If you ask any menswear-inclined community what a man should wear to a job interview, you’ll get the same answer – CBD. “Conservative Business Dress,” if you’re not familiar, is probably what you think it is: navy or charcoal single-breasted suit, white shirt, tasteful tie, dark oxford shoes. Traditional “I mean business” attire, in other words. Although this advice may have been astute back when one worked at the same job for 40 years and then retired, times have changed (and so have the rules).
In concept, the traditional advice is good – after all, what issue could possibly arise from wearing highly professional clothing to a meeting where you want to showcase your professionalism? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple anymore (although I certainly wish it was). Due to the broad casual-ization of most workplaces, suits (and professional attire in general) are not near as prevalent as they used to be. We all knew this, of course, but does that really mean that interview attire should be dumbed down too? Shouldn’t we still hold ourselves to a high standard and dress like we mean business – conservative, yet tasteful business – when interviewing?
As you can probably imagine given that this article exists, I don’t think so. Over-dressing – whether in a job interview or in day-to-day life – shows a lack of contextual awareness (something I’ve written about before). Menswear nerds like myself like to dissect the formality of every garment in order to achieve peak harmony within an outfit, but if that outfit is out of place in the context of your lifestyle it doesn’t matter how cohesive it is. Nobody will appreciate the tasteful roll of your 9cm lapels if everyone else in the office is wearing startup T-shirts and Vans.
The cold reality, whether menswear advice-givers heed it or not, is that overdressing can be just as detrimental as under-dressing, and in the context of an interview there’s no reason to leave anything to chance (even if wearing a suit is “the right thing to do”). In today’s casual offices, being overdressed risks making you appear to not fully understand the working environment you’ll be in, or worse, can make you appear like a bad culture fit. Neither of these are impressions you want to give when trying to convince a company to put you on the payroll.
Now that we’ve diagnosed the problem, what can be done?
The simple answer is to just use your brain and understand the context of the environment you’ll be in. There are still some industries that are very suit-oriented, and in those instances you should absolutely get on the CBD train. Now that business dress is a moving target, though, there is no one solution that will always be appropriate.
As a rough guide, I’d try to dress to the same level as the dressiest top 25% of the office’s employees. So if suits are not a requirement but still a common occurrence, it’s probably worth going all the way. If not a single person wears a tie, though, I wouldn’t either. Try and gauge the industry and office you’re looking at and see what you can do to appear put-together but not over- or under-dressed in that environment.
If you still aren’t sure or don’t have enough information about the company to make a informed decision, do what I do – navy sportcoat, chinos, oxford shirt, and open-laced dark brown shoes. I find that this In-Between Wardrobe-inspired getup is enough of a middle ground that it works well in most instances – put-together enough to show that you care, but not so dressed up that is shows a lack of awareness or makes you stand out. I’ve worn this to interviews at engineering firms, tech startups, and more, and have always felt appropriately dressed.
You may notice that a couple of things are conspicuously missing – namely, a tie and a pocket square. The first could be added if ties are commonplace in your industry, but if that’s the case then I’d imagine that suits are as well. Pocket squares, on the other hand, are pretty much never a good idea for an interview. In theory, a white linen pocket square is the cherry on the top of a CBD menswear sundae, but they have become so uncommon in the working world that it will only come across as an affectation. Save them for once you actually land the job, if they’re your thing.
At the end of the day, everyone’s logic behind appropriate interview attire is the same – the whole point is to showcase your experience and skills, so make sure that your clothing simply underscores your professionalism and doesn’t distract from it. We can all agree that showy clothing has no place in an interview. As workplace attire has moved suits from a workweek staple to a rarity, though, make sure that your interview attire is as up-to-date as your Linkedin profile.