Great news: You just got invited in for an interview at your dream company. Just one catch—you’re told the dress is business casual and your entire wardrobe consists of dry-clean only outfits and t-shirts. Sure you generally know what not to wear to a job interview (like those t-shirts you wear on the weekends and ripped jeans). But in spite of this basic knowledge and common sense, figuring out the perfect professional look while trying to display some personality isn’t easy—especially when you come from a less flexible environment.
Now, business professional attire you've got down pat, you wear it every day. However, faced with dressing for a more informal environment, and suddenly things get really grey—and, no, we’re not referring to the color of clothing. What do you need to know about business casual for men or business casual for women?
Ahead, five ideas to help professionals figure out what constitutes an appropriate outfit, because as awesome as it would be to interpret the label any way you wanted, it’s not a smart move when you're trying to land a job.
1. Dress Up—But Don’t Get Too Dressed Up
Choosing an outfit that feels dressy but doesn’t scream “five-star, eight-course tasting dinner with the future in-laws” is the business-casual goal. If you wonder if you’re too dressed up, you probably are.
To-denim or not-to-denim is hardly a question these days since it can be so easily dressed up. Pairing dark-washed jean with mules or loafers, a blousy top or button-down, and a blazer, for example, creates a put-together, polished look without going overboard. Pearls and a little black dress for the ladies would defy the very meaning of the word casual, but here they fit perfectly. Guys, now's a good time to sport that nice watch you got for your birthday last year.
2. Leave the Sneakers at Home
If you’re going to wear jeans instead of khakis or linen pants (heck, even if you’re opting for the latter, somewhat more clean-cut trouser), keep the running shoes for your weekend wear. If you've been informed of the office's business casual policy prior to the in-person interview, make sure you set aside time to have your shoes polished and free from salt stains or other caked-on street debris.
As a wise man once told me, your feet are the first place people look after they look you in the eye and give you a firm handshake. Take care to organize yourself from top to bottom, and don’t underestimate the importance of having a nice pair of duds.
3. Buy Staple Pieces That You Know Always Work
Understanding the organization’s dress code is most important on the day you interview. I'm not suggesting that you toss aside all of your blazers, plenty of which you'd be able to incorporate into a business casual environment should you get a new job, but perhaps you invest in a couple of staple pieces that you know fit the bill.
Consider picking up a few key items from certain stores that carry appropriate work attire, including Macy’s, Banana Republic, Gap, or Brooks Brothers. Remember, you’re looking for polished pieces that you can wear with everything: a striped button-down shirt, a pencil skirt, a wrap dress, a crewneck sweater, a black or navy blazer.
4. Be Business Up Top, Let Loose Down Low
While sneakers are not an advisable business casual option for men (or women), loafers definitely pass the test. On the other hand, if it’s a more whimsical shoe you’re choosing, remember that keeping it classy up top helps you let (a little) loose on the bottom.
Ladies, you'll probably feel more comfortable rocking those heels if you pair them with jeans and a peplum top, as opposed to a little black dress. And, gents, if you're going to play with color, make sure the look is balanced. A sports jacket with a bold handkerchief poking out of the pocket, a smart button-down shirt and sweater, make it a natural move to have some fun with your bottom half.
5. Look Presentable (That’s Clean and Wrinkle-Free)
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No matter what you put on before you head into an interview—even if there is no stated dress code—it should be clean and free of wrinkles. Ditch clothing items with holes, loose threads, missing buttons, or anything that’s not quite right—you’re better than that (and so is the impression you want to make).
If you’re interviewing a lot, make sure you have own a working iron (or set aside money for the dry cleaners). Also be sure to have a stain stick on hand just in case the worst happens when you’re en route. (Oh, and ladies, always, have an extra pair of stockings or tights handy). Last but not least, this is where accessories like your resume binder, handbag, or briefcase come into play. Invest in a solid work bag and it can make your whole look come together.
The interview isn't a time to make risky clothing choices. It's also not a time to arrive in formal attire if you've been informed that they have a lax dress code. Trust your instincts; and when in doubt, it’s almost always better to overdress a bit than underdo it.