How does a non-feminine woman dress professionally for an interview?
July 27, 2006 12:37 PM   Subscribe

Dressing for the interview with a twist or two. I am flying to an interview with an Internet company in less than two weeks. I received the agenda just now and the recruiter notes "I would recommend professional attire." Help...

Here's the thing:

1. I applied for a position she'd advertised for. They don't think I'm quite right for the position but think that I might really fit in their company in another aspect. But they haven't solidified what that is. So I don't know what level this position is. It's at least mid-level, but based on what they are talking about it *could* be a management/director type level.

2. In my experience working for Internet companies for the last five years the idea of wearing a suit seems really strange to me.

3. I get mistaken for a man almost daily. I don't think I'm particularly mannish looking, but I'm also not feminine so wearing a skirt suit is OUT of the question - I'd look completely ridiculous. That leaves me with a pant suit which I don't currently own. I still think I'd look a little odd in a woman's pant suit.

I've always been told that it's really important to feel your best and comfortable in an interview. I don't know how comfortable I'd feel in a suit flying up, meeting with roughly a half dozen people and then flying home that night. Of course I also know that it's important to dress one step above the position you're interviewing for (d'oh - if only I knew what that really was).

Would it be totally inappropriate to wear a very nice pressed shirt with a pair of nice pressed slacks to such an interview or should I suck it up and go find a pant suit? Are there other alternatives that won't make me look like I'm in drag or feel like a fraud?

Further challenge: if I have to suck it up: I'm short and stocky so many suits just look silly on me anyway. Any suggestions here would be helpful too.
posted by FlamingBore to Work & Money (51 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Sounds like your recruiter really needs to get a phone call asking you to clarify that point. Tell him that you feel you should dress appropriately to the position that he's having you interview for, and that you very much need more information about this position to dress, ask and answer questions, and in general interview appropriately.

There very much *are* some internet companies where daily professional wear are required. I interviewed with one of them a few months ago here in the small town I live in. Very aglie, very security-oriented company where even the helldesk guys wear ties.

If you don't own a pantsuit, do you own a blazer, slacks, and a nice blouse? You don't need what william gibson somewhat appropriately refers to as "Armani drag"; but it sounds like you need several levels above where you're used to.
posted by SpecialK at 12:44 PM on July 27, 2006

*your recruiter needs to get a call asking him/her to clarify that point for you.

:-P Post-meeting.
posted by SpecialK at 12:44 PM on July 27, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks SpecialK, I have considered calling her to clarify, but don't want to come across as unprofessional by doing so.

I used to own a couple of nice things that would be appropriate, but I've lost weight and had some surgery, so they don't fit any longer.

It just throws me. I can't imagine this company being that conservative considering what they do, where they are, etc. but I could be very wrong.
posted by FlamingBore at 12:49 PM on July 27, 2006

Sounds like you really know what looks good on you and what doesn't. Why not wear the pressed shirt and slacks, but with a nice blazer over them? The blazer is classic and good-looking. It has nice long lean lines, and can really finish off an outfit. I don't know what color your slacks are but get a jacket in a different color so it doesn't look like you attempted to match up pieces for a suit. What I mean is - if your slacks are solid black, don't get a solid black blazer - get another solid color, or a black/white pin-stripe or check, etc.
posted by iconomy at 12:50 PM on July 27, 2006

I can't imagine this company being that conservative considering what they do, where they are, etc. but I could be very wrong.

What about standing outside the company's office at about five and getting a look at what "professional dress" means for the current employees? If that's not an option, I'd go with what you suspect it means, and dress slightly more conservative than that.
posted by scottreynen at 12:53 PM on July 27, 2006

When in doubt, go more conservative, not less. Just as every man should own a good suit, every woman should own a good pantsuit--it's easy to dress it up or down, and you can wear it as separate pieces.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 12:56 PM on July 27, 2006

Response by poster: I'd love to be able to scottreynen, but they are 1400 miles away. I've found photos of the founders and leads in the company online and none of them are wearing ties. All of them have one button opened at the collar.
posted by FlamingBore at 12:59 PM on July 27, 2006

Go buy yourself a really nice pants suit -- sounds like you're moving up the corporate ladder and will need it in the future! In order to avoid feeling like you're in drag, don't wear a collared button down shirt underneath; wear some kind of nice shell or fine gauge sweater instead.

