The Suit


Photo credit: Lifehackery

A few weeks ago, I signed up to attend McGill’s School of Information Studies’ annual career fair, which was held last week. Over thirty employers were going to be present from all over Quebec and Ontario. As the fair approached, the organizers began to send e-mails about how the attendees could prepare. One e-mail included the following:

“Last year we did get complaints from employers about some students who were not dressed appropriately. We hope that this will not be the case this year. Please, no ripped jeans, graphic t-shirts, hoodies, etc.”

Perhaps my shocked reaction to reading this demonstrates my conservative side. I am still getting accustomed to being back in Canada again after four years of living in South Korea, a far more formal culture where ripped jeans are still only barely considered acceptable street wear, never mind career fair attire. Nonetheless, at the risk of sounding like a curmudgeonly old grandmother, I feel strongly that those who wore street clothing to the fair missed a crucial opportunity to make a strong first impression on potential employers.

As my previous boss used to say, “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.”

After many years of a student life and a student budget, the idea of dressing up for potential employers is a bit daunting. Business suits are expensive, and if you don’t wear them regularly they can make you feel awkward and fake, like you’re trying to be someone you’re not. But you’ve just spent one or two years in library school building up your professional experience and credentials. Don’t undermine all your hard work by wearing inappropriate clothing to an interview!

Unfortunately, I did exactly that. A few years ago, when I was about to graduate from my undergraduate degree, I applied for an administrative assistant position and was granted an interview. Figuring that because I was still a student I would not be expected to dress up, I went dressed in a casual summer skirt and sandals. When I got there, I was horrified to discover that every single other candidate there was dressed in a business suit. As you might expect, I did not get the job. I learned my lesson. The next time I had an interview, I wore a tailored suit and new shoes. It was an uncomfortable drain on my budget, but it got me my first professional job. Proper attire is an important investment in your employment future. Even though I have zero interest in working in a corporate environment (I hope to become a school librarian), I found that wearing suits helped me to develop my professional identity and gave me a sense of confidence when I was a first year teacher.

Dressing well in any situation where you might encounter potential employers not only conveys that you respect them, but also that you take yourself seriously as a professional. Additionally, it is a very easy way to give yourself an edge over others competing for the same job (just like writing thank you notes after a job interview, a professional courtesy that shows you to be polite and considerate).

So, whether you’re looking for your first professional job or a summer gig, dress as professionally as you can. Here are some tips:

1. Invest in a quality suit in a conservative colour that fits you properly. Get it dry-cleaned several days before your interview. If you choose to wear a skirt, look at yourself in the mirror while sitting down to make sure nobody gets an accidental glimpse of something they shouldn’t!
2. Wear clean, polished shoes. Ladies, go with flats or low heels, and make sure that you can walk comfortably in them. Also, pantyhose. I hate them too, but they’re an unfortunate necessity.
3. When you choose a shirt to wear under your suit, select a solid colour (no patterns) and make sure that it is pressed.
4. Go with a conservative hairstyle, jewellery, and makeup. Ensure that your hair is out of your face. (There is some debate about visible tattoos and facial piercings; personally I think that depends on the organizational culture of the workplace that’s interviewing you. If you’re not sure, call ahead and ask the administrative assistant what he or she would suggest.)
5. If you need a briefcase, take one. If you don’t, leave it. Also leave any bulky bags or purses at home. You want to convey an aura of organization and efficiency.
6. If you’d wear your outfit to a nightclub or a pub, it’s not job interview attire.
7. Be comfortable! When I went to the career fair last week, I saw that my classmates had all followed the advice of the e-mail and were professionally dressed. However, it was clear that some of them were extremely ill at ease in their formal attire. Employers will be able to pick up on your discomfort. So if you’re not used to business suits, wear one to class or the library or the coffee shop until you start to feel more comfortable. (I like to wear my suits while I write cover letters!) Sign up for a mock interview at your university’s career centre and wear it to the interview. Soon it won’t be so uncomfortable.

Once you actually start working, of course, take the organizational culture of your new workplace into account. After I wore a full business suit to a job interview for a part time student job at a local public library, my new employers laughingly told me that suits wouldn’t be necessary on the job. These days, I wear business casual clothing to work, but I’m still extremely glad that I wore a suit on the day of the interview!

I’d like to hear from you. What is your favourite professional attire? What professional attire do you hate? Do you have any stories about clothing that got you (or didn’t get you) the job you wanted most? I look forward to hearing your stories and comments!

27 replies

  1. Completely agree with you, Laura. This is the first impression you make, so it better be a good one. Even with the people in the front of the office, the receptionist, people walking by — you want them to see that you are a serious professional, too. Don’t think the receptionist doesn’t have any say in your hire. As for tattoos and piercings, I think it’s always smart to stay conservative. If you are applying for a hippy library (if there is such a thing), then you can wear those things visibly AFTER you’re hired.


