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A Sharper Image

Three buttons, point collars, four in hands…oh my! Dust off your suit and shine your shoes — the interviews are about to begin. After spending several years in the fashion industry, I wondered how I could give advice about interview attire. After all, I did buy my first suit for the HBS interview, and even that was a stretch for me. However, sixty-five percent of an interview is conveyed visually. With numbers like that, it’s time to take notice of what we need to wear when trying to land a job.

My research began with the occasional browse through the popular men’s magazines. The looks are quite interesting, but the stories focused on a very fashionable look. I know that the HBS gentlemen are stylish, but I wondered if they could pull off a four-button techno-stretch suit that was tailored within an inch of its life. With limited information available in the magazines, I decided to get out there and conduct a good old-fashioned field study. Here are some of the things I learned that can help you look your best for your interviews.

My favorite part of researching men’s fashion is the abundance of locker-room theories surrounding the proper way to dress for an interview. “You can’t wear French cuff shirts until you are 35,” said one well-dressed RC male. Hmmm…this could be interesting. I didn’t realize there was an age limit for shirts. I thought that I would ask a couple more men to see if this was a social norm. “Leave the French cuff shirts to the boss,” proclaimed another. “I won’t wear cufflinks until at least 30,” said a fashionable EC.

It seems that the theory may hold for now, at least with the American male population. Personally, I think a French cuff shirt really polishes off a good suit; but I defer to the male experts on this one. The use of cufflinks has the potential to go overboard. So, use those cuffs wisely, and with caution, on your interviews.

I found that men have such wonderful traditions built into the suit experience. With every article of clothing, they face difficult choices that all must tie back together. A good place to start is the suit itself. For an interview, choose a basic navy or charcoal and leave the black for special occasions. I prefer a three-button suit (it’s not as boxy), but the two-button is also a classic choice, and both will be well-received. Leave the four-button suit to our fashion-forward friends interviewing in progressive industries, and perhaps give the double-breasted suits to the 1980’s power brokers.

The choice of vents is up to you. While the double-vent suit conveys more of a European look, a suit without vents is great for a slimmer build. Whether you own a suit or two that you love, or you are interested in investing in a new suit, it’s always good to try on a more expensive suit to get a good gauge of the lines and silhouettes that you prefer – you can always transfer the look into a less expensive brand.

When it comes to collars, there are several choices that can serve your interviewing needs. The main types are spread, point, button, cut-a-way, and tab. The spread collar is good on a thinner face and neckline while the point collar flatters a shorter neck – making it appear longer. A button collar is a no-no for the interview and should be saved for those more casual moments. For our European audience, the cut-away is a nice look, but can deliver a more aggressive look if not worn correctly. The most important thing is to wear a nice tie that works well with your shirt type. I suggest sticking with the basics, like the Half-Windsor or four in hand.
Most importantly, remember that you are wearing a fine piece of silk, so avoid wrinkling it by keeping it simple. I think the knot is something like Goldilocks porridge – not too big, and not too small, it should be just right.

Women enjoy more freedom in their dress, although I would still caution to err on the side of conservatism. You want to make a statement that you are serious about your aspirations, and an accomplished expert. Sadly, sometimes a great outfit can get in the way of that message.

Make sure that your suit fits your personality. Try on a great pant-suit, or pair your jacket with a stunning pencil skirt. Like in men’s suiting, it is important to get the right proportions in your shoulders and throughout the bodice. Don’t be afraid to take your off-the-rack suit and get it tailored to your needs. If you decide on a skirt-suit, make sure the skirt is an appropriate length – Ally McBeal is not a look that anyone needs around the office. For pants, make sure that you wear the correct heel height to get the appropriate break in your pant leg. On interview day, you should feel and look your personal best.

Women should decide if they prefer an open neckline (like a button-down shirt) or a higher neckline (a nice sweater shell). This will influence the type of jacket that you decide to wear. Remember, when you are sitting down for the interview, the focus will be on the top half of your body, so choose a shirt color that complements your coloring and keep jewelry to a minimum. A suit paired with some simple studs or classic pearls is always a safe and timeless look.

Though some would disagree with me, I think you should have some fun with your shoes. I’m not suggesting purple ostrich stilettos, but you can show a little bit more personality with subtle tweed or patterned heel.
My last advice before wishing everyone good-luck is to have an outfit run-through. Put your suit on and walk around. Make sure that you are comfortable and that you feel good!

Die-Hard Fashion Rules for Men:

1 Match your socks to pants, not to your shoes
2 Match your belt to your shoes
3 Pick one to two patterns and mix accordingly
4 Your tie should fall at the beginning of the belt
5 Leave the last button on your suit open, always

November 2, 2004
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