Not much is more depressing than gazing into your closet a few days before a job interview and thinking, "There is nothing here that I can wear.
"But I have no money."
These days, with college graduates hitting the job market in time to compete with employees laid off in the recession, thousands of people like Joan Borgealt of Hampstead are surveying their wardrobes and scratching their heads.
"We had a consulting firm come in and tell us how to write resumes," says the systems analyst who is job hunting after being laid off by USF&G.; "We kind of wished they had told us what to wear and how to wear it. I mean, is dress-for-success still the suit with the little bow tie?"
Whether starting out or starting over, the basic rule for what to wear to most job interviews is simple and similar for men and women: "Go classic," says Michele Morris, buyer for Caren Charles stores.
Classic means gray, navy or pinstripe suits for men and usually leaning-toward-conservative suits for women. "Depending on what you're interviewing for, it's better to go in conservative than not," says Susan Bixler, author of "The Professional Image."
"The interviewers figure that's the best you're ever going to look."
Sometimes, however, the problem isn't just what to wear -- but also how to pay for it. As Ms. Borgealt puts it, "This is not the time to spend all your money on a new wardrobe."
With that in mind, we asked fashion experts for advice on how to put together a respectable interview wardrobe -- as well as how to outfit yourself for those first few months on the job -- without hawking the house, the dog, the kids and your college textbooks.
* No matter how budget conscious you are, say experts, sometimes it might be wise to spend a little -- for an interview outfit -- to gain a lot -- a job.
"Recognize that most of us try to buy quantity, not quality. We try to get as much as we can for our money and that's a mistake," says Ms. Bixler.
"You need to invest in the best suit you can buy," she adds. "It is so much better to repeat a quality outfit than go in on the second day with another cheap suit."
* Don't be afraid to try bargain stores or outlet malls, she says. "Quality doesn't mean you can't get bargains."
But do some research. Check out the outlets, look for good quality name brands.
Educate yourself about top labels: "Go to upper-end stores, look at garments, look at fabrics, look at the labels. Then when you warehouse shop, look for those labels."
If you can't find labels that you recognize, look at the details (seams, how the jacket falls) in the garment to see if it is well-made.
* Try to buy seasonless clothing. "A part of everyone's wardrobe should be year-round -- that's investment," says Lee Hogan Cass, national fashion merchandise director for Sears.
By that she means easy-to-care-for, lightweight materials such as some polyester and poly-blend fabrics that "don't feel like polyester," she says.
For men, suits that tend to be in plain-weave fabrics and are of a 9-ounce-per-yard weight are most versatile, says Michael Weppner, vice president of men's tailored clothing at Jos. A. Bank Clothiers.
* Pay attention to grooming details.
So what if you're not wearing a Chanel suit? Is your hair neat, your shoes polished, nails short and clean (for women, "a quarter inch is plenty long," says Ms. Bixler. And no colored polish.)
* Analyze your closet. See if there's anything that can be %J updated or paired with a new item to make a complete look. "I just had a suit restyled and I did two things. I had it hemmed to right directly below the knee," says Ms. Bixler. "And it was double-breasted: I took the two buttons off and put on six buttons. It looks like a brand new suit."
For women: * Try on a lot of suits before you choose one. Women's suits this year are increasingly varied and feminine with fashionable jackets, either cropped or long. Make sure your suit suits you: "The styles are shaped for different bodies," Ms. Morris says.
"If you're hippy, don't wear a short jacket. Go longer for a long and slenderizing line." Shorter jackets will flatter a petite woman.
High fashion suits have increased interest with bright colors (even color blocking), piping and brightly colored buttons. However, experts recommend staying away from the trendy looks -- and buying a classic outfit that can be worn year after year. (After you get the job, watch for the trendy looks to go on sale.)
* Before buying the suit, look at it critically. A lot rests on its shoulders: "The body of the suit hangs from the shoulder pads -- if the shoulder pad feels flimsy, take another look at the suit," Ms. Morris says.
"It should drape very nicely from the shoulder, no pulling, the sleeves should be hanging straight when your arms are down."