    • Love that you made that point about the receptionist Chris. A mentor told me to always make sure you say hello and be kind to the people who greet you when you come to the interview, like the receptionist. Small things matter!!!

      My other random tip is H&M. While I do have a super nice suit that I invested in from Ann Taylor ages ago…I have supplemented that suit with some great suit pieces from H&M and my wallet is happy for it.

      Laura- I totally understand what you mean by being shocked by that announcement. After working for years in the business world it would never cross my mind to not be professionally dressed at those types of functions. But what people are saying about making it your own via shirts, jewelry, bow ties, etc is great way to show who you are. I guess I’ve always felt like an interview is not the place to make a statement about how you feel about suits 🙂


      • I agree completely about the receptionist. You should always be pleasant and professional toward anyone you encounter when going for a job interview, regardless of their job!


  2. I don’t think the suit is always necessary. I think the best possible scenario is to dress one step above what the organizational culture is – so if you’re applying for a children’s librarian position and would wear jeans for the job, wear khaki pants or skirt and a collared shirt to the interview. If it’s an academic library and people dress casually but don’t wear jeans, then wear dress pants or a skirt and a collared shirt and sweater to the interview. If it’s a place where people where business casual, then go for the suit. The key is that you don’t want your clothing to distract from your message – and a suit can be distracting in the wrong environment. Clean and ironed and right for the setting is better than a suit.

    But I would also never hide tattoos or piercings, either. 🙂 If you got them and your potential employer has an issue with them, why would you want to work there?


    • I think a suit is a good, safe bet for interview attire regardless of the library’s dress code. But I do think patterned shirts are acceptable and actually better — you want to show some of your personality!

      Liza, I agree with you on tattoos and piercings. They should only be hidden if they’re in places that can’t seen when you’re dressed appropriately anyway….


    • Agreed, I have a nose ring which I NEVER remove during interviews because I wouldn’t want to remove it during the work day. I have a few tattoos that are usually covered during interviews, so I make it a point to mention it, like “Is there a policy about exposed tattoos?” Where I work now (a LARGE academic university library in Texas), you’re a weirdo to NOT have an exposed tattoo 😉


    • Agree 100% with Liza. If you intend to keep the tattoos/piercings, don’t take them out for your interview. I’ve never had anyone comment on any of mine (tragus x2, snug, nose, tongue piercings, wrist tattoo).

      A colleague and I recently had the dressing-up conversation with relation to presentations and conferences. Liza’s advice to dress one step above the organizational culture is spot on. You don’t want to be underdressed – as in the post – but you also don’t want to be OVERdressed and feel like a tool who is trying too hard.


      • I should note that I wore a J Crew wrap dress when interviewing for my last job (MPublishing, University of Michigan) and a 1950s vintage dress (3/4 sleeves, forgiving fabric, below the knee) for my current job (University of Chicago).


  3. I hate hate hate suit jackets. They are not comfortable. I have one for interviews and that’s it, despite working in a super professional environment (law firm library).

    I agree with your advice in general, but I had to laugh at the line “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” I’d have to reverse that: the job I have is uber-professional; the job I ultimately want would be far more casual.


    • That line always makes me laugh, too. I always imagine someone walking into their cubicle in a baseball uniform or something equally ridiculous. I understand the sentiment, of course, but I always imagine the extreme. 🙂


  4. I recently invested in a suit. To be honest, I was just tired of looking at my closet and wondering what I should wear. Just wearing a suit to an interview takes care of whether my stuff matches or not. It’s grey so as long as I wear black shoes, I’ll be ok! I’d rather just have a go-to thing to wear to interviews instead of trying to match all my stuff. I’ll save my colorful wardrobe for when I land my dream jobs.


    • That’s one of the things I like about suits too. Job interviews are stressful enough without having to worry about what to wear. And when you’re just starting out, one really nice suit is all you need.


  5. “Dressing well in any situation where you might encounter potential employers…”

    This includes conferences and other professional events! I’m not suggesting that you need to wear a suit or dress formally at these events, but I’m shocked at the number of people I see in these situations wearing clothing best suited for painting a room! As one of the best “new librarian” speakers I’ve heard said, “As you pack for ALA, remember that other people can see you!”


  6. One can never be overdressed! Even as a graduate student, I always make an effort to dress in well fitting, “business casual” attire for class, work, lectures, brown bag lunches, etc. It is important to keep in mind that professors and bosses play an integral role in helping you secure a job in the professional world. For that reason, I think that “dressing the part” is extremely important. When professors and bosses prepare to give references for you, the last thing you want them thinking is that you never bothered with your attire and that you were always a bit sloppy.

