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The New Job-Interview Dress Code

For women over 50 competing for employment, the key is to look current

By Linda Dyett | October 26, 2012

You recently lost your job. ... Or your twins are starting college. ... Or, after 30 years as a corporate bigwig, you’re hankering to switch to a nonprofit. …  Or maybe you’ve tried retirement and found it isn’t what it was cracked up to be. ...

These are just a handful of the many reasons record numbers of women over age 50 are either re-entering the workforce or switching jobs — and possibly careers. If you’re one of them, on the plus side you’ve got decades of career and life experience, you know your strengths and how to play to them, and hiring is on the upswing. On the negative side, competition is fierce. Your rivals for the job may be millennials, 20 or 30 years younger than you. Your interviewer may be a good deal younger too — and suspicious that you’re stuck in an antediluvian ‘90s time-warp swamp. 
 
You can instantly disabuse him or her of that notion, not with your ideas (they’ll be aired later in the job interview) but by showing up in something smart and contemporary. Just keep in mind, “career clothing has seriously changed in recent years,” says Catherine Moellering, executive vice president at Tobe, a retail trend consultancy in New York. With deformalization the long-term major direction in fashion, “business casual has seeped into every industry, even those traditionally thought of as ultra-conservative,” says Darcey Howard, a personal brand consultant in Seattle and New York.
 
Of course, business casual is subject to wide interpretation. To find out how it best can serve those over 50, I conferred with a dozen recruiters, career counselors, human resources representatives, wardrobe and image consultants, and fashion experts around the country. They offered surprisingly similar advice, detailed below. But first, a few general guidelines:
 
The Ground Rules
 
Think contemporary. “What’s even more critical than looking appropriate is not looking dowdy or dated,” says Maryann Donovan, president of Impact Personnel, a Norwalk, Conn., executive recruiting firm. “You’ve got to look current — not like you’re fixated on the time when you last shone, say, 20 years ago,” cautions Elaine Hughes, head of the New York executive search firm E.A. Hughes & Co.
 
Consider new labels. The look to aim for is what the Los Angeles image consultant Lori Ann Robinson calls “modernized hipster business wear” — using the term hipster loosely. She’s referring to tailored clothes with a feminine, slightly insouciant edge. Affordable brands that take this approach include J. Crew (you'll find its larger and petite sizes online), Zara, Club Monaco, Muji, Reiss, Joe Fresh and Uniqlo. These may be more contemporary than the labels you’ve been wearing lately. But “the fact that you have something modern on shows that you’ve put some effort into preparing for the interview,” says Tory Johnson, human resources manager of Kemps LLC, a dairy manufacturer in St. Paul, Minn.
 
Do your homework. Many companies publish their dress code in their employee handbook — probably accessible online. You can also check the company’s brochures and do a Google search for staff photos. “Ask your recruiter to advise you on how formally or informally to dress. Or, if you’re dealing directly with the company’s human resources department, "it’s perfectly okay to ask your contact there,” says HR manager Johnson.

Keep your key colors sophisticated and muted. This means varying hues of gray, navy, indigo, a quiet aubergine, a nuanced taupe. (The one exception is for a company whose product has a strong visual component, says Howard — then you can go bold.)
 
What to Wear: The Specifics
 
Jacket and skirt. The skirt-suit no longer holds sway as default interview attire for women. “Today it looks fresher to break those pieces up,” says Moellering. “The matching thing can age you,” she adds. Look instead for:
  • A fitted jacket, worn with a white cotton shirt over a black pencil skirt: If it turns out you’re overdressed, you can always remove the jacket — even during the interview, points out Dorothy Brachtell, chief operating officer of the Connecticut Women’s Business Development Council, in Stamford.
  • A neat cardigan, the jacket's contemporary alternative: This is an inspired choice if you’re up for a job with a hotshot young firm, suggests Helen Perry, a Houston image consultant.
  • Skirt length: Keep it just below the knee, says Lola Ehrlich, a New York hat and accessories designer.
  • Jacket and skirt labels to check out: Zara, J. Crew, Club Monaco, Theyskens Theory, Uniqlo — especially for its budget-priced contemporary blazers. Cardigan labels: Paul Stuart, J. Crew, Madewell. 
 
Pantsuit. Much maligned in the past, the matching jacket and trouser combo has returned with a newfound fashion cachet. What’s key today is displaying an irreverent touch or two, such as a cropped, boxy jacket or an inverted peaked collar. (Consider pantsuits by Donna Karan, Elie Saab, J. Crew and Theory.)
 
