Professional attire rules to give perfect first impression

Even though I’ve always had a healthy interest in fashion, I’ve never been the type to freak out about having the perfectly put together outfit every day of the week. If a print is a

Even though I’ve always had a healthy interest in fashion, I’ve never been the type to freak out about having the perfectly put together outfit every day of the week. If a print is a little off, or a boot just doesn’t match a headband, I’ll live with it and do better tomorrow.

But I won’t tolerate – and neither should you – having a hair out of place on the day of an interview or a job fair.

And while I know a thing or two about how to pair sweaters, scarves, jeans and boots, the only advice I’d ever really heard about professional attire was to always dress for the career you want.

So, I two-stepped it over to Mitten Hall’s Career Development Services to get an expert’s opinion, and I certainly learned a few things. Take for example:

“Although pants and pantsuits are acceptable in most offices during daily work, it is advisable to wear a skirt for an interview.”

So reads the handout “A Guide to Professional Dress” from the office under the heading “Guidelines for Women.”

Who knew, right?

In reviewing the printed material and talking with Experiential Learning Coordinator Kathy Francis, there weren’t too many big surprises. Advice on business professional attire makes sense, but there is a lot to remember when it comes to looking sharp for an interview.

Francis stressed conservativeness for every component of an interview ensemble: traditional cuts and fits, colors and accessories. The bottom line is, if you play on the safe side, it is hard to go wrong.

Generally though, for both men and women, it’s important to don a well-cut suit. That should be easy to remember, because all of your clothes should be tailored.

A pantsuit should not expose any part of the leg or ankle, Career Development Services advises, even when you’re seated or when your legs are crossed.

Men should always wear dark socks and women, pantyhose. Those who choose to wear a skirt should make sure it falls at least to the knees. OK, that last part should go without saying, but I had to throw it in . . . just in case.

Francis said that dark colored suits – black, dark grey, steel blue – are the preferable colors for both genders. A blouse or dress shirt underneath the suit should contrast the suit’s color, and for men, a tie should contrast the shirt, but not necessarily the suit as well. Soft colors and very subtle patterns are the most appropriate options for shirts.

Speaking of color schemes, I have always thought the classic “power outfit” for men to be a black suit, a crisp white shirt and a red tie. Each element contrasts the others for a sharp look, and the red tie knots a bold finish.

To complete the look, men should wear dark, polished dress shoes and women should wear completely closed kitten heels or flats.

“Shoes need be professional looking and easy to walk in, so any kind of cut out, in the front or back, doesn’t make sense,” Francis said.

Men should wear no jewelry outside a wedding band and a watch, and women should wear no accessories besides studs and maybe a very simple chain around the neck. Francis advised against bracelets that could make noise and necklaces or earrings that could reflect light and distract.

Women should strive for very natural looking make up, Francis said, adding that an overdone face can take the interviewer’s attention away from your merit and credentials. That’s a very nice way of saying that coming to an interview looking like a showgirl discredits you.

Francis also cited perfume and bad breath as possible distractions for an interviewer, so make sure you smell fresh. So, you know, go easy on the perfume and heavy on the mouthwash or gum – beforehand, of course. If you ever went into an interview chewing gum, not even one of Princess Di’s suits could save you. Well-groomed hair and nails are also signs of people who take care and pride in their appearance and their work.

So those are the basic rules. It’s important to follow them because you want to always present the best of what you are to a prospective employer. Still, don’t be afraid to throw a curveball into the mix. An unexpected scarf around your neck, a cute Justin Timberlake-style cummerbund – whatever it may be that showcases your true colors and sets you apart from the masses, I say go for that, too.

Mary C. Schell can be reached at


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