Choosing the right outfit for a job interview can be as stressful as the interview itself. It’s a series of endless questions and calculated decisions: What do these clothes say about me? What image do I want to convey? Should I look refined and formal, or confident and flashy?
Conventional wisdom says you can never be overdressed for an interview, though there’s room to question that logic. Not all interviews come with the expectation of dressing in your best suit: Less formal circumstances might expect you to wear business casual attire—a concept everyone knows, but might struggle to put into daily practice. Dressing for a business casual interview is a matter of existing in the nebulous area between professional and informal while making sure you look your best.
Deciphering the Interview Dress Code
If an interview looms in your future and you’re unsure what to wear, there are a number of ways to figure out what would be considered appropriate attire. A good rule of thumb is to always dress one level of formality higher for an interview than what you’d expect to wear daily on the job. You might, for example, browse the company’s website and social media accounts to get a sense of what its employees typically wear to work, then plan your outfit accordingly: If you see a lot of workers dressed in jeans and short-sleeved shirts, showing up for your interview in khakis and a dress shirt is probably a safe bet. Consider the industry, too: Certain professional fields like finance, government, and law usually skew more conservative in attire, and casual clothes—even business casual—are unlikely to be appropriate at an interview. However, in creative fields such as entertainment, media, and design, casual dress is commonplace, and therefore business casual may be your best approach.
The simplest and most direct way to find out what you should wear involves neither guesswork nor internet sleuthing—just ask. It’s entirely appropriate to call or email the hiring manager to ask how you should dress for your upcoming interview. If the answer is “business casual,” your path becomes clear.
Your Business Casual Options
Your goal with business casual is to look professional yet informal, which presents you with a wide range of choices. This is a very flexible and forgiving look, giving you plenty of latitude to express your personal style. If you need inspiration, here are some proven business casual combinations that will stand you in good stead at an interview:
Pair Khakis or Chinos with a Dress Shirt
This is as straightforward as it comes, and yet it’s a go-to combination for millions of American every day. Just because it’s ubiquitous doesn’t mean you can’t make it look attractive and unique. Start with the pants: Khakis and chinos are the Platonic ideal of business casual—stylish and presentable, yet more comfortable than the average pair of suit pants. Combine a great pair of pants with a fitted dress shirt, and you’ll look appropriate at any business casual event. You can add a necktie, if you wish, or skip it entirely; business casual gives you the freedom to take either approach. It may be worth keeping in mind, however, that a tie is almost always a good choice when you want to make a lasting first impression. A well-fitting pair of khakis with a dress shirt is a good business casual look—but adding a necktie in a striking color or pattern might lift your outfit from good to memorable.
Substitute a Sweater for a Dress Shirt
In place of a dress shirt, pair those chinos or khakis with a fitted sweater or a turtleneck made from fine material. While heavy, bulky sweaters and hoodies should be avoided in a business casual setting, a sweater in fine wool, cashmere, or silk will look appropriate and stylish. By choosing a thin, lightweight material, you can pair your sweater with a jacket without looking awkward or overstuffed.
Wear a Cardigan Instead of a Jacket
Feel free to bypass the formality of a suit jacket when dressing in business casual. If you want an outer layer, for reasons of either warmth or fashion, consider adding a cardigan sweater. Cardigans in deep solid colors contrast well with khakis and chinos in lighter shades, and the button-down style allows you to show more of your shirt and, if you choose to wear one, your necktie. This is a great way to bring some color and a touch of academic style to your outfit.
Avoid These Business Casual Faux Pas
While business casual is, in general, a very laid-back and forgiving manner of dressing, there are some pitfalls to avoid, especially if you’re trying to make a great first impression on your prospective employer:
Don’t Wear Shorts
Yes, there are some successful people who have built their personal brand around wearing shorts and flip-flops, and there are some offices where you’d be able to sport this combination on a daily basis without raising eyebrows. But there are two equal considerations with business casual attire—business and casual—and shorts fall too decisively on the casual end of the fashion spectrum. We’re going to have to insist on this: Even if you own a pair of well-made shorts that fit you perfectly, even you arrive at the office and find yourself surrounded by a sea of workers in surfer jams and logo tees, skip the shorts at your interview. Keep them in your closet until you’ve been offered the job, then wear them with impunity.
Don’t Wear Short Sleeves
Short-sleeved polo shirts are great, right? They’re comfortable, they’re low-fuss, and the right one can look both flattering and stylish. In general, though, avoid shirts with short sleeves—polo shirts very much included—during an interview. Short sleeves may be appropriate at your office during the warmer months, but even if your interview is scheduled for the last week of August, it’s wise to maintain the traditional formality of long sleeves when trying to impress your potential future boss.
Don’t Skimp on the Shoes
Some men approach business casual as a way to kick off their polished shoes and finally get some work done in their favorite sneakers. As comfortable as that may sound, resist the temptation to wear sneakers to an interview. While sneakers paired with a suit can be a great fashion-forward look when executed skillfully, you run a strong risk of looking immature or irreverent in the eyes of your prospective employer if you try to pull off this combination at an interview. Regard high-quality dress shoes like loafers or oxfords as an essential part of your interview ensemble, and leave the sneakers, boat shoes, sandals, and flip-flops at home.
Don’t Wear Jeans
Even when paired with a suit jacket and a necktie, jeans aren’t the wisest choice for a business casual interview. There’s some room for latitude on this point: Heavy, high-quality jeans in a dark indigo wash might be appropriate at an interview at a creative workplace, but be sure you have a firm grasp of the corporate culture before committing to this path. Job interviews are one of the few sartorial occasions where it’s best to err on the side of conservative: You’re unlikely to be turned down for a position for dressing too formally, but you might very well be rejected for looking like you’re not taking the interview seriously. When in doubt, choose the dressier path.
What to Keep in Mind with Business Casual Wear
For any interview, business casual or otherwise, how you wear your clothes is as important as what you wear. To project confidence and competence, make sure your clothes are clean, well constructed, free from wrinkles, and made from good-quality materials. Above all, make sure your clothes fit you well; an interview is not the time for gaping buttons, crotch wrinkles, or trouser hems that hit mid-calf. Don’t view business casual as an invitation to look anything less than poised and polished; instead, embrace the opportunity to look like the best possible version of yourself.
When you explore the possibilities of high-quality custom-made clothing at a Knot Standard showroom, your personal stylist will help you select from a wide array of styles to create an outfit for your business casual interview—or for any other event, formal or casual, on your calendar. Laser cut from a pattern created from your measurements and constructed from fabrics from the world’s finest mills, your Knot Standard outfit will help you express your personal style, look and feel your best, and conquer your interview.