Sunday, March 4, 2012

How To Buy Your First Suit: Women's Edition

My younger sister is graduating from college -- finally, at the age of 30.  She and I have had numerous conversations over the past year about professional attire, and in particular, how to buy a suit for a job interview.  Since my sister is a Rocket Dogs, jeans, and hoodies type of person, the entire experience was terrifying for her.  I started thinking back to when I first bought a suit.  I was around 20 years old, and the idea of buying a suit was foreign.  I didn't even know where to buy a suit or what I needed.  My mom took me shopping, and because she was a high school teacher, she didn't know much about buying suits either.  I ended up with a serviceable navy suit from Liz Claiborne, but I never particularly liked it.  It did get me job offers, but somehow I think we could've done better if I had known more about the entire process.  I'm going to gear this more toward college women who need a standard, professional suit for interviews, since my experience is in corporate and law.  If you are interviewing in a more creative field, you may have more leeway to go outside the lines.

What is the Goal?

Don't just run out and buy a suit at the last minute.  If you are in college, you will need a suit for interviews at some point.  Start shopping early.  Try on a lot of suits.  You want a suit that is not only professional, but looks good on you and that you are comfortable wearing.  The latter will be the biggest challenge, because chances are, wearing a suit is going to initially feel strange because you aren't used to it.

Where Can I Buy a Suit?

If you've never needed a suit, you may not have even paid attention to them.  You can find suits at all major department stores, in the suits section.  This can be overwhelming.  There are racks upon racks of suits that may appear "old lady" to you.  Many are "old lady" but a lot aren't.  You may have to do a little digging and step out of your comfort zone.  Try on a variety of different styles and brands.  You can also find suits at stores like Banana Republic, Ann Taylor, Ann Taylor Loft, J. Crew, Marshall's, and T.J. Maxx.  The Limited and Express can be hit or miss, but occasionally they also have suits that would work for job interviews.  Generally speaking, avoid buying suits from trendy labels, such as Guess or Bebe.  These usually are not appropriate suits for job interviews.   

How Much Will This Cost?

Unfortunately, suits aren't cheap. However, you should be able to find a nice suit for $300 or less.  If you are lucky enough to find your dream suit at Marshall's or T.J. Maxx, or on sale, you may spend less than $100.  You don't need to spend $500 or thousands on a suit.  If you start early, you can scope out the sale racks during the major sales and get a deal. 

What Type of Suit Should I Buy?

This is a matter of personal preference.  It's no longer a requirement for women to wear skirt suits to job interviews, although you may prefer a skirt suit over a pants suit.  Either is fine.  Remember that you can get pants and skirt lengths and cuffs tailored if they are too long off the rack. As far as skirt length, don't go shorter than an inch or two above the knee.

There are many different cuts and styles to the pants, skirts, and jackets.  You should try on a lot of different styles to see what looks best on you.  With jackets, there are many different cuts -- shorter, longer, boxy, tapered, double breasted, single breasted, etc.  Determine what looks best on your body shape.  (As an example, I'm a pear, so I liked skirt suits with a single breasted jacket that hits around mid-hip.)  This may take awhile, especially because different brands are cut differently also.  Try different styles across different brands. 

You can (and will!) find a suit that is flattering on you, and that you are comfortable wearing.  Don't view this as a miserable process.  Consider this as your attempt to redefine yourself.  Suits can actually be fun.  (And let's face it -- they are easy to wear.  Your entire outfit is picked out all in one shot.)  And after all, you do get to go shopping...

What Color Suit Should I Buy?

It's a job interview, not a party.  You need something neutral.  My favorite interview suit color is a mid to dark charcoal gray.  It's neutral, not too harsh, you can wear black heels, and have a variety of options for the top you will wear under it.  I prefer darker suits, but if you live in a place like Florida, a light gray suit can also work.  

Other safe bets are black, navy, or chocolate brown.  Just beware that black can at times be a little harsh, so you'll need to lighten it up with the top you wear under it.  Navy can be very difficult to match with shoes, tops, and bags, and I feel is a little dated.  (I don't know any women who regularly wear suits who have a navy one hanging in their closet.  Navy is such an "interviewing only" color.  But don't let me dissuade you if the suit of your dreams only comes in navy -- it is a perfectly fine choice.)  Chocolate brown has become a more popular color in recent years and can work, but make sure the color doesn't look too feces-like. 

You can branch out a little, depending on the color and shade.  For example, I wore a dark olive green suit when I interviewed for law jobs.  Although it was green, it was still very neutral.  There are no hard and fast rules, so use your best judgment.  If in doubt, go with gray, black, or navy. 

Do not buy a suit for interviewing that is red, bright blue, pink, bright green, orange, or any pastel color.  This may sound obvious, but I interviewed a woman last year who wore a "smurf blue" suit to the interview.  It was odd, to say the least. 

What About Patterns?

Thin pinstripes are fine, as are occasionally some types of plaid.  Again, however, think neutral, job interview, not party.  While you want to invoke your style into this process, this is not the time to get too trendy.  There are some beautiful plaid wool suits, but many would not be appropriate for job interviewing, although they would be perfectly fine once you have the job.  If in doubt, go with plain or thin pinstripes only. 

