Making the best interview outfit from a small closet
March 12, 2014 5:02 PM   Subscribe

I have a job interview that I'm very excited about and I need some help choosing from my limited clothing options. Snowflakes inside.

Here's the job: it's a Special Assistant position in the office of the president of a major university system. While this is technically a job in an academic environment, the office of the president is entirely separate from the university campus and I assume it's more of an executive environment.

Here's the problem: I'm really poor and due to this fact, as well as my strange work history I don't have "office clothes" or an interview suit. In fact, I don't even have a nice black skirt and a nice neutral top that I can throw together. What I do have is this: a black wool sleeveless sheath dress that looks a) very nice on me and b) more expensive than it is. However, I need something to wear over it. I have three options:

-A black wool blazer that matches the black of the dress. Problem: it's made of a much heavier wool than the dress and is not very flattering. I'm also worried about wearing all black to an interview (sadly, I don't even have a little scarf I can tie on for a splash of color. I do, however, have a gold necklace and pearly earrings that might soften it a bit.

-A red, square front, button-less, lapel-less wool jacket. It's a really red red, and you could call it a power jacket. However, random strangers who write about such things seem to say that red is great if you're running a meeting and want to make a statement, but it could come off as aggressive (or perhaps too sexual) in an interview setting.

-A very nice black wool Donna Karan long drapey sweater that just hits the hem of the dress in front and that matches the black of the dress. I'd honestly be most comfortable in this but I'm afraid that a sweater is too informal and doesn't properly convey the proper formality and competence. Also see above re: too much black. That said, this interview is taking place in the Bay Area, so sartorial expectations, even in executive settings, might be different than on Wall Street.

I am totally out of my depth here and would appreciate any advice.
posted by foxy_hedgehog to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (27 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Another idea: there are several not-for-profits that provide interview clothing for low-income people. Here's two: Bay Area Women's and Children's Center and St. Anthony's. Good luck next week!
posted by carmicha at 5:20 PM on March 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

Congrats on the interview!

Definitely not the black wool blazer. Since the dress and the blazer aren't the same fabric, this will look very "off." Not a good idea.

Both of the other options sound acceptable to me. For a position of this sort, I would personally lean towards the red jacket, provided it fits well and gives you a polished look. However, if you have a thin belt that you could wear over the black sweater to give it more definition, that would totally work.

Another option, if you aren't wedded to any of these items, would be to sell them at a nearby consignment shop and use the proceeds to buy a jacket that you love and that looks perfect with your dress.

Good luck!
posted by schroedingersgirl at 5:21 PM on March 12, 2014

Wear whichever one looks the best. It doesn't sound like a job where you have to wear a suit and a black sheath dress assuming it's totally work appropriate is fine.

Black on black is fine for work or an interview, however you shouldn't wear the blazer with it if it doesn't look right. While I agree that the long drapey sweater is the most informal, you can still probably get away with it assuming you are wearing work appropriate heels and you do you hair and makeup more formally to compensate.

It's hard for me to say about the red blazer. In my mind it reads very 80s power suit, but without seeing it I can't really judge. I would ignore what strangers say about red being sexual or aggressive. My concern is more than black & red is a very loud look and often difficult to pull off.

You may even want to consider just wearing the dress with nothing over it. It's the Bay area, others should correct me if they think I'm way off base, but I think in this day an age covering your arms is not a requirement at work like it once was. A simple sheath dress with pumps really may be the best of all your options.
posted by whoaali at 5:23 PM on March 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

I don't know if you are totally devoid of cash but Goodwill would have a scarf you could pair with the jacket/dress or dress by itself that would be inexpensive yet expensive looking.
posted by notcomputersavvy06 at 5:28 PM on March 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Hard to say without seeing any of the jackets. If you feel like none of them are quite right, can you possibly look for a new (to you) jacket at a consignment store or nicer thrift store (or even someplace like Target)?
posted by aka burlap at 5:28 PM on March 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Is there any way you could show pictures of the choices (ideally with the clothing on you)? From what you've described, I think the black wool jacket is a no-go, and it's between the other two choices. I would lean towards the red jacket, but it's difficult to say without actually seeing them.

Also, any chance you could make it to a thrift store? It's obviously luck of the draw, but I've found ridiculously cheap nice things ($5 cashmere sweaters). Or do you have any female friends who might be wiling to lend you a suitable jacket for the day?
posted by ClaireBear at 5:33 PM on March 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

Congrats on landing the interview opportunity.

