MyShingle Fashion: Dressing for the Job Interview (Ladies)

Editor’s Note: Why a column on dressing for interviews for a solo & small firm practice? For starters, solo and small firm lawyers do interview – and hire law students – and how you dress matters because it helps us assess your judgment. Second, as a solo, particularly, someone who handles business or corporate matters, you may have an in-office interview – not for a job, but for a client.  Third, many times if you’re not certain about starting a firm, you may want to interview – it’s a great way to make contacts whom you might call in the future if you do start a firm.  This column addresses all of these interview-oriented situations, with focus on women; next up is a similar column for men.

We make things more difficult than they need to be when trying to dress for a job interview. And why? We’re the lucky ones! We work in a very conservative industry, so it logically follows that our fashion choices must reflect a similarly conservative mindset, particularly in the interview process.

Those individuals that work in creative industries, like fashion design or marketing or public relations, have to put a little extra effort into their clothes when dressing for interviews, and add little touches that display their quirkiness and personality. They fiddle with bows and sheer panel overlays and ruffles, deliberate over hairstyles with obnoxious, vaguely French names, and must decide between T-straps and mules and kittens and Mary Janes.

But our interview fashion is remarkably simple, and the objective of today’s column (for women) is to help readers see how interview fashion can (and should) be the least stressful part of the hiring process. Never fear, gentlemen, I work with your interview image next week and show you how to achieve a flawless, polished interview look that isn’t overly fussy.
Remember the basic rule of thumb for interviews at law firms:

Conservative profession, conservative fashion.
What does this mean? Everything should be as basic and classic as you can get on your budget. It’s fine if you can’t wear high-end pieces to the interview: no one is taking off points because your suit jacket isn’t Armani. If it’s Forever21, however, you’re in trouble. Buy the best that you can afford, and take care of the pieces so that you can get more use out of them. For wool suits, for example, avoid dry cleaning them when a simple steam-and-press adequately cleans the suit without damaging the fibers the way dry-cleaning can.

I’ll take you through the different aspects of your perfect interview look step-by-step.

The Objective:
This merits some discussion. The objective of the interview is to focus on your legal talents. You’re expected to be a consummate professional, and the focus is on your mind and what you’ve done so far. Worry about showing off your nerdy or quirky or fun side later (or, you know, don’t). During the interview, the focus needs to remain on your mind and your talents (effective communication, great writing samples, ability to think on your feet, etc) and your accomplishments, and not on what you’re wearing.

The Suit:
You’re wearing a suit. A clean, classic suit. Good fabric (the best you can comfortably buy without skimping too much on other parts of the interview outfit), clean construction. That’s it; that’s all that is expected of you.
You are either going to wear a suit skirt or a pantsuit. For some women, the choice has already been made: for example, as a Muslim woman, skirt suits are not an option for me because they bare the leg up to the knee. I would never opt for anything other than a pantsuit. In this event, the pantsuit can be a unique kind of litmus test: after all, I wouldn’t want to work for any firm that would appear to strongly favor female employees wearing skirt suits. If I don’t land a job at a given firm largely because I opted for pants at the interview instead of the skirt, it’s all for the best because that firm would not have been a good fit for me, anyway. Remember that you’re also interviewing the firm to see if THEY are a good fit for YOU.

That being said, skirt suits are generally the most conservative option (yes, I realize it seems counter-intuitive, aside from the obviously sexist connotations of gender-appropriate formal wear). Obviously, it’s far better to wear a pant suit that fits great than a skirt suit that you mess up either by showing too much leg or too much cleavage or having it not fit right, or even a skirt suit that you’re just not that comfortable or confident in. Furthermore, while skirt suits seem to be the general rule, we appear to be moving away from them. Sure, we’ve all heard the story of the blind judge that used to ask his clerks to tell him whether a female attorney appearing before him wore a skirt or pants. But that adherence to skirt suits hardly seems to be the norm. Still, today I’m focusing on a skirt suit, and showing you how to not mess it up.

First: color and pattern. Navy or black or gray. Solid. That’s it. Don’t think outside the box. Navy or black or gray solid. Lighter suits, even gray suits, are seen as more casual, which is not at all appropriate for interviews. The great thing about navy or black is that even if there are imperfections in the fabric (if your suit isn’t as high-end as you might prefer), the color goes a long way in hiding that.

Second: length. Your skirt should hit at the knee or slightly above it (1-1.5″). This is the most flattering look for most body shapes and sizes. If you think a skirt might be too short, don’t risk it. It probably is too short, and you should ditch it and find something a little longer. As a general rule, though, the skirt should hit at the three curves of a woman’s leg: just above the knee, just below the knee, and at the calf.