    Besides, dressing nicely is a confidence booster!


  7. I’ve been reading more and more about employers using the in-person interview not only to talk to you about your experiences, but to get to know the ‘real you.’

    [FYI: I know when they say ‘real you’, they mean the workplace you, not the you that takes silly nose-picking pictures with your friends after a night at the bar.]

    That being said, I think there’s a sweet spot in dressing for an interview that is professional, neat, and yet shows your employer who you are as a person. This of course is expressed in your comfort as you sit and chat, but can also be expressed in color and subtle pattern, as well as style. For me personally, a business suit would be akin to wearing a costume- and something that would show my discomfort. I like to wear well-fitting blazers or pencil skirts-professional, but gives me the opportunity to mix/match and choose something that says, “I’m excited and ready to work!”

    I agree with calling the office and speaking to someone, maybe looking at their website to see if there are any current employee photos, and judging the type of job desired. Are you applying for a law firm? Suit it up. Is your interview for a position at a circus museum/library? Perhaps your interviewer would appreciate a little unique individuality…


  8. Sometimes you need to set yourself apart from the pack just a little!
    I went to several job interviews last year. Actually 15 in all, the job I got was the one where I wore what I liked and not what I “thought” was expected of me. I was more relaxed and confident and it did get me the job. It was a nice outfit with a lovely sweater made from silk scarves.

    The flip side was that I went to one interview where I entered a room filled with candidates that looked like an homage to Nancy Pearl. Every single one dressed in navy suits with pearl necklaces and tight buns. I wore a bright red suit with a crazy printed blouse (I was offered that job as well). Be yourself, first!


  9. One step more formal than the people at the place you’re applying makes a lot of sense to me.

    And to follow up on what Jeanne said – I think it’s important to look professional, but depending on your personality that doesn’t necessarily mean “conservative” or boring. You should look well put together and organized, but that needn’t be boring. Though boring is (for me at least), easier.

    Also, wearing appropriate attire is important at professional events in general, not just interviews. I was annoyed and amused by what one fellow student wore during a visit to an investment bank library a group of us went on: shorts and sandals. It was just a tour – mainly for learning but possibly useful for networking too. Sandals and shorts to visit in investment bank!


    • Good point, JT. Currently I’m not a full-time professional in the field, and ‘dressing up’ (or simply not ‘dressing down’) at professional events keeps me ready to speak to others with confidence. A few times people have inquired far enough where I uncover that I’m still looking for a full time position and they smiled, saying that they would never have known by the way I present myself.


  10. One other thing about suits, at least for guys. A good suit that fits right needn’t be uncomfortable, unless maybe you’re bending over a lot and lifting a lot.

    Ties I’m not that into though.

    If your suit is uncomfortable, maybe it doesn’t fit right?

    For me the problem with suits as daily wear is the cost of dry cleaning and upkeep. If it wasn’t for that, I’d wear them a lot more often.


  11. This idea of “the suit” can be used to stand for a performance of the norms of your work environment and in the original post stands for a stuffier understanding of professionalism than I’ve encountered in any of the libraries where I’ve worked. I don’t want to hang out with a bunch of “suits,” but rather intelligent, creative, serious, and engaged people who care more about the work we’re doing than about some pop-corporate idea of professionalism.

    At interviews, I’ve attempted to signal my respect and desire for the job by wearing clean, stylish, inexpensive clothing, by arriving on time, by being informed and enthusiastic, by being polite and well-spoken, but I’ve never sweated the suit. And it’s never mattered.


  12. Catching up on my blog reading – having done a lot of interviewing last year while job hunting, I’d definitely suggest “one step up from the job you’re interviewing for”. A suit would have been overkill for the organizational culture. (That exception was a for-profit college where formal business dress was part of the campus culture.)

    Definitely listen to any comments about about clothing culture. I had two different interviews tell me in advance not to bother with pantyhose, and at least one other commented (it was 90 degrees and August at the time) that they were glad I’d had the sense to dress for the weather. Bear in mind that if you’re applying for an academic library job or some school library jobs, you may have a day-long interview process, too, so you need something that can adjust to a fair amount of walking, or differences in climate.

    What I ended up going for was an attractive but fairly classic dress in a black and white print with a piece of somewhat more ecclectic (but appropriate) jewelry. I could add a shawl or a cardigan top easily to dress it up or down a bit or add color, and it was neither going to be too formal for a very casual setting, or too informal for a formal one.

    (And as a plus-size woman with broad shoulders, I can never find a suit jacket that fits and feels comfortable – finding a dress I liked was a lot easier.)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s