Based on your description, I think the DK sweater would be preferable to either blazer. True, as you said, it's not as professional as the blazer -- but there are many ways to convey professionalism.

I've interviewed hundreds of candidates and a nice sweater wouldn't eliminate a qualified candidate.
If your hair, make up, accessories, demeanor and deportment are all on-message, you'll present as "professional".

You should also take the advice above about seeking out a non-black second-hand accessory or clothing assistance program.

Last thought - I'm pulling for you, but what will you do for daily office clothing if you get the job??
posted by falldownpaul at 5:37 PM on March 12, 2014

The sweater sounds like the best option.

That said, in your shoes I would at least check the sales and see what they have in terms of blazers and cardigans. And honestly I'd probably also put a facebook post (customize the audience) up saying something like "Wardrobe emergency - I need a size (yoursize) jacket or cardigan for my dream interview. Help?" Because this is totally the sort of thing people love to help out with.
posted by bunderful at 5:47 PM on March 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

It's important to feel at ease, so you can feel free to speak as yourself and not worry about tugging at things that don't fit. If you could find a nice-ish jacket & pants or skirt that fit well at a consignment store, that'd be great. Otherwise, my vote goes to the sweater, but, I might style it so it looks fitted - i.e., wrap both of the front ends high around your waist, so you end up with a modest V neckline, and then wear a wide belt to keep it all in place. (It's a look I wear and like a lot - I think it looks tidy and put together, and is super comfortable.) A tan belt and shoes, if you've got them around, would lighten it up a bit, as would an off-white scarf, if you've got one. Light/bright makeup would lift the look, too (would go for a bit of blush, lipstick close to your natural colour, and mascara).
posted by cotton dress sock at 5:50 PM on March 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

Can you borrow from a friend? I think even something semi-formal like a crisp button down shirt and plain skirt would be appropriate and most people have those. Wear your hair up, low heeled pumps and tights and you'll look fine. If you really only have these options the sweater might be best, hard to say without a visual. You say the sweater hits at the hem of the dress though, if so either the dress is too short or the sweater too casual.

You can also ask HR what is appropriate interview wear, although most academic interviews are surprisingly formal. Everyone I know wore a suit to med, vet and law school interviews as well as all faculty interviews. Then never wore it again. You might know a surprising number of people on campus with an unused suit they'd lend you.
posted by fshgrl at 5:56 PM on March 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the responses thus far. I will check out the clothing loan options- however I have a very strange shape (tall, big shoulders, super skinny, tiny waist, no boobs) so it's hard find clothing that's small enough. This is also the reason I have no friends who I can borrow clothing from.

There's a consignment shop in town that I'll check out, although I know it's luck of the draw.

falldownpaul, I don't know what I'll do if I get the job! I'll probably have to buy two suits and seven button down shirts and be done with it.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 5:59 PM on March 12, 2014

Can you find a fitted cardigan and skinny belt? Or even a skinny belt around the black sweater? Belts make things a little more formal. Fitted cardigans look good with sheath dresses.
posted by echo0720 at 6:01 PM on March 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: I also wondered: what do other people think of whoaalit's suggestion of just wearing the dress with nothing on top?
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 6:08 PM on March 12, 2014

This is an East Coast perspective, but I wouldn't go sleeveless to an interview.

Given that you anticipate difficulty finding a good fit, I would focus on a cardigan (or experiment with your long sweater as per cotton dress sock). Cardigans can look great with the right accessories, and are more forgiving than blazers. Eventually you may want to look into buying some blazers and having them altered.

Good luck!
posted by bunderful at 6:17 PM on March 12, 2014 [5 favorites]

I would agree that it'd be better not to have exposed shoulders for the interview, at least.
posted by cotton dress sock at 6:25 PM on March 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

I also agree that it would probably be better not to have exposed shoulders for the interview, but I'm from the East Coast, and I gather the sartorial culture is different (read: more conservative) here. Probably someone from the Bay Area should chime in on this one.
posted by ClaireBear at 6:57 PM on March 12, 2014