If you don't want the splurge, the shirt and slacks sound ok, as long as they're new and spiffy and accompanied by nice shoes. But really, shirt and slacks is 1/2 way to a suit, so why not just go for it?
posted by footnote at 1:04 PM on July 27, 2006

Even if you never wear a suit again during your entire period of employment, wear a suit to the interview.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 1:04 PM on July 27, 2006

I agree with the blazer idea, if you can swing it.
posted by cabingirl at 1:11 PM on July 27, 2006

At a minimum, a shell/blazer/slacks combination, accessorized with a good silk scarf, and minimal but tasteful jewelry, low pumps. But the standard for women's professional dress, is still the skirted suit. Sorry, but that's the conforming outfit, and professional dress is all about conforming.

I'd guess it would come down to a decision on your part: If you got a director's level job, would you be willing, as an expectation or condition of getting the job, to wear skirted suits routinely? If not, go with a pants outfit, and take your chances. If so, do the traditional tailored skirted suit, and show 'em you can dress in the expected cultural costume.
posted by paulsc at 1:21 PM on July 27, 2006

Wear a suit, always wear a suit, especially if you are being flown out for an interview. You don't have to wear it on the plane, but you need to wear an actual suit to the interview.

I work at an internet company, and our daily dress is technically business casual, but is really just plain casual. However, I know that HR and every department manager expects interviewee's to come in wearing a suit. If they don't, it's definitely a strike against them.

Now, I'm not sure what exactly size/shape you are, but I'm not sure what you mean by a woman's pantsuit looking strange on you. I have 2 suits, both of which are wide-leg trousers with a regular tailored jacket. They're not particularly feminine or masculine. Because I like to look feminine, I usually wear a shirt with somewhat feminine detailing underneath, but you have a lot of leeway with what you wear underneath a suit.

Do you think this sort of jacket or this sort of suit are too feminine? I think their shapes would be good for an interview. If you are short, you can always have the suit tailored to fit you better - hem the legs, shorten the arms, etc.
posted by tastybrains at 1:23 PM on July 27, 2006

You should always wear a suit to any interview (regardless of perceived culture of the company). There are ways to make a pants suit more feminine (buy one in a feminine color, add a pin, jewelry or scarf to it, wear a lacey shell underneath the jacket). An attractive suit conveys confidence on the part of the wearer.
posted by rglass at 1:23 PM on July 27, 2006

What you wear aside, I'd call and ask for more details on just how they see you fitting into their company. You want to know beforehand what you'll be interviewing for. Surprises can be nice, but not when you walk into an interview.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 1:27 PM on July 27, 2006

Response by poster: paulsc - I appreciate that, but perhaps you missed the part where I'm mistaken for a man regularly. I really don't think showing up for an interview looking like I'm in drag is wise and heels is just not going to fly on me. I know there are plenty of women who dress professionally who don't wear anything of the sort, but I get what you're saying.

tastybrains - I'm short: 5'5" and wear a mens 40 pant, or a women's 20. The first link I don't like and am pretty sure I wouldn't look good in as it would accentuate my short waist. The second is lovely, but I have no idea what I'd look like in it. Thanks for the links - it's a jumping off point.

Note: I'm not trying to feminize myself. It looks wrong on me, but I also don't want to emphasize masuclinity either. Thanks again for all the thoughts/tips/suggestions!
posted by FlamingBore at 1:31 PM on July 27, 2006

Response by poster: Taken Outtacontext, thanks - the bit about not knowing what that position looks like is actually fine with me. They are talking about tailoring one for me. They have a need that they weren't ready to act on and when we talked things just started to click. So it's something I expect to be talking about while there. But you're a peach for thinking of that.
posted by FlamingBore at 1:34 PM on July 27, 2006

I would suggest looking for a petite suit. Since you said that you are on the shorter side, a petite suit might fit better. I am 5'1 and cannot wear regular women's clothes without major alterations. Are you familiar with stores that sell petites? If not, just yell and I'd be happy to make some suggestions.
posted by rglass at 1:35 PM on July 27, 2006

Maybe the larger question is, if you can't bring yourself to wear a pantsuit or something else equally conservative, formal and/or business-professional for one single day -- if that level of dressing makes you feel uncomfortable, and like a fraud or someone in drag -- then would you take a job at this company if it requires you to dress similarly every day?

