Clothes to free: Dressing right, paying light, for a job interview

Clothes to Free is a weekly fashion-on-a-budget column by Money College blogger Alysse Dalessandro. Send Alysse column tips at MoneyCollege@walletpop.com.

A Director of Development for a major non-profit health agency in Detroit told me the following dressing for an interview cautionary tale. A May 2009 graduate who we'll call Michelle showed up for her interview wearing a tight, Spandex top with a small shrug, and flared dress pants. The director says her first impression was that her outfit not only failed to flatter her figure, but that it was inappropriate with "too much hanging out."

She says that she decided solely based on the way she dressed that she would not hire her, but that she would interview her to be polite. Well lucky for Michelle, her personality won over the director ... but he still had fears about bringing her into meet the foundation's president.


The director proceeded to e-mail Michelle and tell her that she wanted her back for a second interview with the president but that she needed to dress more appropriately for their conservative organization. She suggested a dark suit, navy blue, gray or black and even told her that "a suit consisted of matching slacks and jacket and blouse, or skirt and jacket." Fearing she would be insulted, the director assumed she'd never hear from Michelle again.

But instead, Michelle thanked her for the advice. She showed up to the interview in a classic black suit with a white blouse and her hair tied back in bun. She impressed both the director and the President and Michelle landed the job.

So what's the point of this story? You have to look the part if you want the job.

Without the director's patience, Michelle might have never landed the job, let alone a second interview, all because of what she wore. So if you need to reach into your wallets for a tailored, matching and profession-looking suit, this is the time to splurge.

It seems to go without saying that if you are interviewing for a paid job or even a professional unpaid internship, the last impression you want to leave is that you're cheap. I'm not talking about being thrifty with how much you spend on your clothes. It's possible to achieve a professional look on a budget, but you don't want potential employers to look at what you wearing and think "I bet that cost him $10." The saying goes, "You never get a second chance to make a first impression" so what do you want employers to think about you based on your appearance?

Your look should say, "I'm a put-together young person, capable of doing this job!" So guys, let's save those sweats for the gym and torn jeans for the frat parties. And ladies, if you aren't interviewing for Hooters, cover it up!

The director of the Detroit health agency advises to invest in a dark pants/skirt suit with matching dark shoes. She adds, "I know it sounds conservative and old fashioned, but most of the people who are doing the hiring are going to be older and that is the standard they expect. Once you get hired, then look around and you can adapt to the culture. You can never go wrong if initially, you come in dressed conservatively."

Good sources for conservative wear include J.Crew (which offers a student discount), Banana Republic, Ann Taylor Loft, or my personal favorite, Nordstrom, which is known for its impressive customer service. While bargain retailers like Kohl's and Wal-Mart may offer dressy items, beware of a cheap, but poorly-constructed piece. Check the fabric contents tag: avoid anything spandex or with a high percentage of polyester. These fabrics are dead giveaways for how much you spent on it.

While a health agency may demand conversative dress, creative fields give you options. I asked family friend Jose Vasquez who owns Quez Media Marketing, a creative marketing firm in Cleveland, about what he looks for when interviewing interns and design candidates. "Hiring for corporate America is way too stuffy for my taste," says Vasquez. He looks for passion and attitude in candidates as long as they look the part.

"If someone looks sloppy, it doesn't make for a good first impression, but if what they have to say is as sloppy as they look, they won't be getting the job," Vasquez says. He compares dressing for an interview to meeting the parents of your significant other. "You should make sure you put your best foot forward and dress to impress," says Vasquez. "In today's scarce and competitive job market, it is important to stand out and look the part."

With a creative field, try incorporating a trendy piece of jewelry for the ladies (H&M is a good source) or a fun tie for guys like this one from ThinkGeek. You still want to appear professional, but not necessarily conservative.

The morale? Look like you deserve to be paid big bucks and you just might get them.

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