Help me find interview clothes!
March 21, 2011 9:11 AM   Subscribe

What are the norms for women interviewing for office jobs in the Midwest?

It's likely that budget cuts will eliminate my job. (And I'm really sad about that, but there's nothing I can do.)

I am confused as heck about interview clothes for women in the Midwest. I'll be interviewing for office manager, grants management or simple financial positions (at least I hope I will). What do I wear? While I can try to check out the norms at the places where I interview, I simply don't have enough money for a wide variety of interview wear. (And I got my current job because I was a perfect fit in a rather odd job, so my two unflattering interview suits didn't matter.)

Specific questions:

--Can I wear pants? I'm fairly butch and don't look especially comfortable/natural in a skirt.

--Can I wear socks (or, if I have to wear a skirt suit, nylons)? I've been hearing all kinds of things on the internet about how socks and nylons brand you as behind the times and a poor fit for corporate culture, including one hiring manager saying she wouldn't hire a woman who wore them. I do not want to be bare-legged in a skirt; I have some scarring from an accident.

--Do I need to wear heels?

--Do I need to wear make-up? If so, what and how much?

--Do I carry a handbag or a portfolio or both? How on-trend do these need to be?

--Should I wear a suit or separates? I've been hearing that you're supposed to wear separates now except for very high-level or formal positions. If I get separates, what separates do I get?

I suspect that this is partly regional, so I'd appreciate Midwest-specific insights.

Also, how important are "perfect" interview clothes? If the office has a skirt-suit culture and I wear a pants suit, how bad is that?
posted by Frowner to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (18 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not familiar with norms in the Midwest, but as to the skirt/pants - I would definitely go with the pants, since you will be more comfortable and confident in them. Your comfort/discomfort will come across, and is an important factor in interviewing.
posted by insectosaurus at 9:20 AM on March 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

Corporette is my go-to guide for all questions related to professional dress. Check out their Guide to Women's Suits, which includes information on what shoes to wear, what bag to carry, etc. They also have What Makeup to Wear While Interviewing.
posted by wuzandfuzz at 9:24 AM on March 21, 2011 [6 favorites]

I live in Chicago, is that Midwest enough? (I mean, since it's a humongous city?)

Anyway, I'm in the no-heels-no-makeup-wear-skirts-but-would-never-wear-a-"skirt-suit"-always-wear-tights-because-it's-futt-bucking-cold camp.

I'm not exactly some paragon of job-getting (unemployed, hey-o!), but my in-person interviews have always been successful. To which I've worn a pant suit, brightly colored (just because that's who I am) shirt, comfy (but nice-looking) flats, and clean, kempt face and hair.

Go shopping and find a pantsuit that fits you well and makes you feel like a million bucks. I think confidence in how you carry yourself, while looking professional, is more important than fitting into an exact cookie-cutter image.
posted by phunniemee at 9:27 AM on March 21, 2011

Pants are fine. I would not wear socks, not even "trouser socks"; go with "knee-highs" -- nylons that go to the knee. If you are not comfortable in heels, absolutely do not wear them!!! If you do not wear makeup regularly, then don't worry about it. However, if you are not averse to it, a bit of color on the lips and cheeks might be a good idea. Carry what you need in a manner that does not look loaded down. IMO, if you have both a purse and a portfolio, they should be similar, if not matching, per the previous sentence. I myself wear a matched suit for first interviews, and break out a bit more for a second interview, with separates and more distinctive accessories. Always a suit look, though.

Caveat: I'm from the Northeast.
posted by jgirl at 9:29 AM on March 21, 2011

I am in the Midwest, and have been interviewing (a few times even getting the job!) a lot in the past few years (a lot of temp work, etc...). I have a pair of pinstripe dress pants, a black suit (with pants, not a skirt), a purple dress shirt, and a blue dress shirt. I sometimes wear heels, but usually go with flats. I go without nylons (I'm wearing pants, nobody can see my legs!) I wear enough makeup to look "put together" (foundation, some mascara, neutral eye shadow, neutral lip gloss) without looking "made-up". I also go with small earrings. Again, just enough to look 'finished'. (For what it's worth I also work in a traditionally male-dominated field. Nobody wants to hire a scientist that looks like a made-up bimbo.)
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 9:44 AM on March 21, 2011