Shirt. Tucked into your pencil skirt or pants, the shirt you wear should be basic and white, which “brings focus to the face," says Stephanie White Carter, an Atlanta image consultant. To avoid gapping, look for styles with bustline contours. (Examples: Brooks Brothers’ Non-Iron Fitted Fit Shirts and Tailored Fit Shirts in a cotton blend with non-stop crispness; Rebecca & Drew Slim-Fit shirts in cotton or cotton-blend fabrics. These are sized according to chest circumference, bra cup and height.) 
 
Dress. If you choose the dress route, go for a shift or chemise with sleeves and maybe details like ruching, cowl or moderate portrait neckline. Or, if the prospective employer has a reputation for iconoclasm, the perfect dress could be a calf-length shirtwaist. (Check out dresses from Rachel Roy, Reiss and Nanette Lapore; shirtwaists from Rebecca & Drew.)
 
Shoes. Whether you’re in a skirt or pants, wear 2- to 3-inch black pumps. But avoid open toes, says Linda Froiland, a Twin Cities image consultant. If you’re unstable in heels, go for high-heel wedges. (Examples: Zara pumps, the Joe Fresh Loafer Pump and J. Crew’s suede wedges.)
 
Belt. The smartest accompaniment to a pencil skirt or a shirtwaist dress is a basic leather or patent leather belt — very much in style today, says Ehrlich. In addition, she points out, belts have an immediate slimming effect. (Consider J. Crew, Joe Fresh and Rag & Bone.)
 
Nylons — or not? The experts urge mature women, especially, to forego them. “Except maybe at a law firm or financial institution, nude pantyhose are a loud beacon that you’re not with it,” Howard says. So go bare-legged. If your legs are discolored, apply a self-tanner or a concealer. In cold weather, go for opaque black pantyhose.
 
Handbag. Carry a structured bag — not a briefcase — that stands on its own and doesn’t flop when you set it on the floor. (Among the labels to look for: Banana Republic, Phillip Lim and Furla.) Alternatively, Ehrlich suggests an upright canvas tote for storing your interview-related documents and iPad, with an American Apparel zippered leather pouch inside, for your wallet, keys, cell phone, makeup, etc. (Alexander Wang, Muji and Longchamp have fabric totes that fit the bill.)
 
Jewelry. “Wear something around the neck draws attention to the face, but make sure it doesn’t jangle,” says Carter. Consider an understated 14- to 16-inch necklace, or a longer chain with an interesting pendant heavy enough to stay put. Pearls are back in style, but avoid a single strand — much too aging — unless it’s in a color like gunmetal or blue-purple. Keep in mind, the more complex your necklace(s), the simpler your earrings should be. Even studs or gold or silver “trainer” hoops are fine.
 
Eyewear. Ditch those aging rimless or wire-rimmed spectacles. They scream grandmother, Froiland says. Choose instead a colorful, modern acrylic frame (the kind made by Selima Optique).
 
Scarf. To liven up a gray or navy suit or dress, add a colorful silk neck scarf — on one condition, says Carter: You’ve got to have it neatly tied. Avoid flinging it, French-style, around your neck, she cautions. (Check out the choices at Diane von Furstenberg, Madewell and Zara.)
 
The Madeleine Albright extra. Add one individualistic item to the mix. "This lets you distinguish yourself in a subtle way,” Hughes says. The idea, adds Moellering, “is to avoid looking like you walked right off the assembly line — even in a banking environment.” You want to leave the impression that you’re a team player who can think outside the box. Consider, for example, an intriguing but subdued pin or a hammered metal cuff.
 
Face. Keep your makeup simple and natural. For a brightening effect, spring for a facial or a dermatology fixer-upper. “A peel or microdermabrasion may be done several days before an interview, but not the day before,” advises Linda Franks, M.D., director of Gramercy Park Dermatology in New York.
 
Hair. A job interview is the perfect occasion for a new hair style — or at least a smart cut. For women over 50, the bob (a la Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund) is a great look. If your hair is long, gather it into a neat (but not helmet-like) updo or a low-slung ponytail.
 
Gray hair. Most experts emphatically agree: Get it colored. Of course, the aforementioned Mme. Lagarde looks sensational with gray hair, but she’s got an ultra-chic coif, as well as top-notch designer suits, and a perpetual tan (the best skin coloring to offset gray hair).
 
Nails. According to every expert, a pre-interview manicure is essential. The ideal nail shape is short, square and rounded at the edges. Long, pointy nails cause distracting finger-clicking as you display your portfolio, says Howard. As for polish color, go for pale pink or shell with a fashionable light shimmer. 

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