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First Impressions Count: Dressing for the Interview

You may have great qualifications and a winning attitude, but show up at the interview in torn jeans and a t-shirt and you’ll likely have a hard time landing the job.

Of course, most people have better sense about how to dress for an interview, but career experts say that when it’s a close call, even minor mistakes can tip the scales from “you’re hired” to “we’ll call you.”

What dressing right means, however, is not always easy to determine.  Fifty years after Mad Men, suits and dresses may still send the right message in some industries but in others, they’re as out of date as powdered wigs and hoop skirts.

There are ways to find out what the uniform might be at a given company. If you’re working with a recruiter, he or she should be able to tell you what’s appropriate.  If you have a telephone interview with a hiring manager at the company before heading in for a face-to-face meeting, try asking what the atmosphere of the office is like or what happens in a typical day. You may also try a reconnaissance mission. If you need to drop off a resume or an application form, don’t just dart in and out, but take a minute to look around, advises Debbie Oxman, a Manpower career advisor.

If you’re still in doubt, dress up. “It's better to be overdressed if there is any doubt,” says Todd Nilson, managing director of social and talent strategies for SPR Companies. “You can always acknowledge that you feel overdressed if you walk into a more casual environment.”

And if it is a casual office? “If you do know that it's a casual office environment, you'd want to come in for an interview one notch above the typical dress code,” he says. “For instance, if it's business casual, you might go in wearing dress pants, a crisp dress shirt and a tie but no jacket. A woman might go in with a nice dress or skirt and blouse but not a ‘power’ suit.”

But dressing well is only one part of looking good at an interview.  “The mistakes I see usually have more to do with poor personal grooming than poor dressing,” says Nilson. “For instance, I met someone yesterday who clearly hadn't washed his hands. I could see black smudges of oil or maybe newsprint on them. I commonly see errors like wearing a rumpled shirt, frayed sleeves, an ill-fitting shirt, or having an unkempt appearance.”