* Look for simple, straight skirts or skirts with pleats that can be worn with a variety of jacket styles. You can wear one with the other to extend the number of outfits you have. Unmatching suit looks are becoming more acceptable in many offices, says Ms. )) Cass.
* Consider changing the look of an older suit with a new blouse. Blouses that are in style include what Ms. Morris calls "the L.A. Law look," or the wrap blouse that's seen in designer collections from Donna Karan to Chanel.
A safe bet for interviews is the classic, open-neck look. And a style that's cropping up increasingly on fashion runways is the T-shirt-as-a-dress-up look in fabrics other than cotton.
* Make sure the length of your skirt is just right. "Length is the person's choice," says Ms. Cass. "Short skirts are very in, they should cover their knees but not go way below the knee. If anything, err on the conservative side -- but you don't want to look dowdy."
Consider the coat dress. The coat dress is becoming increasingly acceptable in professional settings and may be less expensive than a suit. "Get a classic color, you can dress it up if you want and you can go from desk to dinner," says Ms. Morris.
* Just say no to overdone accessories. Say no to dangly earrings, bracelets that clank, rhinestones, fake rubies, etc. . .
Say yes to watches, simple necklaces like pearls or colored beads, says Ms. Cass. Large earrings are fine, as long as they are in proportion to your face and hair.
* Make sure your purse is neat. Don't tramp into your interview with a scratched up, slouchy purse. They're not in style and they don't look professional. If you can't afford a new purse, polish your old one.
For men: * Stick with the basics. Go with a navy or solid gray or a gray basic pinstripe suit -- all three are versatile. "That way you can dress the suit up with a white shirt if the interview calls for it. And if you're in an industry where it's more appropriate to show more color or more interest, switch shirts," says Mr. Weppner of Jos. A. Bank.
* Pay attention to details, make sure your shoes are shined and your
belt and shoes are coordinated. "It doesn't take a lot of money, but it does make a difference."
* Build on the basics. Mr. Weppner suggests buying a gray suit then a blue blazer and a pair of tan pants. Add ties and shirts for variations.
Now you have at least three outfits: a gray suit, gray pants with blue blazer, or tan pants with blue blazer. All of which can be worn to all but the most conservative offices.
* Remember that the trousers are going to wear out first, and that a poorly fitting suit wears out faster than a well-fitted one.
Several companies are beginning to address this problem. For example, last year, Brooks Brothers came out with a line of both men's and women's clothing called the Wardrobe Collection, which offers lower-priced suits (for Brooks Brothers) for $395 that come with jackets and a choice of pants -- pleated or not -- in the XTC same size as the jacket or not. Women can choose skirts in different sizes.
The suits are a 100 percent wool, year-round fabric, says Tony Krohn, suit buyer for Brooks. "This is geared toward the guy who can't afford a seasonal wardrobe."
If Brooks Brothers is beyond your means, Sears will introduce in October the Executive Collection -- Athletic Fit suit separates -- a line with a philosophy similar to that of Brooks. This collection also allows the consumer to buy differently sized pants and jackets -- and these will retail for about $145 for both.
* If you already have a suit, polish your image by buying new accessories, says Stephen Ross, national product development manager for Sears. For a conservative look in a tie, stick with traditional patterns and a 3 1/2 -inch width. A more fashion forward look is a floral print and slightly wider tie. White shirts are the most conservative -- but a slightly more sophisticated look can be achieved by wearing shirts in tinted backgrounds (in ecru, taupe or even mint) in pinpoint oxfords, he says.
* Take care of your suit once you've got it! "Never wear a suit two days in a row," says Mr. Weppner. "Hang the suit up and let it regain its shape." Wool, especially, will regain its shape if you allow it to breathe.
* Don't dry clean your suits as often. Dry clean "only when a suit is soiled -- pressing a suit [take it to a dry cleaner and have it 'pressed only'] is more important to the suit than dry cleaning. Dry cleaning will eventually break the fabric down," he says.
Just remember, says Ms. Bixler, "If you look successful, people gravitate toward the successful. It isn't fair, but it's true."
But, she adds, "The illusion can be projected: classic looks, good handshakes, ease, energy and eye contact. It doesn't mean we all need an Armani."