Third, think about the fit. Skirt suits are great, but if you buy a size too small, you’re in trouble. There are several ways to examine the fit of your skirt to make sure you’ve made the right choice. Stand straight in front of the mirror with your legs together and inspect your thighs. Does the fabric pull or stretch to create horizontal lines between your thighs? If so, it’s too small. That pulling – some call it ‘smiling’ – of the fabric immediately shows that the skirt is too tight, and it makes your bottom half appear wider, a look most of us women will do just about anything to avoid.

Also, sit in a chair facing a mirror with your legs together and examine your reflection. This is what the interviewer will see. The skirt shouldn’t ride too high, nor should it cling to your every curve. If you fail to think about these things in picking your clothes, it looks as if you haven’t put enough consideration into your appearance. I started this post saying that you shouldn’t over-think things; well, you shouldn’t under-think it, either. Consider things like size and fit very carefully.

Fourth: fabric. This isn’t difficult at all. You’re looking for wool, wool blend, or exceptionally good quality cotton micro-fiber, for example. Stay far away from 100% polyester or rayon. And always dress for the season. Don’t show up for a June interview in a tweed suit. Common sense, but still.

Fifth: the jacket. For the love of God, just pick a normal jacket. One-button, two-button, double-breasted, it’s all fine. Just no bolero jackets like this one, and no ruffles going down the length of the suit. Nothing weird. Just a normal jacket.

Sixth: the shirt. A lot of female lawyers I’ve talked to have said that they’d never do the pantsuit with a button down and pearls combo because it’s too ‘law school’ summer interns. The advice on this varies, but the button-down is standard in the same way that skirt suits are standard: it’s kind of set forth at the rule, but we seem to be moving away from it.

Camisoles are out, just because they tend to be lower cut, and even though you’re wearing them to stay cool, you’ll sweat into your suit and you’ll have to get it cleaned more, and there are just better alternatives. By all means, go with a half-sleeve collared shirt; no one will be able to tell.

Shells are the most popular because they tend to fit the best. Most women have problems with button downs in that they might be too tight on the chest or the arms might be too long or the shirt pulls at the buttons even though it fits on the arms, etc. Shells lay flat and fit better. Avoid floral prints and bright colors. Pick something tasteful (usually pale) that looks great on you. For example, pastels look very nice with my mocha skin tone, so I might opt for a pale blue or pale lavender shell. If you want to stick with white, stick with white.

Bottom line: you can play with colors when it comes to the shirt, but pick something (1) flattering for your skin tone; (2) solid, no garish prints or patterns; and (3) pale, no deep, rich, vibrant colors. There are strict rules for the interview process. Don’t stray too far off the beaten track.

And finally, there may be little wild-cards thrown into the mix. For example, what about the slits commonly found in skirts? First, make sure the slit isn’t too long. If you’re wearing stockings or hose, the opaque part of the hosiery should absolutely not be visible through the slit under any circumstances. Keep those upper thighs hidden; no one needs to see that. Make sure the slit doesn’t have any dangling threads.

Also, when you’re being interviewed, should you leave your jacket buttoned or unbuttoned? If it’s a shorter interview – under half an hour – it won’t kill you to leave it buttoned. If it’s going to be longer, unbutton that sucker. You’ll look more comfortable and relaxed, and after all, both you and the interviewer are in for a long conversation. Really, you might as well be comfortable and relaxed, as opposed to looking more formal if it’s a quick interview.

There are skirt suits available in all sorts of different price ranges. Let’s take a look at some of the ones I like. When looking for your own mid-range suits (so as to be most inclusive), I’d recommend hitting up Lord & Taylor, Bloomingdale’s, even places like Macy’s or J.Crew (which has a wealth of suit separates). Brooks Brothers also has a great collection of suit separates as does Ann Taylor. Nordstroms also has a great set of jackets and pencil skirts that are perfect for interviews. Just avoid Target and Forever21 and Kohl’s. I’m sure we can do better. Furthermore, stores like Macy’s have great sales and discounts available. Take advantage of them.

Bloomingdales - $755 (click to purchase)

It’s out of my price range, as a 3L with another year of tuition to pay, but this suit is just lovely. A clean pencil skirt is just the ultimate in feminine and professional attire. The collared shirt is available in white, as well, which is what I would go with for an interview, and the jacket is a classic one-button blazer. Fool-proof.

