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Over the last three-quarters of a century, workplace aesthetic has been on a long arc of transformation from the crisp tailored suits of 1950s Madison Avenue to the jeans, sweatshirt and sneakers wardrobe of a modern tech firm. Does this mean we have reached a point where appearance no longer matters? Or can the right tie still be your ticket to the executive washroom?

The quick answers to the above questions are respectively no – how you dress absolutely matters – and yes, there’s a reason why Hermes is still selling neckties. Whether your company has fully embraced the casual dress revolution or your boss’s preferred dress code dictates the number of buttons on your jacket sleeve, there’s a unifying principle at play here. Dressing for success is about knowing when to blend in and when to stand out. And most importantly, how to do both.

 

The Basic Rules of Interview Attire

Let’s begin by narrowing in on the moment when your attire matters the most: in a job interview. An interview represents a chance to make the best possible first impression and it’s also one of those times that you need to distinguish yourself from the competition. What you wear to an interview should:

  • Be appropriate for the company
  • Fit well
  • Be clean and pressed
  • Reflect your personality (but without being distracting)
  • Be comfortable
  • Have you looking your best
  • Boost your confidence

While a prospective employer is almost certainly more interested in your experience and educational background than whether you are a slave to fashion, a carefully chosen interview look communicates that you take the opportunity seriously, which is important in and of itself. It also shows good judgment, something every hiring manager is looking for. Dressing the part for an interview demonstrates how the company can expect you to present yourself at an important client meeting or sales pitch.

Of course, there’s a flip side to the positive signals sent by a spot-on outfit. Wearing something inappropriate, ill-fitting, or wrinkled gives the impression that you’re not serious about your interest in the company. Similarly, showing up with a starched collar and silk necktie misses the mark completely if you’re interviewing at a start-up where everyone else is dressed in t-shirts and jeans.

 

How to Fit in and Still Stand Out

A good rule of thumb is to aim for matching the level of the company’s formality, plus one. If you’re not sure where on the scale they might be, have a look at their website and social media accounts to see how they position themselves. Any pictures included in a “work with us” section are certain to be helpful. Once you’ve made a note of their style, plan accordingly, always erring for slightly more formal than their baseline look.

So if they embrace casual clothes, avoid wearing a suit, but at the same time, maybe don’t opt for your most worn in pair of jeans. Instead, go for a dark wash, and smarten them up with a classic buttoned shirt. Maybe even add a little flair with a vest. If you’re trying to get onto the ladder in a more traditional corporate role, a suit and tie is a must. However, this doesn’t mean you have to be boring, particularly if your chosen field is a more creative one like marketing or architecture. In these cases, choosing a more vivid shirt color or accessorizing with a pocket square conveys confidence and sophistication. If you wear glasses, upgrading to a pair of bold frames can also add a dash of personality.

 

Personal Grooming for Success

Whether you’re leaning business casual or going for your boardroom best, personal grooming on the day is key. If you’re due for a haircut, why not schedule it in for before your interview? This is also a timely moment for a beard or mustache trim if you have either. And be sure to drink lots of water and get plenty of sleep in the days beforehand to avoid any last minute breakouts or dark circles under the eyes.

You could be as well-coiffed as Cary Grant, dressed to the nines, and ace every question, but if your deodorant fails you on the hot seat it could be the end of a stellar career opportunity. And there’s nothing like pre-interview nerves to put many deodorants to the test. If in doubt, think about switching your usual stick to one that has excelled in consumer testing like one from this list.

If sweating has been a problem for you in stress situations, you can also line the inside of your shirt with underarm shields. Wearing an undershirt is another means of catching any moisture before it shows up on your shirt. Lastly, rather than run the risk of underarm stains appearing, keeping your jacket on can be the safer option. And let’s face it, in an interview, you probably wouldn’t take it off anyway.

If you wear any scent, do keep it subtle as you never know how small a room you might be in. You want your interviewer to be impressed by your thoughtful insights, not overwhelmed by your manly cologne. If you smoke, it’s also a good idea to avoid doing so before the interview for the same reason, but also because some companies actually avoid hiring smokers. Finally, it certainly doesn’t hurt to brush your teeth shortly before the interview. First of all, enumerating your accomplishments goes down that much better without a big piece of spinach distracting your listeners, but also, why even have to wonder whether your breath is fresh? Plan to have it so.

 

So You Got the Job: Next Steps

Is there any better feeling than nailing an interview? There is that phone call when you learn you got the job. Now it’s time to live up to the faith that’s been placed in you. When it came to communicating your ideas, conveying authority and enthusiasm, and reflecting the company’s ethos, clearly you’ve done something right. Those same principles – including the attention you gave to your professional appearance – can be applied to assuring your success in this new role.

Depending again on the dress culture in the new company, in the short term, you may want to mirror the approximate look from your interview for the first few days at least. This will ensure that you’re appropriately attired when introduced to any executives or managers who weren’t there for your interview. It also gives you the chance to get a better gauge of the expected standard by observing how your new colleagues are dressed.

If the atmosphere is very casual, it’s probably tempting to go for your most comfortable clothing. But before you break out that lived in a sweatshirt, do take note of what the higher-ups in the company are wearing. If your ambitions include advancing within the business, you’ll have a much better chance at being added to an important project team if you reflect some sense of gravitas in your personal style. A generally good model for success is to emulate the standard set by the managers, but not necessarily to exceed it because it might be perceived as inauthentic.

On the other hand, if your new firm is one with impeccable dress standards, not only should you carefully follow suit, it’s also no bad thing to keep ahead of certain business fashion trends. This sends the message that you’re a leader and not afraid to embrace new ideas. Whether it’s a bolder stripe or a thinner tie, distinguishing yourself at work begins with being confident about expressing your personal style.

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