I entered the job market in the early 1990s, when hair was high, shoulders were padded, and hemlines were not to be more than an inch above the knee. There was someone at my first “real” job who actually went around with a ruler to enforce that last rule. At first, dressing up for work was fun. Given that one of my favorite movies from the 1980s had been Baby Boom, starring Diane Keaton as the high-powered New York executive who takes on the city in her skirted suits and sensible heels, I felt like I was channeling her and I was, as a result, all grown up.

Despite our job being in a call center at an investment firm where we never saw a client in person, my colleagues and I were expected to be in professional attire every day. Back then, that meant a suit and tie for the gents and a skirted suit or dress with stockings for the ladies. But good news – the dress code stated that women were permitted to wear a suit with pants one day per week. Such progress!

Times, thankfully, have changed. A mere seven years later, the even stodgier investment firm at which I was working had adopted a business casual dress policy. Today, nearly all firms have a relaxed or downright super casual dress code and will ask that people use their judgment and wear suits when visiting with clients.

As an Executive Recruiter, part of my job is to help candidates prep for the interview. Know the ins and outs of the job requirements? Check. Understand the company’s culture? Check. Get a read on the styles of those with whom you will be interviewing? Check. Dressing for the interview? Yes, that too.

Many search firms will tell candidates to wear a full suit for interviews, specifying a skirted suit for the ladies. At previous firms, we were instructed to tell every candidate to “channel their inner Brooks Brothers” when dressing for interviews. Don’t get me wrong, I am a huge fan of the Brooks Brothers vibe, but it did make me think: Is interviewing in a suit still required?

If I look at my current clients, it would be about 50/50. One client is a retailer of accessories that promotes the preppy lifestyle. They have told me that if someone comes in looking “too corporate”, they will not be a fit. One client is a bit more traditional, and while the dress code is business casual, the President and CAO wear suits every day, so any candidate would want to be dressed for that. Another client would say that for sales interviews they would definitely expect someone to “suit up”, but otherwise would not balk if someone came in looking less formal so long as they looked really professional.

While there is no hard and fast rule, my advice is this: Figure out what the interviewer(s) will want.

  • Don’t be shy about asking! It shows an interest in making a good impression and respect for the company culture.
  • Who to ask? If you are dealing directly with the firm, ask HR. If you know someone who works there (this is where LinkedIn can come in really handy), reach out to him or her.
  • If you are working with an Executive Recruiter, he or she should be able to give you the lay of the land.

Be sure to be on the dressier end of whatever you ascertain. If it is a truly casual atmosphere and you are told that jeans are fine, make them dark jeans as they come across as far more polished. Pair them with a jacket and a crisp white button down. Business casual? For men, this could mean a sports jacket with no tie, and for women this could mean pants or a skirt with a cardigan. Need to channel your inner Brooks Brothers still? Maybe channel all of their sections, not just the suits.   When in doubt, wear a black suit. For women, this can be a pantsuit. Men, wear a subtle tie. This is not the time to use the tie to show your individuality.   Regardless of dress code expectations, and this may be the daughter of a former Air Force pilot speaking, shine your shoes before heading out the door for the interview. Literally, it puts your best foot forward. People may not notice a shined shoe, but they will definitely notice an unkempt one.

While dressing for interviews can be a daunting task, doing it right can show that you have an innate understanding of the organization’s culture. Just be thankful that the 1980s are behind us. Those shoulder pads were a lot to pull off.

For more tips on how to make an impact, be sure to check out my earlier article, Interview Impact: The Art of the Thank You Letter.