Yoox - $440

A classic, no-fuss skirt suit, and the price isn’t bad for the store. For more reasonably priced suits (like for all the soon-to–be or recent graduates who are light on funds) that come in around $200, give or take, your absolute best bet is separates. Check out Nordstroms, Ann Taylor, Anne Klein, Macy’s, J.Crew, Brooks Brothers, and similar stores for great skirts, blouses, and jackets. A lot of these stores have excellent sales, and no matter the time of year, you are likely to be able to find a separate at a decent price. You just have to make sure to keep the fabric and the color the same. For example, you’re not going to get a cotton blazer with a gabardine skirt. Be mindful of that and you’ll be fine.
The Shoes:
Black pumps. Closed toe, closed heel. Sling-backs are generally fine; only the most obsessive-compulsive interviewer is going to notice. They wouldn’t be my first choice, but if I had a pair of great sling-backs that fit me better than my black pumps, and in which I felt more confident, I’d wear the sling-backs.

Also, no glittery embellishments. No stripper heels – the heel should not be so high that you can’t walk comfortably in it. There is nothing more ridiculous than a grown woman teetering and tottering across the lobby in heels that are too high. It makes you look like a kid playing dress-up. Stick with heels around 3″ in height, maybe 3.5″ at the most. And that’s only if you can walk in them. If you can’t walk in heels, go with kitten heels, which are just 1-1.5″ in height, or nice flats.

And for those of you thinking about that great navy suit in your closet: black goes with navy! Don’t worry! It’s very possible to wear black pumps with a navy suit. You can even wear black pumps with a brown suit (and carry a black bag) but that’s a little harder to pull off. Sure, sometimes it looks like you put the two colors together because you thought they were the same, but black pumps are so standard in legal culture that it seems to be almost forgiven.

Here are some interview shoes I like, in different price ranges. Click to purchase.

Calvin Klein - $99

These are GREAT for those of you that can wear heels, but worry about teetering and tottering around. Stacked heels make walking so much easier, and the heel is an even 3″. It’s a great, clean Calvin Klein design, and the slightly rounded toe works great with skirts because it emphasizes the curve of the calf.

Naturalizer - $78.95

Naturalizer shoes are insanely comfortable, so if your main complaint with heels is that they pinch your toes and cause you to mince around in pain, consider the Naturalizer brand.

Prada - $440

If you can afford it, go for it. (The heel is 3″, by the way.) But for those of you who can’t, no worries: no one is expecting Manolos from a 2L, anyway. I’m just trying to offer high-end pieces in addition to reasonably priced ones.

It’s a concern that’s not talked about very often, but if your shoes smell, stick dryer sheets into each one the day before. They’ll wick that smell away in no time. Don’t have any? Use baking soda.
The Bag:
Ack! What handbag should you carry? For interviews, I’m a huge fan of totes. Clutches are too ‘evening,’ and satchels and hobos are far too slouchy, and cross body bags are too ‘my mother at the mall in the 1990s.’ The right tote bag adds a touch of class and elegance, which goes a long way.

Here are some that I like. I’m going with black with this exercise, mostly because black will go with navy or brown or gray, as well as with a black skirt suit. Click to purchase.

Tory Burch $195

Coach - $398

Leatherbay - $139.95

Go leather, and go with the best that you can afford. Personally, I’d stick with less noticeable hardware. Hardware on bags is great, but I wouldn’t overdo it.
I was talking to a partner at a local real estate firm (they deal with estate planning, wills, trusts, and general real estate transactions) and he was laughing about a young lady that recently showed up to the first interview with a tote bag that looked to be made out of an area rug. That’s right: the word ‘carpetbagger’ was actually tossed around.
Don’t be that girl. Pick a tote in leather, solid color, and just stick with that.
The Scarf:

Should you wear a scarf during the interview process? I’m not a fan of it. Wear scarves knotted around your neck later, once you actually have the job. They’re a great way to add color and personality, especially if your wardrobe is largely made up of conservative staple colors like black, brown, gray, and navy. At some point in the future, I’ll be doing a post about great workplace scarves, so check back if you’re a fan of this great accessory.
The Jewelry:
You know the standard interview jewelry, I’m sure: Pearls. Little pearl earrings and a pearl necklace. Boring.
There’s nothing wrong with pearls, really. There’s a reason that they’re so popular in the interview stage: they’re timeless and they go with everything. As Homer Simpson once said, “classic pearls make the girl!”
You have room to play around with jewelry later when you get hired on, and you can wear cuffs and brightly colored pendants if you like. But during the interview process, keep it basic and simple.