I agree with those who've said to buy a good-looking pantsuit (and for the most flattering look: no pant pleats or slit side pockets, not double-breasted, not oversized, with a tailored jacket and hemmed -- not cuffed -- trousers, in a dark colour without much pattern). And a nice pair of comfortable and stylish shoes.

How would you feel about an outfit like this? (Not sold as a suit but you could probably buy the jacket and pants separately). It's not fussy-girly,looks comfortable and stylish.
posted by mmw at 1:37 PM on July 27, 2006

Response by poster: mmw - excellent point, and really - before this I hadn't even considered the notion that this position would require it. I'm still pretty sure that it wouldn't. If that's the case it might change my feelings about the position. My theory is that a nice shirt and pants will be appropriate for day-to-day stuff and I might have to kick it up for any trade shows, etc. and that I'm fine with.

Your link is a little too flowy for my tastes, but it's quite nice otherwise. I'd have to see how it looked on me and cripes do I wish we had a Nordstrom locally. I might just fly to Phoenix to shop.

rglass - I'm familar with petite stores, but not a lot of petite stores that I'm familiar with carry my size. Thoughts?
posted by FlamingBore at 1:40 PM on July 27, 2006

This photo only shows the outfit top, but I think it's a gender-neutral style (smooth shirt in a flattering color instead of more masculine button-down) that would suit most people. And I'd assume she's wearing pants from the same set as the jacket.

BTW, I don't know anything about corporate culture; these recommendations are from a fashion perspective... I also think this is a nice look that is neither feminine nor masculine.
posted by xo at 1:43 PM on July 27, 2006

Do you have New York & Co. by you? Their petites are pretty generously sized. If not, you may just have to go with regular sizes and have your purchases tailored. If you find something online and would like my opinion, I'd be happy to weigh in...
posted by rglass at 1:52 PM on July 27, 2006

J. Jill has very generous sized petites as well. Chico's doesn't have petites but their stuff is generally boxy and made for wider frames.
posted by rglass at 1:53 PM on July 27, 2006

Wear a tie with a good dress shirt and slacks. You'll do fine.
posted by cellphone at 2:04 PM on July 27, 2006

FlamingBore- After looking at your Flickr account to get better reference, it occurs to me that I've been in the same position. Short, stocky and allergic to heels and hose.

What I did in this situation is to find the most plain pair of black wideleg dress pants and black jacket I could at a department store (I think I used JC Penney) and a blue button down shirt with a pair of nice boots. Basically the same thing a man would wear, minus the tie and with a slightly more feminine look to the jacket.
posted by youcancallmeal at 2:05 PM on July 27, 2006

Before interviewing for my current job (as a web developer), I read the standard "always wear a suit" advice. After I was hired, I was told the primary hesitation in hiring me was that I wore a suit, and they like to maintain a very casual atmosphere. So I would adjust that advice somewhat: you should always wear a suit to an interview, except when you shouldn't.
posted by scottreynen at 2:09 PM on July 27, 2006

Here are some links: pants, jacket, shirt and boots.
posted by youcancallmeal at 2:09 PM on July 27, 2006

I'm your height, and not feminine either, and suits actually go well. Try looking for a non-button jacket (they usually have hooks or zips in the middle), plus a white shirt and black pants. You can make it interesting by wearing a coloured scarf (winter scarves work well).

It looks professional, neat, and very cool.

(but I have a bit of a suit fetish so eh. and huh, I didn't realize 5"5' makes me "petite".)
posted by divabat at 2:10 PM on July 27, 2006

Response by poster: rglass - no NY & Co in the state, nor J. Jill, but we do have a Chico's. Thank you.

youcancallmeal, thanks for the advice. It's hard to buy a suit when no one really makes them for your body type and it's hard to know how it will look altered.

scottreynen, glad you said that. We've experienced that in our company as well and that's part of what threw me about this.
posted by FlamingBore at 2:16 PM on July 27, 2006

I'm familar with petite stores, but not a lot of petite stores that I'm familiar with carry my size. Thoughts?

