength, though perhaps riding slightly different bands of the spectrum. Thank you so much for a fabulous post!

  2. Great choices!

    For the Wall Streeters, at least in Boston, it somewhat depends what ‘side’ of the street you are on – the sell side is still suit-y, while the buy side is trending toward a casual dress free-for-all (among the young money managers).

    Also, while it’s 90 degrees outside, it’s likely 60 degrees inside.

  3. Also being in the software industry, what you wear to interview for a job, and what you wear to the job should you land it, are often two completely different things. We’re lucky half our staff doesn’t show up in their pajamas every day.

  4. I like this advise. I’m in the just under 30 crowd, and make a point to wear an unconventional (in cut) suit to interviews, even if it’s for a casual office. I look young and find that dressing up that extra bit helps people take me seriously, and the suit signals that I’m taking their time and business seriously.

    I like the idea of separates pieced together though. Still formal, bur kind of showcases some expressive and creative thinking.

  5. I would agree with your choices Lisa. Conservative feels right in this situation.

    I’d opt for black trousers, white shirt, black or grey cashmere cardigan, flats or kitten heels in black and a colourful Hermes scarf…minimal jewlery, hoop earring perhaps and a sincere warm smile.

  6. I’m over 40, but I don’t have the no stilettos thing–perhaps because I worked in the cosmetics industry, which is women dressing to impress other women. Everyone looked great and high fashion all the time, but I don’t miss wearing really high heels! (Of course, you have to do that the right way or you look like you are clubbing.)

  7. I will hopefully be using some of your fine suggestions this fall/winter, as I dust off my 16+ year old resume and look for a j-o-b. As always, love your taste.

  8. “Job interview outfits should therefore signal that you are not weird.” Hehe! Spot on… Love this post, and it is so true.

    Being a software engineer in Silicon Valley, and under 40, I do sometimes wear denim to interviews, but if so, I’ll wear my very best jeans, paired with a structured taupe blazer, oxford shirt (blue or grey) and flat black brogues or 2.5″ black heels.

    I see a lot of people wear “dog whistle” jewelry, which is designed to evade the eye of managers, while subtly signaling to other geeks that you share an obsession with them. Chain mail earrings, perhaps, or an anime character bracelet. I am not a fan of this myself (I like to eschew identity politics in the work place), but it seems to fall within acceptable norms for most workplaces.

    1. Dog whistle jewelry! What a great term. Mine is my Hello Kitty necklace. Signalling that I’m a girl, after all.

  9. The notion of “vestigial suit components” is outstanding, such a great description. I love the polyvores you did, and like the idea of trying to get away from the Suitdustries!

    Sending you a smile,

  10. Perfect timing for your post, as I’m in the process of job interviewing right now! Unfortunately, lack, gray, navy blue, and white look deadly on me, as does traditional tailoring. Fortunately there are more choices these days: for those who look better in color, deep mallards and plums are a fabulous alternative. And thankfully t’s possible to find traditional pieces with more feminine tailoring and small, creative variations that give them style, such as jackets with more interesting lapels or slightly gathered waists. The right cut and weight of cardigan can function as effectively as a jacket; even the right dress, with understated cardigan or soft jacket, can also work well, as long as the look is understated and professional. Nordstrom, Dillards, and Ann Taylor Loft were helpful sources for me. Simple, one-color, more-traditional-than-not shoes and handbag, minimal jewelry and makeup, and skin-tone stockings if you don’t live in the South or Southwest are recommended: you can be creative (and more comfortable) with your outfits and accessories once you’re hired! One rule of thumb: wear no piece that calls attention to itself: the focus needs to be on you and your sparkling personality and extraordinary talents, and what you wear (and carry) should communicate “thoughtful, intelligent, professional.” For maximum confidence, get your nails done and hair trimmed, travel to the interviewing office ahead of time so you’ll know how to get there and what the parking situation is like (if applicable), and have a friend practice-interview you: how you speak and what you say in an interview is as important as the quality of your ideas. Finally: don’t forget your thank-you notes! Good luck out there!

  11. Flexible and 90 degrees would definitely pass the blink test! Beautiful! My rule of thumb is to dress so as to lay the backdrop for your personality and resume, bringing balance. If one has a strong persona, mute it up. Quieter demeanor, perhaps a little more splash of color. Comfort plays a big role for me in clothing fit and shoes. I remember walking down a long hallway from reception area to interviewing room, with my new shoes squeaking all the way. @Alexandra I loved up your tips too!

  12. Sigh–in academia, suits are still the done thing. I may find myself “interviewing” this time next year so this is invaluable.

  13. Unfortunately, medicine is still a suitdustry. Sigh. At least it’s only for interviews and professional meetings.

  14. Very timely post, as I am starting a job search now. I am over 55, and work in the arts/entertainment field, and I’m in Southern California. So I have the heat/warmth. But also, I think going extremely conservative would turn some employers off.

    What’s your take about this?

    1. Aunt Snow, yes, I think if you dress too conservatively for arts/entertainment people will think you don’t “get it.” Good luck!

  15. Insurance is very much a suit industry. Honestly, I don’t mind it- it is a lot less stressful to wear a suit everyday than it is to navigate what is appropriate business casual, since organizations have quite a range of accepted business casual attire.

  16. Lisa, I love your advice, I always get a little nervous before an interview, although it’s been awhile since I’ve had to go on one–but I will think about this if I ever have to again in the near future.

    xo Mary Jol

  17. Jacket, because it is a job interview; everyone dresses up a bit. And I always looked at the shoes. New shoes or ones that look worn only this season are very important and I make all kinds of assumptions (and realize it at the time) about the condition of the shoes and someone’s professionalism.

  18. Well done. Pseu brought her own style to her suggestions as did you.

    I think the strategic advice is excellent. Don’t be weird is a nutshell that can’t be beat!

    If one is unemployed it’s possible that new outfits are not the best use of limited resources. Putting together suit-ish elements to get past the initial glance could help an existing wardrobe fill the bill.

  19. Thank you for this! Most career wardrobe advice usually involves SUITS, but I tend to think it’s outdated in many industries.

    As a Creative/Art Director/Communications type career person, suits are usually NOT the norm. I do sometimes make an exception and opt for a suit for an interview, but sometimes I then feel way overdressed (which I suppose is better than being under-dressed on an interview).

    I always try to think about what I would wear for daily work, and then up it a notch by adding medium heels or a more structured shirt or short sleeve jacket and my pearls. Professional but not stuffy if the look I try to go for. I really liked your “Flexible” look a lot and would wear that, but with some lower heels. The white T keeps it more casual and I love that jacket!

    1. I think your rule is a good one – upping it a notch, adding some structure. I admit to a real love of flats:).

  20. Interviewing in DC area after 8 year absence from Tech industry. Would a solid chemise/straight line gray dress paired with black jacket be appropriate for interview lunch? I fear a jet black JNY suit would make me look frumpy.

  21. I agree about the suit components… I’ve usually got one black jacket in my wardrobe that I only wear to job interviews and funerals. For my last round of job interviews it was a knee length jade green jersey dress with brown/black opaque tights (it was winter) and black mid height heels.

    Previous job hunts, I’ve worn the jacket, a slightly interesting black skirt (i.e. silky fabric with a few pleats) and a colourful blouse.

    I’ve been working in the charity/education/ management type area in New Zealand and England. I’m sure there are national and regional variations as well as variations by industry. When I was teaching it was all about comfortable shoes and not flashing your cleavage!

Comments are closed.