Researching summer internships last week, I chanced upon a management consulting blog’s advice on how to dress for an interview. I was not impressed. Professional consultants may know a lot about PowerPoint aesthetics, but they have a lot to learn about suit aesthetics. Suiting up for a business formal interview is a fundamental task everyone should understand.
Suits come in many different colors, cuts, and styles. For this occasion, stick to the staples. A classic conservative suit ought to be solid charcoal or navy. Different shades of navy and gray can work, as well as some simple patterns such as birdseye, but if you don’t know what you’re doing you should stick with the basics.
Fit is king. Shoulders, chest, sleeves, waist—each is one of the main four places a suit should fit well. Shoulders on the jacket should line up with yours: they should not visibly jet out. The chest should fit relatively snug because you don’t want bagginess or tightness. Sleeves ought to end just past your wrist bone, where your arm meets your hand. The waist should be just tight enough so that you can snugly fit a fist between the buttoned jacket and your torso.
Your trousers ought to, of course, fit on your waist properly. Regarding the length, you probably want a little bit of break in the fabric, but no so much as to create lots of ripples in the drape.
Picking dress shirts is often easily complicated. I’ll keep it simple. Wear a white or light blue shirt with a medium spread collar. You can mix it up in many ways: colors, patterns, fabrics, collars, buttons, trims, etc. If you want to play it safe, go for a staple and make sure it fits. The same measurements apply as with the suit jacket. Your shoulders should line up with the shoulder seams of the shirt’s yoke. Sleeves should come to the base of your thumb. When your jacket is on, about ¼ to ½ inch of the shirt cuff should show. The chest area should neither be baggy nor tight—I don’t want to see your aorta. The same goes for the waist.
Conservative ties are most often solid colors or simple stripes that only incorporate two colors. Navy and dark red are classic choices. Generally, the material should be silk. The width ought to be proportionate to your frame and the lapel of your suit jacket: medium framed folks should probably wear ties between 2.75 and 3.25 inches in width. Regarding tying the tie, I recommend you learn the four-in-hand knot. Google can be your friend.
Dress shoes should be black or darker shades of brown. You want round toe shoes. Oxfords and cap-toe oxfords are the safest choices. If you’re more adventurous you can look into wingtips, brogues, and monk-straps.
Belts are the first accessory worn with a conservative suit. Your belt should match your shoes in color and material. The width should be thinner than a casual belt…maybe 1 to 1.5 inches.
Watches are a standard accessory. If you have a dress watch, wear it! Otherwise, try to stick to a straightforward watch that has either a metal band or a leather strap, rather than a cotton sport-band. The face should be tame and the the face should fit on your wrist—you don’t want something big and flashy.
Pocket handkerchiefs are another item used to spice up a suit. Folding a white handkerchief so that the edge shows above your chest pocket is a safe way to incorporate this item into a conservative suit.
Socks can be used in different ways. Traditionally, they are supposed to be dark and similar in color to your trousers. Even conservative outfits, however, are flexible on this point.
Lapel pins, tie clips, cufflinks, braces—each is another tool with which you can add to your outfit. Use them only after you understand them! Action without knowledge is stupidity.
Warnings on common mistakes
- Do not wear a black suit! They are for funerals, weddings, and black tie events. It’s a common misconception that black suits are standard.
- Do not wear bold, dark dress shirts! Red, turquoise, black—these colors look terribly unprofessional. It makes the wearer look like a 8th grader at a debate tournament.
- Do not wear square toe dress shoes! They’re ugly.