A friend recently asked a question on Facebook: “What would you wear to a job interview for an Ad agency?” She posted a picture of a striped dress-y thing (no, I don’t know what it’s called. A tunic? That’s why I don’t write for Vogue) and asked, “Is this ok with leggings and ballet flats or too casual?”

The responses were plentiful, with most seeming to agree that you never wear leggings to a job interview and that “smart casual” or “business casual” is the way to go.

I don’t even know what those terms mean. They don’t actually tell you anything, as it depends on what is casual for the business in question.

Casual at a law firm, for example, might be a sports coat and loafers, while casual at a record label might be an Opeth t-shirt.

What you wear to the interview depends on the industry, the position for which you’re applying and the culture of the company.

One woman I know has a story that illustrates this point: she showed up for an interview at a media company wearing a suit only to find that everyone else was in jeans. She says she knew immediately that she wasn’t getting the job.

I interviewed five people who do the hiring in five different industries, to give you an idea. Their names have been changed.

Charles, ad agency: It depends on the role and the person. We’re a creative agency, so dress code is not that important. It’s more about what you present in the interview. Most of us wear jeans to work, so jeans are fine. I wouldn’t wear shorts. We wouldn’t screen somebody out because of it, but shorts might be pushing it a little bit, unless you’re a developer or programmer, then you can wear anything you want. Leggings would be fine for a copywriter. If it’s a very client-facing role or a business development role, you probably have to dress accordingly. Sometimes people can be completely overdressed. We’re all wearing jeans and if they show up in a suit and tie they’re going to stick out like a sore thumb. Some old school agencies might be more Madison Avenue style, but we’ve moved on from that.

Kate, software: We’re a software company whose clients are all in the wealth management business, so my expectations vary. It’s OK for a software developer to come in for an interview in business casual, but a person applying for a client-facing position, should wear more traditional business attire. Most important is to be well groomed. Unless you know specifically about the dress code of the workplace, jeans are NEVER appropriate. If we are meeting a candidate on a Friday, where jeans are acceptable in our workplace, we try to let them know that they can dress down as well, but when in doubt, dress it up a notch and be conservative.

Mark, engineering: The dress code for engineers is all over the map really. Unlike finance or other formal fields, it’s definitely not suits and ties any longer.  With that, you’re also seeing interview wear become more casual. Heck, in any type of IT or computer place, showing up in a suit and tie (interview or otherwise) might even mean you don’t get the modern work culture of the office. One never goes wrong with pants and a proper dress shirt. Jeans and a relaxed look can work, but I suggest one
scope out the company or be very familiar with their work environment prior to
trying that tack.

Grace, healthcare research: You can never go wrong with a smart suit, whether you are a male or female. Our environment is a little less formal, so simply looking sharp and put together in what you wear is enough. Nice dress pants and shirt, skirt and nice sweater. The one thing people don’t keep in mind when they interview here is that we are a scent-free environment so wearing perfume and cologne is
a no-no. It is surprising how many people show up to interviews smelling like
they are wearing half the bottle. I have had many people who wear sparkles to
interviews, often as eye shadow, while other times all over their face. While
this does not make or break your possibility of employment, I will say, in my
experience, there is a direct correlation between those who wear sparkles to an
interview and those who cannot answer the questions.

Albert, law firm: Guys: A nice, smart suit. Nothing garish, no charcoal stripe or anything that makes you look like a Wall Street banker. Nice shirt-tie combination – again – no garish colours. Polished shoes can’t hurt. At the end of the day you are trying to look like someone that the interviewer will feel happy to put in
front of clients and charge $350+ an hour. Also a good idea to comb your hair and hide your tattoos. Girls: If you can see up it, down it or through it, it’s a no-no. Again, smart, professional and confidence inspiring. I’d avoid 4 inch heels or boots. If you’re not a trouser-suit wearer then a knee length skirt with a nice blouse will more than suffice (jacket optional). I’d also avoid overtly obvious designer gear or heavy lumbering handbags – The office is a place of work, not a fashion space. At the end of
the day, if you can’t work out what’s appropriate and inappropriate to wear for a six-figure salary, then what hope have you for getting the law right and impressing clients?