Memphis here, kinda midwest. Business pantsuit, meaning blazer and slacks that match. Flats, knee-high nylons. Any kind of blouse that is flattering and makes you feel confident, but keep it NOT fussy. Whatever kind of jewelry you are happy with, but I would keep that pretty conservative also. I always like the look of a leather portfolio-type briefcase, something small and easy to open when you pull out your awesome resume. What we're going for here is simple, straightforward, dressy enough to show you're making an effort but would still fit in a more casual office, and at the same time comfortable and confident. As for makeup, I think you should do some light eye makeup and maybe a neutral lipstick. I don't wear any myself, but if I was interviewing then I would probably use just a little to project a more professional appearance.
posted by raisingsand at 9:45 AM on March 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

I live in the Twin Cities. I would wear a pantsuit with low heels (presuming you can walk in them) and knee highs. I wear makeup every day, including interview days but keep it neutral. If you look fine without makeup, you don't have to bother but for many people, it adds polish or keeps them from looking like the creature from the black lagoon (that would be me.) I tend to carry a handbag and then a folio of some kind, something small. Trying to avoid the bag lady look-stick to neutral colors and fabrics-black leather instead of the rainbow tie dyed hobo style bag that you might carry on weekends.

Regarding what you said about nylons... I've heard this too. But I work in the financial industry which has so far been one of the last holdouts on requiring women to wear nylons with skirts. So, I wear them, even though they suck.

For most jobs here you will be wearing separates when you get the job-I wear blouses, pants, and cardigans to work a lot. But for the interview, I tend to break out the suit. In my experience, the only place I've worked that had a skirt suit culture that was strong enough to keep a candidate out was in New Orleans and that was several years ago, working for a conservative family owned bank where women were not permitted to wear pants per the dress code. I would be surprised if you ran into that here-wear the pants if you are more comfortable in them.
posted by supercapitalist at 9:45 AM on March 21, 2011

Grew up in Chicago, live downstate.

Black or other neutral pantsuit. No heels are fine as long as the shoes are dressy (can you wear a 1/2" or 1" heel? Looks a little dressier, I think). Dressy trouser socks or knee-high nylons, as appropriate to the shoe. I mostly always wear suits; the midwest can be a conservative interviewing culture and I don't think people generally judge you for being OVERdressed (except maybe in marketing/advertising where trendy matters). However, I would go get a nice black pantsuit, have it tailored to fit properly so you look really sharp, and get a french blue shirt to wear under it ... or that you could wear JUST with the pants if you wanted separates. Boom, you're done. (I look good in french blue, YMMV. But pick a jewel tone, not a pastel.)

Nobody cares how trendy your handbag or portfolio is; just carry something conservative and nice that matches your outfit. I carry both when I need both, just one when I only need one.

I am not aware of anywhere that still has a "skirt suit culture" and I'm a female lawyer, which is about as conservative an industry as you can get for women's clothing. I would not work some place that dinged you for not wearing a skirt. That's just stupid.

For make-up, if your skin is good, you can get away without it. If your skin looks tired or is very uneven or blotchy, you at least need a light powder to even it out or brighten you up. Very muted, neutral colors in make-up when interviewing for corporate positions if you decide you want lipstick or eyeshadow. (As a pale redhead I seriously wear a light pink lipstick one or two shades darker than my lips, and a beige/gold eyeshadow a few shades darker than my skin. If you can TELL I'm wearing make-up from five feet away, I am wearing waaaaaaaay too much.)

Midwesterners tend to wear a lot of neutral colors (blacks, beiges, browns, navys, greys) with rich jewel tones for accents (french blue, emerald green, ruby red, etc.). They don't wear a lot of pastels -- looks weird for winter, and seems unserious for summer; pastels are for garden parties, not work. But pops of color, especially in winter, even on men, are quite widespread; everyone gets tired of looking at the grey bleakness. (You'll see plenty of men in black or grey overcoats with a cardinal red scarf, for example.) Summer colors might tend more towards spring greens and sky blues (but always saturated, not pastel) and fall brings lots of rusty oranges, but you can always get away with french blue, emerald green, etc.

In short, dressy midwestern businesswear is neutral, seriously, and tailored. It is not particularly trend-conscious. It often included an accent in a rich color, most often jewel-toned, but that is not necessary. Accessories should not be attention-grabbing (i.e., purses don't have to be trendy, just reasonably nice-looking and classic), nor should make-up. Go for classic and you'll be fine.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:30 AM on March 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

"The Midwest" is not some weird foreign country. Dress however you would if and when you get the job. I'm in the midwest (Iowa) and have interviewed plenty of woman for various positions. I never really gave a shit how they looked or dressed. Qualifications counted most. And personality.
posted by ducktape at 10:48 AM on March 21, 2011

Response by poster: (Ducktape--I'm a lifelong midwesterner; it's just that so much interview advice I've seen is geared to the coasts. I've just gotten all my past jobs either by temping or in this case being really lucky that my odd qualifications fit the odd job. I know very little about interviewing for regular/corporate jobs.)
posted by Frowner at 10:56 AM on March 21, 2011

I've been hearing all kinds of things on the internet about how socks and nylons brand you as behind the times and a poor fit for corporate culture, including one hiring manager saying she wouldn't hire a woman who wore them.

