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Your visual resume: summer wardrobe interview tips

By Mary Helen Gillespie, 6/19/2006

See the gallery of interview style photos at BostonWorks.com.

I once walked into a job interview with the zipper at the back of my dress completely open.

Not, I might add, from any recent weight gain that might have popped the seams. In fact, I had just dropped a ton of weight, had not had time to go shopping for interview clothes, pulled this "old faithful" out of the closet and went to work on a rather sultry summer day.

The black dress was too big, too matronly, too hot, and too old. As I stood up to leave for my interview (which was for a better job with a different company), I suddenly felt a breeze from the south. No, the air conditioning had not finally come on in my office. The zipper just split, and suddenly I was wearing shredded rags.

I might add that at this time I had an office facing Federal Street, so not only was I standing there freaking out about how I was going to pull off this really important job interview in 45 minutes, but I was also standing there with my mostly bare back to the window mooning all of the Financial District. A dear colleague, hearing my screams, came to the rescue by taking off her black jacket that (barely) covered my assets and I made it to the interview, walking like a penguin and sitting so straight I looked like I was strapped (more like restrained) to the chair.

I learned a very important lesson that day: not only does your resume have to be perfect, your interviewing skills impeccable, but your "visual" resume -- the image that reflects your personal and professional brand -- must be poised and polished as well. This can be an especially tricky skill given summer days when the humidity and the temperatures are in the 90s followed by thunderstorms.

So, with the help of the fantastic woman who ended up teaching me to dress like a grownup, Mary Lou Andre, I've put together a Q&A to help out summer job applicants so that you, dear readers, never go through your own personal zipper hell. Andre, as many of you may already know, is a nationally known expert in image and wardrobe management for professionals. She is president of Needham-based Organization by Design Inc., a wardrobe management and fashion consulting firm serving individual and corporate clients, and editor of DressingWell.com. She is also the author of Ready to Wear: An Expert's Guide to Choosing and Using Your Wardrobe.

MHG: Mary Lou, how do men and women plan an effective interview wardrobe given the realities of summer weather and, increasingly, multiple interviews for a single position with many of the same people?

MLA: Plan is the key word here. Just like you probably wouldn't leave writing your resume for the last minute, planning your interview wardrobe (aka, visual resume) should not be an afterthought either. Multiple interviews, weather, and the industries you are interviewing in all need to be addressed and thought through long before the day of the interview.

MHG: So how do we begin?

MLA: Start shopping for your interview wardrobe in your closet first. Below is an interview wardrobe starter kit:

For women:

  • Start with at least two good suits in a dark neutral - black, navy, brown or gray. Light wool suiting is the best choice in the summer months as it is the coolest choice and doesn't wrinkle like rayon and linen blends. Much of the modern suiting available today has a percentage of Lycra or spandex added to the fabric, which makes them more comfortable, and wrinkles less.
  • Stock up on different tops to give your suits, pants and skirts versatility. Crisp, cotton shirts in white and modern colors such as chambray and chartreuse instantly dress down traditional suits - a nice strategy for interviews in less conservative industries. Cardigan twin sets with a variety of office-appropriate necklines are an easy way to present a softer look while still setting a business tone if you decide to leave the jacket at home as you continue to interview with the same group of people and they tell you a suit is not longer necessary.
  • Jewelry, scarves and other accessories often complete an outfit and help you add a personal touch to your overall look. Be aware that less is often more in terms of accessorizing in a professional setting.
  • A trench coat and a well-maintained tote are essential finishing pieces for most business outfits.

For men:

  • Even if you are interviewing in a business casual environment, you should still have a great suit that fits you well today. A sport coat paired with a dark- to-medium color wool pant is always less formal than a suit when an interview calls for you to drop it down a notch.
  • Jackets with three or four buttons are the current trend. They are often slimming because of the elongated design. Double-breasted blazers are becoming passe in business settings and are better reserved for formal affairs. When buttoning the jacket of a three-button suit, fasten the top two buttons. A double-breasted suit should always be buttoned when standing.
  • A classic "straight" collar is appropriate for all suits. It is traditional and conservative. The "tab" or "pin" collars are other traditional styles. They are both neat and formal. The "button-down" collar is the most casual of all business shirts and is the easiest collar choice to wear without a tie. A dressy mock turtleneck or other dressy, collared knit top worn with or without a sports coat is another nice business casual option.
  • For many men, shoes are an afterthought, but cheap or unkempt shoes can ruin an otherwise polished look. The best shoes for a traditional business suit are wingtips. Oxfords and loafers are better choices when wearing more casual clothes. Sneakers, hiking boots, boat shoes, snow boots and casual sandals such as Birkenstocks or sport sandals do not set a business tone.
  • The details do matter. Dark socks such as navy, black or brown are best. Over-the-calf socks are much better than shorter styles. Coordinating your belt with your shoe instantly pulls your look together. Going without socks is never appropriate in a business setting.

MHG: That is just great advice. But I must ask: is pantyhose necessary when the sweat is burning your mascara off?

MLA: Think of wearing nylons, socks and closed-toe footwear as a way to create good boundaries in a business setting. If it's hot on interview day, wear a pant suit and knee-highs. Also slingbacks. These closed-toe shoes with a strap across the ankle can be worn with or without hosiery.

MHG: This advice really applies to the everyday work environment as well, doesn't it? Interviews will add a little extra gravitas to one's personal brand but whether you are interviewing or not, what we are really chatting about here is the way we present our professional image.

MLA: Yes, this is all about creating a strong personal image that is consistent, appropriate for the occasion, and gives you instant credibility. We call this "the look of a leader." Here is our best advice in this area:

  • Dress at or above industry standards (you don't want to go overboard and upstage the person you are interviewing with, but you do want to be perceived as competent and knowing what it takes to be appropriately dressed at the interview and beyond).
  • Fit in while standing out. Wear a suit but give yourself a signature look with interesting textures and colors and accessories - you can be memorable and appropriate at the same time. Men should try a designer suit with a colored shirt and well coordinated tie that lets them know you have an eye for details. Women, opt for a chocolate brown pantsuit with lilac shell instead of a white or cream top.
  • Appear effortlessly pulled together at all times (ie, looking like you spent all day pruning is OUT.) Having standing appointments with a hair dresser, nail technician and wardrobe consultant that take care of most of the work on your behalf is IN - just don't talk about it during the job interview or on the job, unless, of course, you are making a referral to our firm!

MHG: Well, Mary Lou, since I started listening to you, I have yet to appear in a professional setting with my butt hanging out. Thanks ever so much for taking the time for this interview. Readers with additional questions should send them directly to Mary Lou at marylou@dressingwell.com.

Mary Helen Gillespie is president of Gillespie Interactive, strategic management consultancy. E-mail her at maryhelen@bostonworks.com. Note that despite the zipper disaster, she did receive the job offer. [an error occurred while processing this directive]


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