Ask Allie: Budget Friendly Interview Attire

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I have decided to get a new job and find a healthier work environment. Thing is I don’t own a suit and I can’t spend more than $150 on interview clothes. Any suggestions on where to get a suit?

While you may luck out on the clearance rack of Ann Taylor or Banana Republic (and it can happen, I have a great matching blazer, pencil skirt and trousers from AT that cost under $200 thanks to coupons and clearance), you can’t guarantee that you’ll have success in time for your first interview. Some may recommend thrifting or consignment, but for an interview you need to put your best foot forward and again you can’t guarantee finding the right size and style in pristine quality in time.

I conduct interviews quite regularly at my job, for positions of all levels, and I have to say not wearing a suit is preferable to some cobbled together attempt at a jacket and trousers or skirt. It’s also preferable to wearing an obviously cheap suit. I’ve interviewed individuals with hems obviously stapled to the correct length, women in shiny tight Girls Night Out pants with a gabardine blazer, casual twill blazers with suiting trousers, tight thin knit skirts with a too-big power blazer clearly borrowed from Mom, and the cheap shiny hot pink pantsuit with beaded lapels and rhinestone buttons. Though these individuals strived to create a professional appearance, they focused too much on the need to create a suit than the need to create a polished, professional appearance.

So what do you do when you have limited time and funds but want to put your best foot forward for job interviews? Here’s some suggestions on how to create a professional look with few resources:

You Have Great Trousers (or a Great Skirt) but No Matching Suit Jacket

Great trousers means they fit – they don’t bag, they don’t hug your rear and thighs, they are the appropriate length (no ankle bone showing, no dragging on the ground). They are of a professional fabric (not shiny, not cotton twill, not stretchy), and likely lined to provide better drape and fit. These trousers are in a classic color – black, gray, brown, taupe, navy, possibly a dark muted green or wine.

A great skirt is a straight or pencil skirt that fits well, doesn’t ride up, doesn’t hug the rear, doesn’t wrinkle during a car or bus ride, hits the knees, and lets you walk a comfortable confident stride. It should be of a professional fabric and lined, free of embellishment and trendy details.

budget friendly interview outfit pants skirt
Pair with:

A crisp white shirt, necklace, and pumps. Purchase a wrinkle-resistant shirt that’s opaque and fits properly (no bulging buttons, not oversized, correct sleeve length), wear tucked into the trousers, and add a classic necklace that adds some shine. A pair of leather pumps in the same color as the trousers or skirt with an almond or pointed toe will look elegant, professional, and be a useful purchase after the interview.

A suiting blazer of the same fabric but different color and a blouse the same color as one or the other. Take your trousers shopping, or note the fabric composition on the tag and look for a jacket that is the same or extremely similar. However, don’t try to match grays or blacks because 99% of the time it won’t work and you’ll look sloppy. To get the most mileage of this jacket, choose one free of patterns and details, one that is a classic cut (no double breasted buttons, no cropped or perma-rolled sleeves, no creative collars), and in another neutral (black, gray, navy, taupe, ivory, cream).

By having your blouse (and with a mix like this I encourage a blouse, not a crisp shirt or a knit shell) either the same color as the jacket or the bottom, it creates cohesiveness and a purposeful look. Add interest with a necklace, belt (if applicable), and a confident smile.

If You Have a Great Jacket but No Trousers or Skirt

A great jacket means it fits GREAT, and to fit great it likely has been to the tailor. Sleeves the right length, shoulders in the right place, able to button without straining, not too tight but not oversized. The jacket is of a professional fabric (no twill, knit, denim, or anything with a shine), lined, and a classic cut. In this situation, a color is acceptable but it shouldn’t be too bold of a hue (bright yellow, lime green, orange, hot pink), or have trendy details (statement buttons, creative lapels, cut-outs, colorblocking or a print).

what to wear to an interview no suit
Pair with:

A suiting skirt or trousers and a blouse of the same color. Take the same advice above, and create a polished and cohesive look with a neutral blouse and trousers and a classic pair of pumps.

A professional tailored dress. This is not your pink floral rayon fit and flare frock, it’s not your striped ponte tee shirt dress, and it is never anything with spaghetti straps, cutouts (even if hidden under the jacket), or anything that is above the knee. Best choice is a sheath dress with a classic neckline (V, not too low scoop, crew or jewel neck), lined, and a fabric that coordinates with the jacket. Second choice is a dress that has a defined waist (self belt or banded waistband) and hits mid-knee to top of calf in a coordinating fabric. It’s important for this dress to have a tailored fit; a blazer over a loose dress will look sloppy and encourage creases.