Ann Taylor petites go all the way up to size 16.
posted by footnote at 2:20 PM on July 27, 2006

Response by poster: divabat... where do you shop? Any online stores that might carry larger sizes?
posted by FlamingBore at 2:21 PM on July 27, 2006

Good luck!
posted by rglass at 2:32 PM on July 27, 2006

What tech people wear to interviews seems to be a mystery to us all. (I have seen this question asked so many times in so many forums).

I think the best solution is a jacket or blazer, silk shell, and nice slacks. It wouldn't look completely out of place among suits or people in denim and khakis.

For your specific requirements, I think maybe a jacket that's a little boxier (no darts at the sides, straigh hem) would be best. I also think a Mandarin collar would be good. Maybe this?
posted by chickletworks at 2:34 PM on July 27, 2006

definitely go with dark pants, a crisp shirt and a jacket. you can take the jacket off right away if no-one is in a suit. i agree that the "nonsuit" jacket is a good route. that is, one that is not fitted and not intended to be buttoned. the j.jill, eileen fisher, chico and other separates collections is right on the money.

i highly recommend misook for this, but it's quite expensive. it is, however, comfortable, washable and nearly indestructable. my mother is a 14P and it fits her beautifully.

i would say "nay" to the ann taylor recommendation; many of my suits are ann taylor and they're all very classically suits. but i'm going to jump on the accessories bandwagon. a scarf or a pin or long chunky necklaces often pull separates together into a "suitlike" image. i don't think they're particularly feminizing, as much as they are nice details for the eye, but i suppose that depends on the design of the particular accessory.

FWIW, i'm a woman in a conservative profession (i'm a lawyer) and have been hired after wearing pants, not a skirt, to an interview, even though recruiters have repeatedly told me not to.
posted by crush-onastick at 2:48 PM on July 27, 2006

I occasionally have to wear a suit but have never really felt comfortable in one, especially not a skirt suit. Things that help me feel more comfortable wearing a suit include:

The collar - I feel most comfortable when the collar is not a traditional single or double breasted one - mandarin, shawl or no-collar, for example.

The color - Navy and black are the safest bets but make me feel like I'm going to a funeral. So I prefer lighter browns, greys, taupe, dark plum or rose shades, deep burgundy, etc. If tweed in neutral colors goes w/your personal style, that might also help a suit feel easier to wear without sacrificing a professional look.

The material - The only skirt suit I have doesn't wrinkle. It's some kind of polyester/spandex material from Anne Klein and I wore it on a 5 hr. bus ride to DC for an interview and came out of the bus looking fine. Stretch seems to be a common feature in casual suiting.
posted by PY at 2:51 PM on July 27, 2006

Talbots has Womans Petites and is an excellent source for classic pieces.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 3:01 PM on July 27, 2006

FB: Malaysia. Sorry, that wasn't terribly helpful.

Would trenchcoats suit you? I'm not sure what "stocky" means, but I love love love love love them. Quite pricey, but so worth it. (Unless you get a cursed one that brings bad luck and end up not wearing it ever. So get non-cursed ones.)
posted by divabat at 3:44 PM on July 27, 2006

Kellie - Just to follow up on my post, you said you would wear a women's size 20. I do recommend checking out a Lane Bryant near you - they have other jackets than the cropped one, and as I mentioned, their suit trousers are wide leg which I think are flattering on most body shapes.

The other suggestion would be to go to a large department store (not sure which ones are near you - here I would go to Lord & Taylor or Macys) that has a suits department. Most women's suit departments have both misses and womens suits (regular & plus size) and a good deal of variety to find ones that look the best and feel the most comfortable.

