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What to wear to an interview: the new rules

By Amber Kallor, Oprah.com
July 26, 2012 -- Updated 1735 GMT (0135 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Have coffee near your potential office; watch people going in and out to see what they wear.
  • Take time to make sure your clothes fit you well.
  • Find the line between looking stiff and looking sloppy.
  • Well-chosen accessories can make you stand out in an applicant pool.

(Oprah.com) -- Dress to impress with these six foolproof strategies for making your outfit as polished as your résumé.

1. Go undercover

"People working in the same building often dress in sync," says Kat Griffin, who founded Corporette.com, a site for professional women. She realized this simple truth after showing up at her conservative Wall Street office wearing what many magazines told her was appropriate (revealing wrap dresses and fishnet stockings) or frumpy suits, neither of which did her any favors.

Have a cup of coffee in the morning near your potential new office or drive by during lunchtime and watch people going in and out. Just don't do your investigating on a Friday when many companies' dress codes are more relaxed, says Brenda Arnold, regional vice president of Robert Half International, a staffing firm.

If you're still unsure, make a call to a local professional organization (like the local bar association if you're a lawyer) to see what they recommend.

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2. Create a halo effect

A well-tailored outfit suggests that you're conscientious and detail-oriented in other areas, says Frank Bernieri, PhD, associate professor in the psychology department at Oregon State University.

So take time to make sure your clothes fit you well. For instance, the stylish skirt you see at the store might be hitting the 5'8" mannequin perfectly, but you... not so much. Skirts should be barely above or at your knee, says Griffin. Any longer and you'll look dowdy; any shorter and, well, you know what message that sends.

Trousers should touch the tops of your shoes but not fall below the heels and drag on the ground. To quickly deal with a pair of too-long pants, slip on a slightly higher pump or try iron-on adhesive tape for a no-sew hem.

3. Stick to the classics

No matter what field you're interviewing in, you'll do well to find the line between looking stiff and looking sloppy.

When it doubt, as O creative director Adam Glassman says, think classic -- as in foolproof and flattering silhouettes, like the basic button-down (try the no-iron kind from Brooks Brothers), pencil skirt, slim trousers, and sheath dress, all of which are appropriate to wear to an interview in almost every industry.

Throw on a smart blazer (which conveys authority); it can also be taken off if you're feeling overdressed. "Don't forget to cut the zigzag thread stitched over pockets or the vent in a new jacket, skirt or pair of pants," says Griffin. If you agonize over coordinating separates, try purchasing a piece that comes already mixed and matched (like this two-in-one dress from the Limited that gives the illusion of a top and skirt).

For law firms or investment banks, go with a suit. You'll want to avoid trendier pieces -- mesh tops or pajama-inspired tops -- even if your interview is at a dot-com or creative ad agency. (For those, choose one of the above tops and pair it with dark denim.)

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4. Step out of the shadows

Looking professional doesn't have to mean black (although we do appreciate its slimming effect). Choosing a classic top, pair of trousers or shift dress in a rich and vibrant color (like spring's bold tangerine) demonstrates a certain level of confidence -- a must-have for any job.

Splashy prints, like florals or stripes, can also be interview-appropriate... when worn in moderation. A patterned cardigan would work with a solid skirt or pair of pants. If you're prone to sweat, skip the light blue oxford or a silk blouse for something darker and thicker that won't reveal underarm wet spots.

Not ready to take the leap from charcoal to chartreuse? Think about a different, less-mournful neutral -- like this season's sophisticated navy. Glassman says it flatters almost any skin tone and can be paired with everything from fuchsia to camel.

5. Accessorize with aplomb

Well-chosen accessories can telegraph your creativity and make you stand out in an applicant pool filled with play-it-safe pearls.

However, Glassman once met with a candidate who had on earrings so large they resembled napkin rings, so he'd like to remind interviewees to choose one bold piece -- like a vibrant beaded necklace or an oversize men's-style watch (free of gimmicky gems or wacky colors).

Also, steer clear of big bracelets or large cocktail rings that can get in the way of a firm handshake.

When it comes to shoes, closed toe is the best way to go (even in the summer), says Griffin. Yours should be scuff-free but also comfortable (Rockport and Cole Haan both incorporate sneaker technology into their heels).

Walking a few blocks to a restaurant for lunch is often part of the interview at many law firms or financial institutions. While the Duchess of Cambridge (Kate Middleton) may be bringing back buff hose one royal skirt suit at a time, if you're interviewing in a more conservative environment (like a bank or government office) where stockings are a must, Glassman says they should match your shoes for a leg-lengthening effect.

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6. Take the sit-down test

Some outfits look good when you're standing up, but when you're seated across from your potential employer it could reveal... ahem... a whole other side of you. Buttons can gape, skirts can ride up, and your bra can peek out from what you thought was a demure blouse.

Pull a chair up in front of a mirror and take a seat -- this helps you spot problem areas you might otherwise miss, says Griffin. You should remember that your one-on-one may not always take place in an office.

Andrea Bredau, vice president of human resources at Huge Incorporated, an interactive advertising agency, often meets with people in a lounge area with a low couch. She says that this slouchier seating arrangement recently revealed a well-qualified candidate's derriere -- something she'd rather not remember.

You can always take a photo of your interview outfit and send it to a friend for a second opinion. Do your dry run several days in advance so you have time to drag out the ironing board, make adjustments or visit the dry cleaner.

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