Coordinating fabric means both of the same composition (see above), or fabrics that flatter one another (silk with crepe, wool with tweed, that sort of thing). If you’re not sure about coordinating fabrics I say to NOT go with this direction. It can be confusing, and too easy to go the wrong way.

If You Have Nothing and Need to Start From Scratch

Buy a Dress. Seriously, forgo the suit and get a professional dress in a solid color or subdued pattern. Pair with leather pumps in a neutral, wear a simple necklace, have polished hair and makeup and a nice bag and you will look far more competent and serious than in a hodgepodge of so-called professional attire.

No sheer portions or cutouts, no cleavage, no twee prints, trendy details, or overly vintage silhouettes. A sleeve is a very good idea, and the length should hit the knees. The style should skim the figure (more professional than a shift or sack dress), and be of a substantial fabric and/or lined. A few options under $150:

Do you have any suggestions for this reader?

A woman with curly hair wearing a plaid blazer holds a green fur coat over her shoulder on a city street.

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  1. Consignment/resale stores are great places to shop for work attire. Go for classic pieces that are not memorable in colors that don’t draw attention, and if you have follow-up interviews, no one will notice you’ve repeated outfits. Black and gray are outstanding that way.

  2. My one piece of advice… get it tailored!!! I have a cheap £40 dress from asos (wine colour fabric, elbow length sleeves, knee length, respectable neckline with twisted detail) which I took to a seamstress to have slightly altered (waist made more fitted, sleeve length tweaked) and now every time I wear it to work people compliment me on it. Tailoring makes an incredible difference particularly to cheaper clothing.

    I think for juniors or anyone that can’t afford a decent suit, a well fitting tailored dress with smart shoes is a great alternative. A lot of our interns last summer went that route and they always looked better than the ones in the slightly shiny badly tailored suits…

  3. Great advice Allie, as usual. I wish I knew what you guys were talking about with your American shops, though ‘cos I’m feeling the urge to upgrade my work outfits a bit.

    If I had to advise someone in England for reasonably priced, good quality workwear, I’d suggest Marks and Spencers (M & S) http://www.marksandspencer.com/l/women/mands-collection/mands-collection-clothing/suits-and-work-dresses They do seem strangely convinced that workwear = black! but the jacket could have a coloured top underneath and some accessories to spark it up.

  4. I really like this post, Allie. I interview quite a few folks for entry-level positions, where a suit isn’t necessarily an absolute, but candidates should look pulled together as outlined above. Great advice! Sara

  5. Hit the Talbots clearance racks – 75% of the clothing there is appropriate for an interview, and if you can get a great jacket, the rest can fade into the background. I interview at the Director and above level, and I do it in black trousers (hemmed appropriately, not too tight through the legs), a black shell, and a fuchsia wool blazer. A simple silver necklace and a my best leather bag and I look amazing. The blazer came from Talbots. And the great thing about Talbots is they carry everything from petites to plus sizes (up to 24), all of it very classically styled. Other then that, I agree with everything that Allie said. (Note that I am in IT, so I can get away with a bold color. If I were in legal or finance, I would probably get a more toned down jacket. Probably.)

  6. I’ve always worked in either an industrial setting or a very casual office setting. If I had to dress in formal office attire every day, I would be at a loss. I would have to keep Allie on retainer to be able to meet the dress code!

    I do occasionally have to speak at public meetings and Allie helped me to select garments that are just right for that purpose. Thank you Allie! Even though I dress casually for work, Allie has considerably helped me tune up my appearance.


  7. Did any of the women in the less than optimal clothes get hired? How a person is dressed at an interview shouldn’t matter so much, but the reality is that it does. Thanks for the tips. It gives us all a better chance.


    1. Oh gosh, no one is going to not be hired for what they wear if they are the best candidate for the position. We’ve hired plenty of people who may not have been dressed in the best choice (can recall a gentleman in jeans, work boots and a plaid flannel who we hired and was AH-MAY-ZING). It’s more to have a leg up and look serious about the position and have a better chance.

      Also there’s a big difference between applying for an entry-level position at a business casual or casual location and applying for a higher level position in traditional Corporate America. When you’re applying for a job where you will be meeting with clients, traveling on business, managing a team, I think it’s more important to show professionalism in dress. 🙂

      1. I will say that one time I was on a hiring panel & the candidate, a woman, wore a distractingly tight blouse (she was very busty & the blouse was both low cut & the buttons were visibly straining). All of us on the panel, all women, commented on it eventually when discussing the candidate, after we’d picked her apart because she made flaws in her interviews & assessment test. If she had been a top-notch candidate, we probably would have let the less-than-appropriate outfit slide. But because she was already a questionable candidate, the tight blouse was yet another thing to sink her chances.