OP, are you saying that you've heard wearing a skirt with nylons or pants with nylon knee-highs marks you as behind the times???


I would never, ever, do that, despite living in a miserably humid city. (Of course, it is a city filled with lawyers, and my bare legs would give off blinding glare, but still ...)
posted by jgirl at 10:58 AM on March 21, 2011

For a while I was just wearing mascara and chapstick every day, but happened to try out a new foundation (Revlon, Almay, or something else I bought at Target, some lightweight "shade matching" thing that's white until you blend it). A friend saw me that day and said, "This is going to sound weird, but your skin looks great today!"--she didn't realize I was wearing makeup, but she noticed that I looked just a touch healthier/prettier/better rested than usual.

If you're going to wear makeup, I would try to find the best possible match to your skin tone in a lightweight foundation or tinted moisturizer. If you can get the match right (have a friend help or be prepared to buy a couple different shades), you can look well rested and healthy without feeling like you've piled on makeup. I'd do a little foundation/tinted moisturizer, a little mascara, and lip balm if you're not typically a makeup person but would like to present a slightly more polished interview look--you won't look funny to yourself in the mirror, and you won't look like someone who never wears makeup but slathered it on for the interview.
posted by Meg_Murry at 11:00 AM on March 21, 2011

Response by poster: (I promise I won't thread-nanny, but since this is a direct question...)

OP, are you saying that you've heard wearing a skirt with nylons or pants with nylon knee-highs marks you as behind the times???

Yes, it was reading a discussion online in which a hiring manager (admittedly, on the west coast) said that she would not hire a woman wearing nylons because only old fogeys wore them and nylon-wearers (and sock wearers as well!) were so obviously unable to understand current corporate culture that they would obviously be bad fits...well, reading that sent me into a huge panicky spin and prompted this question.
posted by Frowner at 11:02 AM on March 21, 2011

Ugh. I remember when our west coast corporation was taken over by a New York corporation (year 2000) and everyone had to start wearing nylons.

It was a sign of worse things to come and I quit, thank god.
posted by small_ruminant at 11:09 AM on March 21, 2011

everyone= women. And any hint of an open toe got you a reprimand. Double ugh.
posted by small_ruminant at 11:09 AM on March 21, 2011

I don't understand - are they suggesting you go bare-legged? Wear shoes without socks? What are the alternatives to no socks and no nylons?

I'm not the height of fashion, but have never heard such a thing! (Grew up in the midwest, now live in NYC).
posted by valeries at 12:22 PM on March 21, 2011

I also can't figure out what you're supposed to wear sans nylons or socks. In the midwest, in March, certainly not bare legs? Not that there's anything *wrong* with that but I can't imagine that would be expected by anybody. Also, I almost never go bare legged (except in open-toed or sandal situations) because ... chafing? Anyone? Even comfortable shoes rub against skin.

I wanted to chime in from Chicago and say that the above advice is good for here. Women are not expected to wear skirts and I'd say pants are more the norm (but skirts are fine too!). Heels are not expected, just nice shoes. A blouse or whatever to complete the ensemble, and then a little jewelry to "finish" it.

That said, I have no idea what is expected in smaller midwestern towns.

Makeup: If you are the kind of person who can leave the house without makeup, I am green with envy. (I know, I know, there are many of your kind out there. I despise you all.) I need foundation just to tone down the uneven areas (I'm pink and splotchy) and I need mascara/eyeliner because my facial hair is blond and my face otherwise has no features. Except cheekbones, which is why I don't need blush. And lipstick of any color always looks horrid on me (and I just can't stand the stuff) so I wear lip gloss. My point is, all of our makeup needs are different. I think a little makeup will add that "finish" to anyone's appearance, even the supermodels who look fabulous when they roll out of bed.
posted by iguanapolitico at 2:49 PM on March 21, 2011

I'm in the Midwest and have been interviewing a bit lately. I wear a black suit with pants usually, sometimes skirts (with tights, I don't do nylons) and a nice-ish shirt (not button down, but nicer than t-shirt) and a scarf. I wear heels if I wear the suit pants that are long enough for heels, other wise flats.

You may be over thinking this. Looks pulled together and a notch more formal than the regular dress at that office and you'll be fine.
posted by sulaine at 6:11 PM on March 21, 2011

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