Good luck on your interview!
posted by tastybrains at 3:48 PM on July 27, 2006

You clearly don't feel comfortable in very feminine clothing. If you have a friend whose fashion advice you can trust, go shopping for a suit, whether it be an actual suit or coordinated slacks, jacket and top. You sound like you could use some feedback. Make sure you wear very nice shoes, perhaps loafers, which work well with a suit alternative.
posted by theora55 at 3:52 PM on July 27, 2006

yeah, i think you gotta go with the suit. even if it's not the culture, they want you to wear it to the interview. and i don't agree on the whole pants+ blazer thing. if you're short and chunkier (i speak from experience) the last thing you want is to have something breaking you up right in the middle of your body, accentuating your waist and making you look even shorter. you'll look *much* better in a solid, darker suit. a slight pattern is okay - pinstripes can elongate - but nothing too noticeable.

and yes, take off the jacket if needed so wear something underneath that can stand on its own without the jacket - and that won't show sweat, if necessary.

invest in a good suit and you'll find plenty of other reasons to wear it. loafers are fine - no need to wear heels.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 3:59 PM on July 27, 2006

I think the answer may depend on the location of the interview. I've worked for several internet companies in CA, where a suit (or suit-type attire) will make them raise an eyebrow in a 'Will she fit in here?' kind of way. I've swapped notes with several colleagues in NY and DC, where a suit is a requirement for an interview regardless of the position, or the attire you'd be expected to wear daily.

Luckily, you're a woman, where there's a lot more gray area in professional clothes. You've gotten plenty of suit-type recommendations, so here's something else to consider.

I find that Ann Taylor and Banana Republic often have fashionable, comfortable interview clothes. How about a top like this one? It's got feminine detailing and a shape that tends to flatter short people and people with tummies (in case you've got one). It's very basic, so you can dress it up or down. And it's black, which is always the new black.

Wear it with your favorite pair of work-approved pants (camel-colored or gray, perhaps) or a skirt you're already comfortable in. Dress it up further with a chunky necklace or scarf as recommended above if you're so inspired. Don't wear anything you'll fiddle with during the interview.

Remember that it's the recruiter's job to make sure you don't show up in blue jeans, so they use that "professional attire" line with every level of employee. Also remember that they're on your side because their job is to fill the role. You shouldn't be embarrassed to ask them what to wear or if they know anything more about the position.

One last thing: consider the bag you'll take with you. You most likely won't be given the thumbs up or down based on this decision, but I always feel like it helps me look more "together" if my portfolio doesn't clash my outfit, and I can pull out a business card without digging.

Good luck in the interview!
posted by nadise at 4:10 PM on July 27, 2006

I second Talbots--their clothes are very well made and are flattering to people of varying body configurations. The way their clothes are constructed tends to make even the more casual pieces look dressy.

One other question--where is this interview/company located? If it's in the US, people on the East coast seem to me (a Californian) to be far more formal in terms of what is appropriate business attire, or even just walking-around-town attire.
posted by exceptinsects at 4:11 PM on July 27, 2006

Whoops, Nadise beat me to the East Coast/West Coast thing, but it bears repeating!

Here's a possibility from Talbots, and it comes in size 20 Petite.
posted by exceptinsects at 4:18 PM on July 27, 2006

If you decide you really can't take the suit approach (which I hate), I recommend a lightweight short-sleeve (or shell) and cardigan twinset. I think this is a step down from the most traditional and most formal interview attire, but if you wear a twinset with a longer skirt or dress pants that you like and a nice necklace, you might look dressy without looking draggy.

It sounds like you'll probably think it's too feminine, but it's flattering to size 20 and looks moderately professional, and most importantly, you'll probably be more comfortable. (And then you can loan the outfit to me -- I'm about the same size.) I think you should consider your comfort, while making sure you're following the recommendations -- if you're dying of discomfort, you're not going to do well.

Lands' End has some nice, affordable, and comfortable cotton twinset sweaters. These would go with any dress pants you already have or like, and are not particularly "frou-frou" or girly.

I wouldn't go with the suit unless you like accentuating a masculine look. Just my taste, probably. Good luck!
posted by theredpen at 4:28 PM on July 27, 2006

Travelling in a suit – I do it about twice a month.

Don't wear the jacket on the plane. Don't wear a shirt that's the stiff, uber-pressed shirt. It will make you look masculine and it will wrinkle to all hell in travel. Make sure the fabric of everything is the kind that springs back, rather than wrinkles. (aka. No summer linen suit.)

