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Video: Simple styles for keeping it professional

By Laura T. Coffey
TODAY contributor
updated 3/10/2010 6:37:00 PM ET 2010-03-10T23:37:00

With the economy continuing to flounder, more and more people are finding themselves on an unexpected side of the desk: The side where the interviewee sits.

As if job interviews and crowded career fairs weren’t stressful enough, there’s also the anxiety of figuring out what to wear. How can you tell how dressed-up — or dressed-down — you can go?

The answer to that question will vary considerably based on the kind of job you’re seeking, but the following tips provide a basic guide for how to proceed. Read on so you can tackle those interviews with confidence.

1. Opt for a conservative look, not an outlandish one. Whether you’re trying for a top executive position or a job that will require you to roll up your sleeves and get dirty, attire that is distracting is a no-no. In most cases it makes sense to choose simple, understated styles and colors — blues and grays, for example. Black also could work, so long as you won’t be mistaken for an undertaker or a Johnny Cash wannabe. To avoid that fate, soften up your look by wearing another color near your face.

2. When in doubt, ask. If you’re honestly not sure what kind of dress would be most appropriate for an interview with a particular employer, call the company and ask for some guidance. Don’t bother the hiring manager with this; instead, call the human resources department and say, “I have an interview with So-and-So in the Such-and-Such department for a position as a _____. Could you let me know what would be appropriate dress for this interview?”

3. Dress for the job you really want. Some hiring managers recommend dressing one or two levels up from the position you’re seeking. The point behind this would be to show that you’re a serious job candidate who cares about making a good impression.

4. Accessorize with great care. This isn’t the time to go with wild nail polish, jangle-y jewelry, face jewelry, ankle bracelets, strong perfumes or colognes, brightly colored or printed purses or briefcases, scuffed briefcases, open-toed shoes, backless shoes or bare legs. All of your accessories should be understated, inconspicuous and professional.

5. Cleanliness is next to employability. Clean, pressed clothes are important, of course, but here are some other key areas to remember: Have clean, polished shoes in good repair, clean, groomed hair and fingernails, well-brushed teeth, fresh breath and absolutely no body odor.

6. Stay up to date. For men, suits and tie patterns can look dated if they’ve been hanging in your closet for several years. Even worse, your suit might be tight on you at this stage of the game. The same goes for women’s suits and dress-shirt patterns. To find out whether you’re looking a little bit too 1996, ask a trusted friend to help you assess your professional wardrobe.

7. Don’t wear these items! Just say no to: short skirts; capri pants; leggings; leather jackets for men or women; or turtlenecks for men. Men should wear collared shirts on job interviews — and in almost every situation, a tie won’t hurt your cause.

8.Your own common sense and good judgment should prevail. If you know for sure that wearing a tie on a particular interview wouldn’t be the right thing to do, then don’t do it. Same for a formal business suit. But don’t stubbornly think that this is the time to make a flashy fashion statement. Instead, this is the time to make sure your appearance doesn’t distract in any way from all the good information you have to share about yourself.

9. There’s no need to break the bank. Some of these tips might make you think that you need to rush out and drop hundreds of dollars on fancy new suits and shoes. That’s not true. You can find professional clothes on sale at deep discounts at major department stores and discount retailers, and you often can find new or barely used suits and dress shirts at thrift stores. Also, nonprofit organizations such as Dress for Success help disadvantaged women throughout North America and in other countries to get outfitted for job interviews so they can get on the path to financial independence. For ideas about how to spend very little money on clothing, read this past 10 Tips column on the subject .

10. Set aside enough time for a final once-over. Before you walk into the actual job interview, slip into the restroom and look in the mirror. Is your tie flipped around? Do you have any food in your teeth? Is your hair standing straight up? If not, you’re good to go!

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