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Dressing for job interviews in L.A.

Hip jeans and a cool T-shirt get the nod at some trendy companies, but for conservative firms, nothing but a black suit will do.

June 14, 2009|Emili Vesilind

Flip through any how-to book on job interviewing and you're bound to run into the same timeworn tenets on how to dress when facing the hiring squad.

"A conservative two-piece business suit" is appropriate for men and women, according to "The College Grad Hunter" (2008) by Brian D. Krueger, with women clad in pantyhose "at or near skin color."

Susan Britton Whitcomb, author of "Interview Magic" (2008), suggests that men wear "a sharp navy blazer and dress slacks" when interviewing at companies with a casual atmosphere.

Slacks? Pantyhose? Are we still getting gussied up the way they did in "Mad Men" to get hired?

The short answer, in many fields, is yes. But this is Southern California, where more than a few creative-minded companies consider board shorts or cropped jeans appropriate business attire. Significant swaths of the local job market have their own dress codes -- which makes choosing a solid interview outfit all the more difficult.

And with unemployment in California at 11% in April, employers often find themselves choosing among candidates who look nearly identical on paper. That's when looking impressive in the flesh can tip you right into the catbird seat.

We asked executives from the creative, business and entertainment fields which looks work -- and which ones don't -- for job seekers in their areas.

First, they agreed on a few universal rules:

Be well groomed: This would seem to go without saying, but based on employer comments, it's worth repeating. Don't even bother walking through those double doors with a ratty pedicure, dirty shoes or clothes or greasy hair.

Kimber Maderazzo, senior vice president of global product development for personal-care juggernaut Guthy-Renker, said she notices chipped nails and grown-out hair roots -- and though she frowns upon drag queen-heavy makeup, "even women who don't usually wear makeup should wear a little on an interview," she said. "They need to look polished."

Pay attention to the details, because it's the little things that seal the deal: Sure, you've never worn a sweat suit on a job interview -- but employers agree that it's almost never the core outfit (the suit, the skirt) that makes the big impression.

Thomas McCullough, executive vice president and chief operating officer for First Regional Bank, remembers an experienced banker who interviewed for a position at his office whose small -- but significant -- sartorial snafu ended up costing him the job.

"He was dressed very nicely and expensively," McCullough said, "but he had a big poufy Hollywood scarf hanging down from his pocket. As soon as I saw him, I said to myself, 'He's not going to get the job. He's gone Hollywood on us.' It's a small thing, but he just went a little outside our comfort zone."

Karine Dubner, chief operating officer of fashion companies Joie and Current/Elliott, once escorted an overeager job candidate to another part of the office, only to find that the interviewee could barely walk in her towering stilettos. "It made me feel uncomfortable," Dubner said.

Dress for the conference room, not for the club: Think modesty. For women, low-cut shirts, too-short skirts and bare upper arms are no-nos. Skirts should be knee-length, jackets should have the capacity to close (even if they're left open), and second-to-top buttons on shirts should be affixed. Men should leave the bedazzled jeans at home and refrain from showcasing their chest hair -- at all.

Remember that polish counts: Don't show up for an interview looking like you gave zero thought to your ensemble. It's better to risk being overdressed than look as if you just stopped by on your way to the beach.

"I'd rather see someone be a little more polished and conservative than too casual," said Karine Joret, president and co-founder of lifestyle and fashion public relations firm HL Group, "like, 'I'm too cool, I'm too hip for this meeting.' "

Playing to win: Beyond mastering those basics, the real key to success is discovering as much about the company's corporate culture as you can before sitting down for the interview. By donning the office "uniform" -- which may be dark jeans at MTV or a Gucci suit at a legal office -- you make it easier for potential employers to envision you integrating seamlessly into their team.

How to go about getting the skinny on the sartorial scene? Peruse the company website for photos of staffers in action, call the human resources department to tactfully inquire after the company's dress code or -- for super- sleuths -- send a "lost" friend into the office ahead of time to ask for directions and report back on what people are wearing (but remember to dress a tad more formally than the staffers do day to day).

Our interviews with the executives yielded these general guidelines for dressing to kill in various fields.

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Finance, law and banking

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