Wear pearls, by all means. But as many female lawyers have told me, that seems so ‘law school summer intern.’ If you want to move away from the pearls and try something else, consider a simple pendant. Small. No bright colors. Tasteful. Maybe something in silver, with white or black accents, and matching stud earrings. (I’d go with silver.)

In the jewelry department, you can also add a contemporary and tasteful brooch if you like. But I’d save that for later, and stick to simple jewelry for the jewelry.
The perfume:
Here, less is also more. Obviously, your clothes shouldn’t stink. They shouldn’t smell of cigarette smoke or sweat. They should smell clean, freshly laundered. Add a spray of Febreeze the night before if you’re not sure. Or just keep a box of baking soda in your closet at all times.
There are few things more obnoxious than the woman that swam through a channel of Estee Lauder’s “Pleasures” on her way to the interview. Have a signature scent? That’s great. Leave it on your dresser.

If you choose to use perfume, just the tiniest dab should be used. Seriously. Less is more. Your deodorant is probably faintly scented, and you might pop a mint or use flavored floss before an interview to make sure your breath isn’t rank. You don’t need anything beyond that.
If you don’t want to use your signature scent and are a fan of aromatherapy, use a tiny dab of a lavender scent. It promotes peace and happiness, and supposedly has soothing qualities. My adventures in aromatherapy never stray far past candles, but I’ve known many people to put a lot more stock in the power of scents.
The Hair:
Don’t fuss around with high-maintenance hairdos if you really are out of your element in that respect. All that matters is that your hair is clean and combed.
For women with longer hair, gather it into a neat, deliberate low ponytail, or consider putting it halfway up. For women with medium or shorter hair, leave it down, but be sure to keep your hands out of it. Do not fiddle with it or play with it or twist it around and around while you’re being interviewed. You’re sending a bunch of signals that you don’t want to be sending during that process.
Avoid attention-grabbing hair accessories. Remember, the focus is on you and not what you’re wearing or accessorizing with.

The Nails:
Oh, God, no Wet’n’Wild colors. If you have interviews coming up and your nails are painted, remove that polish ASAP. It’s hard to get it all off quickly, anyway, and this isn’t something you want to be attempting to handle in the car ten minutes before your interview. Get that polish off, come back at the stray bits of color that remains, and give your nails some time to heal if they’re yellowed or just stained from the polish.

Your nails should be trimmed and neat. Stay away from crazy nail polish colors. Use clear nail polish, use a nude one, get a natural looking manicure, whatever. Just don’t show up with glittery emerald green nails.
The Makeup:
Simple. Play up your best features. You’ve been doing it for a while now; you know what those features are. Use very light eyeliner or eyeshadow, avoiding the smoky, sexy look at all costs. It’s absolutely inappropriate. Standard two coats of mascara, curl your lashes if you normally do, make sure your brows are trimmed and combed with no stray hairs. If you normally use a brow powder and wax, do that. If you don’t, don’t stress about it. The idea is to keep your makeup routine close to what it is normally, but appropriate for work.
Use concealer on trouble spots like pimples or redness or under-eye circles, and blend carefully. Use a light blush, making sure not to use too much, obviously. Stay away from sticky, glittery, shiny lip glosses, lest you look like you’re just dribbling and drooling all over your lips during the interview. Not a flattering look.
When in doubt, stick to shades that are close to your natural skin tone. Nude lipstick with pink or reddish tones is always a safe bet if it goes with your skin, and skipping over your bright pink blush for something a little more brownish-pink or coral (depending on skin tone) is probably a better idea.
Last Minute Preparations:
Make sure your shoes, handbag, and jewelry is all clean and polished the night before. You don’t want to show up with gunky or tarnished silver jewelry or dull, scuddy pearls. You don’t want scuffs on your shoes or uneven heels – take them to your cobbler (every town has at least one) and have them spruced up. And you certainly don’t want a tote bag with dust under the flaps or handles.

Also, pay attention to your mouth. You’re going to be talking for about an hour, and it’s safe to say that the interviewer will be paying attention to your mouth. Make sure there are no stray hairs, use a little petroleum jelly if your lips are majorly chapped or blistered, and floss beforehand. And to quickly make your teeth at least a shade whiter, dab a bit of baking soda on to a wet tooth brush and brush it over your front teeth.

That should help you put together an appropriate interview look and make sure you have all your bases covered. I’ll be back in the upcoming week with a similar post for the guys.