I am from the Bay Area, and I think bare shoulders would be fine depending on the weather. In general, I think everything is more casual out here. My fiance is always laughing about how interview candidates in his office way overdress, occasionally to the point where the hiring manager feels like they don't 'get' office culture (though I do not believe it has ever cost anyone a job). Given that context, I think either the sweater (on a cold day) or the dress alone (on a warm day) would be fine, especially with an added belt. The best part about the belt is that they tend to fit a wide range of sizes, which ups your chance of finding something good at a consignment shop. Assuming this is UC Berkeley, I've had the best luck at Crossroads on Shattuck.
posted by rainbowbrite at 7:08 PM on March 12, 2014

Sweater, belt over the sweater to make it seem more together, simple & understated jewelry to up the formality (just earrings or just necklace, not both), shoes that you can walk in confidently. Sleek hair.
posted by Mizu at 7:40 PM on March 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

Nthing a plain, fitted cardigan over the sheath with a skinny belt. Old Navy carries tall sizes online (if you have time enough to order) -- something like this or this?
posted by scody at 8:24 PM on March 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

I think it would be better to wear a suit (assuming this is UC Berkeley, where I once worked). If you can't find one at a consignment store or through a loan program, maybe you could buy one from Nordstrom, keep it in perfect condition, and then return it (or, if you get the job, keep it)'s not an ideal or ethical solution, but Nordstrom is very accommodating about returns.
posted by three_red_balloons at 9:38 PM on March 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

If this is UC Berkeley and the job is in the office of the president, then you probably want to err on the side of formality, so shoulders covered. I went to school and used to work there. A suit isn't strictly necessary (I was hired wearing a skirt and blazer), but while Berkeley is more casual in general, if you're in a position where you might interact with donors or staff events, or are around people who do (and in the president's office, this is inevitable), they will want to see that you can look professional.
posted by Diagonalize at 4:21 AM on March 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

I work for an east coast university. Here, for that sort of position, you should definitely wear a jacket and not the sweater (and definitely not sleeveless). The black jacket would be unacceptable and the red one not ideal. Of these choices, red jacket is the best, but if you really want to make the best possible impression, you would need to procure either a gray blazer or a suit in my area.
posted by metasarah at 5:47 AM on March 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

You want to go into this interview feeling totally confident. If you're wearing something that doesn't quite work and you do not get the job you'll keep wondering if your outfit played a role. Sometimes you just have to plunk down the credit card (assuming you have one) and buy a gray jacket. Target has a bunch of them for under $40. Cheap clothes look fine the first few times you wear them, they just don't hold up well. Have you considered making a jacket yourself? Happy hunting in the thrifts!
posted by mareli at 6:32 AM on March 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

A very nice black wool Donna Karan long drapey sweater that just hits the hem of the dress in front

Is this a Cozy? If so, there is a tie you can do using a small bangle bracelet (or hair tie, shower curtain, whatever you have as most of it will be hidden anyway) that makes the sweater a bit more structured, like a cross between a cardigan and a jacket. It's the one in yellow at the end of the top row in this picture, and a demonstration at about 2:30 in this video.
posted by payoto at 9:44 AM on March 13, 2014

I live in the Bay Area and wouldn't think twice about going with just the dress, especially in the weather we're having here right now. I think it's the best option if you are not confident about the look of the other two pieces.
posted by paddingtonb at 9:48 AM on March 13, 2014

I agree that comfort is number one. It sounds like the blazer options might be uncomfortable-feeling due to mismatched fabrics and loudness; I also agree that bare shoulders would be inappropriate/uncomfortable feeling. The black sweater sounds best, and wouldn't worry about too much black in that case, especially if you can accessorize with a necklace or earrings to lighten your look. Even if you have a hard-to-fit shape, maybe a friend has a scarf/belt/other accessory to add some color. Barring that, I'd check out Crossroads--it's a great second hand shop with current styles at generally super cheap prices. They have locations in SF, Oakland, Berkeley, etc...

Congrats on the interview, and good luck!!
posted by stillmoving at 11:46 AM on March 13, 2014

I don't live in the Bay Area but I do work in a non-academic role for a major university, and I agree that the sweater or just the dress alone seems not formal enough, and the blazers don't seem great choices either.

I didn't interview in an actual suit, myself; I broke some of the "rules" you read about online but there is some truth in them, too. With that being said, you said you don't have a nice skirt... do you have a nice pair of pants?
posted by sm1tten at 5:09 PM on March 13, 2014

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