Before you say a single word—whether to an interviewer, a new co-worker, a potential boss, or even a first date—you’ve already made a big impression.
Whether you’re pursuing a career in academia or beyond, fashion—how you’re dressed—impacts how you’ll come across from the moment you walk in the door. This is because clothing is more than just fabric. Clothing affects your body language, your physiology, your emotions, your image, and your self-presentation to others.
In this blog post, I’ll discuss some tips and advice on dressing professionally. Remember, every company has a different dress code. How you dress for the interview may have little to do with what you’ll wear day-to-day if you’re hired.
Dressing for the Interview:
The most important rule of thumb is to dress appropriately for the position for which you are applying. In fact, it’s never a bad idea to dress one or two levels higher than the job that you’re going for. For men, this most often means wearing a suit. For women, this generally means wearing a suit with a skirt or pants.
When in doubt, go conservative – it’s much better to be too dressed up than too casual. At the same time, avoid loud, flashy colors in favor of simple (often, dark) colors. Coordinate the colors of your outfit pieces to display two or three colors at the most, so you look neat and composed.
Make sure your clothes are neat, clean, and pressed, and that your shoes are polished. Make sure your breath is fresh, your hair is neat and clean, and your nails are trimmed. If you have a lot of piercings, leave some of your rings at home; cover any tattoos, if possible. Finally, go light on cologne, perfume, aftershave, or flashy accessories – you don’t want to accidentally over-do it.
The second-most important—and most commonly overlooked—element of fashion is fit. This applies not just in interviews but in all situations. Choose clothes that fit the contours of your body as closely as possible without being too tight. Make sure there is enough loose fabric at the wrists and ankles to allow you to bend your arms and legs without hiking up your clothes too much (or worse, wearing a hole through your knee or elbow through repeated use!).
Dressing for the Job:
You’ve made the cut, now you want to show others that you’re a team player.
Especially with academics in non-academic careers, your co-workers may be prone to feel insecure or competitive – your job is to show that your PhD doesn’t make you “better” than everyone else. So, pick up the cues from those around you. Consider how they dress, and aim to approximate the same style yourself.
You want your style to acknowledge the social norms, values, ideals, and expectations of a workplace. At the same time, though, you also should be using elements of your style to express something individual about yourself. It can be helpful, for example, to think of your professional identity as a brand: what are the skills you bring to the job, and how do you do them in ways that make you unique? Your fashion should speak to those qualities. Keep in mind, though, that you’ll always want to make a good impression – especially if you’re working with clients who are paying your company for the services you offer.
A time-tested method for creating a new look for yourself is to page through the pictures in a fashion magazine—or, better yet, look at some google image search results for the type of job you’re in. Find styles that appeal to you. Hopefully, they have elements in common, or even a shared aesthetic.
Then, group these images together: either save the digital images to a folder on your computer desktop; cut-and-paste, or print out the pictures to create a lookbook; or save images to specific style themes of your choice using a photo sharing and publishing website, such as Pinterest, Flickr, or Instagram. Typically, these online platforms have filters that let you search according to your specific criteria.
When you’re choosing an outfit for day-to-day use, a good rule-of-thumb when it comes to matching colors is to use the rule of three. Pick two colors that will form the core of your outfit. These two colors (for example, blue and black; yellow and brown; green and beige; and so on) will give your look consistency and dynamism that is pleasing to the eye. Finally, choose a third color that will serve as your accent color.
This third color—say, red—can be expressed within any of the other elements (for example, a blue shirt with red-diamond print running vertically). Alternately, this third color can be expressed through stand-alone items—such as a red necklace, red shoes, red shoelaces, or a red pocket square in your blazer breast pocket. This composition principle—three colors, of which two are core and one is accent—will help make your look coherent, dynamic, and professional, while giving you a touch of flair that stands out.
Using a stylist:
These days it is easier than ever to get an expert involved at any stage of your wardrobe makeover. Here, options can range from budget-friendly to extravagantly expensive.
There are a range of digital options. You can use clothing subscription boxes such as Stitch Fix, Trunk Club, Threads Monthly, or Five Four Club. If you need to buy a suit for an interview, consider online options. Online retail—like Gilt, Combatant Gentlemen, or Rent the Runway—can potentially save you a lot of money. Finally, consider taking your dollar to “fast fashion” retail options like H&M or Zara.
Clothing subscription boxes, above, are the latest newcomers to the fashion scene. For as little as $30, you can sign up for these services from the comfort of your home, entering details—such as body measurements, stylistic tastes, and any specific wardrobe needs—to help your offsite stylist customize a package of offerings that will be mailed to your address. After you try things on you can mail back the pieces that aren’t right for you using a prepaid box. Typically (although read the user agreements carefully!), you will only pay for what you keep.
When it comes to digital services, it can be helpful to have specific needs in mind when you ask your offsite stylist to customize your box of clothes. Instead of saying “I want to look better,” for example, type in comments that are more specific—such as “I want nicer dresses to wear to networking cocktail parties,” or “I want casual clothes that can also look professional for offsite visits to corporate clients.” It’s important to fill out your profile and submit feedback after you’ve received and tried out your first box. This helps the supplier target your specific tastes, giving you a better chance of getting a box you love.
Getting a second opinion on your look—whether from a virtual stylist, or from your partner—is often invaluable. Online stylists can be incredibly handy if you’re too busy to head down to 5th Avenue or Soho, or if you simply don’t enjoy shopping in stores. At the same time, though, paying to work with a professional stylist in-person can be worth it if you have the disposable income. Professional stylists can offer you a more holistic experience than just a digital box-service subscription.
“Professional stylists often discuss goals, priorities, and other issues in order to develop a client’s personal style,” says Kristin Wong (in The New York Times). “Working with a stylist is more about figuring out who you are, and then dressing yourself accordingly,” says L.A.- based stylist Lauren Messiah.
When you get down to it, sometimes the most useful and sustainable way of thinking about fashion is to approach it as a process of self-discovery that explores your goals and desires beyond the clothing. Once you’ve defined your personal goals, your personal brand, and your work ambitions, you can choose clothes that align with your professional identity.
Finally, whether you’re dressing for the job or the job you wish you had, remember to have fun, and exercise some self-compassion along the way!