Don't eat on the plane and don't pick a light color. You can't stain remove when the seat belt sign is on and you may spill. Or the kid next to you may drop their orange juice. Travelling is dirty.

Oh, and bring a change of clothes for the ride home so you can be comfy on the return.

And good luck.
posted by Gucky at 4:31 PM on July 27, 2006

I also went over to your Flickr account, and I think you'd look totally great and snappy in a well-tailored suit with pants, and not at all like you were in drag. Indeed, I dare say that it would be downright hot on you. Butch, sure, but not drag-ish, and I think the result would be less potentially like a strange costume than the girlier twinset options. If it doesn't fit just right, alterations are not expensive.

On you I'd actually think a shell underneath might be less successful than a softer (silk, perhaps) and clearly woman-styled collared shirt.
posted by redfoxtail at 4:45 PM on July 27, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks to all, just in for a moment betweeon meetings, but I *truly* appreciate all the feedback, comments and considerations that have come in.

I did wind up asking the recruiter in a very non-chalant manner and this is what I got back:

" Although you are correct about the environment, I would suggest a suit or something in the vain. I think it is important to go a step above where a company typically works, especially for an interview. Just make sure you are comfy. :-)"

I'll check out the rest of the links and maybe take my best gay boy shopping this weekend. Will check back for any additional thoughts. THANKS!
posted by FlamingBore at 5:04 PM on July 27, 2006


Fashion Bug

Both have plus sizes for petites in separate suit pieces so you can mix and match and also in sets. Both have stores in your town, too.

If you go with mix and match, try a black pant with a shell instead of a button-down shirt and a red blazer or suit jacket. Even if the "style" looks manly, the colors definitely don't. Or, chocolate brown is "in" now, so get a matching jacket and pants and wear a shade of blue or cream blouse. Good luck!
posted by cyniczny at 5:25 PM on July 27, 2006

Looked at your flickr set -- you will rock a suit. Your glasses and hair, and a big competent smile, combine with the suit to say "I'm professional but funky; I have my wardrobe totally under control just like I will have this job totally under control."

So: tailored dark suit jacket and nice matching slacks. Don't wear a tie, for the love of Mike. Wear a recognizably female but not femmy shirt. Either a silky collared shirt, or a shell (depending very much on what you find) with a chunky non-metal necklace. Good shoes (don't just go with whatever old dark shoes you have around; I've made this mistake and then seen pictures in which it is really obvious that my shoes are a cut below the rest of what I'm wearing).

You don't need to look femmy at all, but you also don't want to look like you are deliberately dressing as a man. It's good to give a clear sign to the casual observer about what pronoun to use. Signs will include: the cut of your jacket, the cut, color, material of your shirt, and any jewelry (tasteful silver pin, necklace in a color that sets off your eyes maybe).

Go shopping with a friend (or to a place with good sales assistants), and be willing to try on things that you ordinarily wouldn't. I think you'll look great.
posted by LobsterMitten at 5:26 PM on July 27, 2006

Response by poster: redfoxtail and LobsterMitten: thank you both for the compliments. That makes me feel a lot better about not *needing* to femme things up.
posted by FlamingBore at 7:40 PM on July 27, 2006

I second Ann Taylor petites. Don't go to an Ann Taylor loft or such -- go for the real thing. It's expensive but one hundred percent worth it.

As a zaftig yet petite woman myself I find that a good look is the cropped, fitted three-button jacket (you can wear this out with jeans later on) along with a straight-leg pant and a high heel to elongate the leg. A shell underneath, rather than a button-down, makes the look cute without being inappropriate. You can look for something with a bit of a scoop-neck (not too low, of course) or a v-neck to draw visual interest above the chest rather than at the chest.

But then, I am not Stacey or Clinton from "What Not to Wear." The nice ladies at Ann Taylor, however, will get you fitted perfectly and make sure everything is to your liking. They're good like that.
posted by brina at 8:30 PM on July 27, 2006

Almost everybody has been focusing on your clothing (naturally), so you seem set in that dept. But I think what you wear with your getup might help. I bet you're not the scarf type, but perhaps a brooch on your jacket or a bag that's clearly not a murse could help you feel dressier and less gender-vague?.
posted by rob511 at 4:18 PM on August 4, 2006

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