What Do I Wear Under It?

Once you've bought the suit, you have to find a top to wear under it.  This is where you can get a little creative.  Your choices essentially are a button down shirt with collar, or a collarless shirt in knit or silk. 

The easiest option is the collarless shirt, because then you don't have to worry about how the collar will lay either underneath or on top of the collar on your jacket.  It should go straight across your neck. No v-necks or anything low cut. I have a number of short sleeve, knit shirts in varying colors and patterns that I wear under my suits.  If you buy a collared shirt, be sure to try it on with the suit to make sure it lays correctly and doesn't look awkward.  Do not do this the morning of your job interview.  You don't want to be worrying about whether your collar is bunching up during your job interview.  Some women can really pull off this look; others can't.  If in doubt, go with a collarless shirt.     
This is where you can add some color or pattern, but nothing too garish.  In fact, this is where you should add some color or pattern.  Again, don't do anything too bright.  Stay away from red and orange.  Pastels here are fine.  For example, I like light blue and light purple a lot with charcoal gray and black.  Avoid a plain white shirt with a black suit; you'll look like a waiter.  Navy suits can be slightly hard to match, so keep that in mind when you are picking out your suit.

Whatever type of top you buy, be sure that if you take off your jacket it looks good with your skirt/pants.  While chances are you will not have to remove your jacket, you never know.  Don't buy a skin tight knit top that makes your chest look enormous without cover of the jacket. 

If you are buying a skirt suit, I hate to break the bad news, but you need pantyhose.  Do not ever go to a job interview in a skirt without pantyhose.  The good news is, there are some wonderfully sheer pantyhose now, where it barely looks like you are wearing them, but still gives that smooth, clean, line on your legs.  Find the shade closest to your skin tone.  You may have to try out some different brands and colors to find the right one for you.  Look for the type labelled "sheer" or "ultra sheer" with names such as "barely there."  Do not wear tights or patterened pantyhose. 

What Shoes Do I Wear?

I'm not a fan of flats with suits.  I'm also not a fan of four inch heels with suits.  Find a somewhat neutral pair of leather (or fake leather) heels with a 1-3" heel.  You really cannot go wrong with black, unless your suit is brown.  However, you do not need to buy a boring, unadorned shoe.  This is an area where you can let your personal style shine through, although don't go too crazy.  There are many cute Mary Jane style, and shoes with a little bit of bling and style that are perfectly appropriate.  Buy a closed heel, closed toed shoe.  While peeptoes are adorable and trendy, it is not appropriate to show your toes at a job interview, nor does anyone want to see your heel in a slingback.  No mules.     

What Purse/Bag Do I Need?

Don't forget that you are going to have to carry your things into the job interview.  If all you have are canvas messenger bags and backpacks, you might find yourself in a panic on interview morning.  You likely have a black, leather folder that contains your resume, transcripts, a pen, and a pad of paper with your questions.  You can either bring a purse and carry that along, or go with a larger bag that serves as your purse and a bag for your folder.  Either is fine.  A simple black leather (or pleather) purse or bag, over the shoulder or handheld, is all you need.  In my opinion, Coach level is the most expensive purse or bag you should bring to a job interview.  Don't show up with a $2,000 Gucci or Louis Vuitton bag.

What About Jewelry?

Avoid the dangling earrings.  All you really need are diamond or cubic zirconia studs.  A simple necklace is fine, if you've chosen a solid, plain shirt, but not necessary.  A watch.  That's about it.  If you are married or engaged, you can certainly wear your engagement and/or wedding ring, but don't wear more than one ring.  If you are single, you can wear a simple ring, if you are a ring wearer. 


If you are interviewing in the winter, consider what type of coat you will be wearing over your suit.  Do you have an appropriate coat?  Even if you do, does it fit well over your suit jacket?  I basically buy all of my work coats a size bigger to accomodate for suit jackets.  They take up more space than you might think. 

A plain wool coat works best, length depending on whether you have a skirt suit or a pants suit.  (Shorter is fine with a pants suit, longer can work with either pants or skirts.)  Black is always a safe option, as is charcoal gray.  Think ahead on this, because you can often buy very cute wool coats during after season sales for $50 or less.  Remember that you don't need the warmest, most quality coat there is.  You just need something that looks nice and professional, and that can get you through interview season.  

There may be rain or snow.  Make sure you have a black umbrella.  You might even want to have one of those plastic headscarves you can buy at the drug store handy.  (Set aside your ego -- better to look good in your interview than on the way to the interview.  If it is pouring rain, you might be thrilled you bought this.  Just take it off before you walk into the office.)  If it is snowing, avoid at all costs having to wear snowboots in to your interview that you have to change out of.  This is awkward.  Park as close as possible and change out of the snowboots in your car. 

I think that about covers it.  Hopefully this will help someone.  Never fear -- you will find the perfect suit!  And look at it this way -- when you need Suit #2, you will know which brands and styles work for you, so the entire process will be that much easier. 


  1. I appreciate this post! I am about to go on interviews for graduate school and I am totally lost about what to wear/buy. Thanks!

  2. thanks so much! this is awesome!

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