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How to dress for career success

With first impressions formed after just six seconds, it’s vital that an interviewee looks the part

Call it superficial, but we all know our image plays a major role in an interview scenario. It also makes an instant impression on those around us.

Comments like “She looks the part”, or “He appears suitable for the role”, are typically heard after a selection process.

To nail that interview, you have to dress to impress in order to sell yourself effectively. Sometimes, as we prepare for a job interview, we get so bogged down on interview questions and inflating our qualifications that we leave the wardrobe and grooming element to the last minute. However, our non-verbal signals are five times more persuasive than anything we will say during this crucial meeting.

Furthermore, Harvard research proves that first impressions are formed after just six seconds of meeting us – that’s even before we get to open our mouths. Don’t distract from your ability and CV by wearing an inappropriate outfit. The moment you walk into that interview you want to appear confident. It helps to be aware of the four wardrobe Ps: preparation, projection, polish and professionalism.


Preparation: Think about your outfit a few days beforehand so you have the right accessories, shoes and suit worked out. Men might consider investing in a new suit or a fresh shirt. You will reap the outlay if you are successful. Both men and women should build up a rail of interchangeable investment jackets, trousers, shirts, tops and dresses that transcend fleeting fads. These key elements are the backbone of a successful career path built on sustainable fashion.

For women, forget the more challenging catwalk trends and adhere to smart workwear codes that are easy to assemble. Feminine but not overtly sexy is key. Work is not the place for high fashion or leisure wear.

Projection and personality is the overall statement you wish to convey on the day and comes with a welcoming smile and a strong handshake. Women should steer clear of faux fur, jungle prints, glittery tops, teetering heels and thick black tights. Men should resist patterned acrylic sweaters, hybrid shumpers (shirts sewn onto jumpers), bomber jackets, tight tee-shirts and Velcro-buckled shoes.

Polish is that extra layer that sets off the look using suitable accessories – detailed grooming that shapes eyebrows and defines beards, getting a blow dry and ensuring shiny hair, having a manicure and gargling on Listerine. You will feel invigorated if you have time for a fresh shave at the barbers and a splash of aftershave as you waft out of the joint.

For women, don’t smother yourself in perfume. Choose a sublime fragrance and resist the patchouli or essential oil potions reminiscent of Magaluf or Ibiza.

Professionalism: Dress for the career you want, not the job you're in. Sharply structured dresses in clear primary colours worn with co-ordinating jackets are popular with executive women. The trouser suit is another fool-proof interview outfit, paired with a contrasting bright button-down blouse in an optic print or standalone fine-knit sweater.

"Apparel oft proclaims a man," remarked Oscar Wilde, so menswear should exude professionalism and a high standard of cleanliness. Massimo Dutti, Paul Costelloe at Dunnes Stores and Best Menswear are worth checking out for professional wear.

A co-ordinated full-on suit is essential for blue-chip corporate interviews, banking positions, accountancy and legal opportunities as well as image conscious careers in hotel management, airline cabin crew and estate agencies. Keep the suit on the classic side, considering greys, navy or blue double-breasted styles. Resist the distractions of logo ties, novelty cufflinks or cartoon socks. This is the time to keep things on a sartorially neutral level as you want them to hear what you are saying and not what your clothes are implying about your personality.

The corporate image consultant

Tara Crowley is an experienced image consultant from Dublin. She runs regular workshops on corporate image and executive grooming for companies as well as volunteering with the Dress for Success organisation.

“How we dress and present ourselves reflects personally on us and the company we represent,” she explains. “Taking care of our appearance is not a case of vanity but personal pride.

“I often say, spend your money where you mainly spend your time. Five days out of seven most of us are dressing for work – so it’s worth investing that percentage of our clothing allowance on workwear.”

Fortunately, dressing for success need not leave us out of pocket.

"High street shops like H&M, Zara and Next cater for the smart male and female office market," advises Crowley. "For those with a little more to spend, try LK Bennett, Whistles, Kildare Village or the ultra-chic Victoria Beckham label. Designer suits like Hugo Boss and Canali for men are safe bets. Black is a popular shade for interview suits but doesn't suit everyone – sometimes a navy shade is more flattering."

For those facing an interview, Crowley warns that wardrobes are places of stress.

“Make a separate space for your workwear and divide your clothes into work and leisure sections.

“For the day of the interview, you are better off erring on the side of caution. Get your outfit prepared the day before to reduce any last-minute hiccups. You want the attention to be on what you are saying and not distracted by what you are wearing.”

A few golden rules for men:

“If you choose to wear a patterned tie, then opt for a plain shirt. When buttoning jackets, I recommend to always close the middle button but it’s okay to leave the others open. Jacket sleeves should meet the wrist and then shirt cuffs appear an inch below and finally, the tip of the tie should brush the buckle of the belt. A tie looks like you made an effort.”

Women can be spoiled with too much choice. How can we keep it simple?

“If you choose a skirt, I would recommend women to wear pale nylons, not bare legs, stylish mid-heel shoes with an elegant signature top or blouse. Classic trouser suits are perfectly appropriate too. Low-key jewellery like stud earrings, a watch and a couple of rings are fine along with professional-looking daytime make-up. A structured jacket is more professional than fluffy cardigans or graphic print coats.

“Natural fabrics like wool and cotton are also better than velour or embossed metallics. Leave the dangly earrings and designer nails for Saturday nights.”

Finally all, don’t forget off take off your dry cleaning labels or price tags or you may look a bit scatty!