        1. Exactly. This week I had a woman wear a cream lace tee with a black or navy bra and no camisole under a black blazer with a black skirt so short she was constantly adjusting it to be able to sit comfortably, and a pair of gladiator sandals. If she wowed me with her interview, I likely wouldn’t have even noticed what she wore. On the other hand, if she dressed more appropriately, I may have thought she was having a bad day or was nervous and possibly added her to those who were invited to a second interview.

  8. Depending on the part of the U.S. (or world?) & the industry, a dress like one of those above & a cardigan can be a simple, affordable, & chic interview outfit. That’s my go-to & I work in high-tech in Silicon Valley, where suits are seen as too stuffy & overly formal for anyone but corporate counsel. CEOs here wear hoodies & flip-flops. A neutral sheath dress & a slightly interesting but not too crazy cardi is my ideal interview outfit, & I’ve found tons of options at Old Navy & Target, plus online retailers. Fit will vary wildly depending on your size & shape, of course, but a tiny bit of tailoring (in my case, hemming bec. I’m petite) may help.

    1. Fully agree Trystan! I removed a lot of what the reader put in her email to make it more general for more people, but she was applying in a field where a proper suit would be expected at interviews. But yes, a sheath and cardi is a great choice for many job environments!

      1. I couldn’t tell if there was an underlying lawyer / must be a suit vibe going, thanks for the clarification. A simple dress & a good jacket is another great option — if someone can only afford to get the jacket tailored, that will hide many flaws, as long as the dress is the right length & not *too* off in the fit (like not too tight & not too baggy). A well-fitted jacket is a fantastic investment!

      2. To Allie and Trystan,

        I often work with a group of folks who are all lawyers. I think they are somewhat unusual in that they are working for a non-profit organization of lawyers who help non-profit organizations. They are all very skilled at their trade and all have a strong social conscience. I am certain that they earn well below going rates for lawyers. They are absolutely wonderful to work with. However, the point here is that they all dress less formally than one would expect from a legal firm. Women and men wear clothes from the more creative/liberal end of business casual. I notice that the new hires wear suits but that quickly gives way to more comfortable, but still neat, nice looking attire.


  9. I work in a business attire environment where my previous job was super casual (jeans and sneakers). As a result, the suits that had worked so well for me four years ago were no longer appropriate in style or size when it came to my new position. I bought several nice suits from Macys and hunted down matching suits from Ann Taylor, my favorite clothing store, as well. I was able to put together a nice wardrobe without breaking the bank or appearing too trendy
    With that in mind, I love how you put together coordinated outfits from different shades of neutral colors to pull off a very professional look. Great advice for any woman that needs to look her best for an interview.

    1. It’s funny, I’ve worked in construction, apparel, retail, and corporate jobs where I could wear shorts and sneakers and also where I had to adhere to a much stricter dress code and every interview I have had, a suit or a nice dress was completely appropriate if not necessary. I do believe the DC area is far stricter with dress codes than other parts of the country. 🙂

  10. I think the professional, simple dress in a professional fabric (probably not the Lands End dresses) is her best option. That said, I have been interviewing quite a bit recently (we have several attorney and paralegal positions open in my corporate legal department), and I couldn’t tell you what most of the candidates wore, with one exception: the guy who had his jacket up, sleeves rolled up, and tie loose when I came in the door. I noticed, my fellow associate GCs noticed, and our GC noticed. Other candidates could have been wearing Chanel or The Limited and I didn’t notice because they were neat, polished and neutral.
    Incidentally, a friend recently moved to a small town where the shopping is limited to Chico’s and The Limited and she’s been putting together some great outfits from The Limited. She’s also an in-house lawyer, and her outfits look great. I would recommend someone without much to spend look and see how The Limited suiting options look. I’ve also found some suits on the sale rack at Macy’s/Dillard’s/Bloomies for under $200.

      1. I would think, yes, if you are going for an environment where an interview dress is expected. Mind you, I’ve worked in law firms and in a big corporation, so my viewpoint is limited. I’d go with a solid sheath with sleeves in a more formal fabric – a wool blend or something. If it’s a less formal environment, it could work. I just don’t know much about those 🙂

    1. Great feedback, thanks Carolina! And I also wonder about the Lands’ End dresses, especially the belted wool one. I know the matte jersey could be iffy for some, but I’ve tried their matte jersey before and it’s a dull pebbled finish, very heavy, good drape and no cling. Thanks for mentioning Limited, they are a great resource!

  11. I love love love this post. I’m an attorney so full suits are generally non-negotiable for interviews, but I’m headed to a new job that requires a step up from my normal business casual attire, and these tips are perfect for that. Thank you for an awesome post!

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