Sunday, November 3, 2013

Dressing for interviews, finding your style, and why you need to think about your clothes.

Upfront Disclaimer: This is not a post where I tell you what to wear (or what not to wear) to an interview. There are a lot of those floating around this time of year, and this post is partially a response to this seasonal flood of tips and tricks. But I also felt it was time to reflect on what I perceive as a persistent issue in science: people are simultaneously dying for advice, and also do not want to think about, how to dress.

Science lures you in with its false pretense of informality. Sure, it isn't the corporate world (just look around at a conference). But it is also a profession.

You will be judged on your appearance. I'm not saying this is fair, but that is the society we live in. Humans are visual creatures and first impressions are important. The way you dress will have a huge impact on how you are perceived by other people (and can definitely affect how you perceive yourself), so why not give it some thought? Your wardrobe is akin to curating your online identity - it's in your best interests to Google yourself so you know what people will see about you on the internet (and make sure they're seeing your professional website as the first result, instead of those drunk pictures from Facebook). Likewise, by controlling how you dress you are helping to guide people's impressions. Dress in clothes that make you happy and confident, and are true to the image you want to project.

I'll also preface this post by saying that I personally HATE shopping with a PASSION. You will not find me hanging out at the mall on Saturday, and I'll never understand people who do that for "fun".  Over time I've found ways to work around this repulsion: focus on the end result (a killer wardrobe!), go armed with one or two specific goals ("Today I will find a pair of dark wash jeans"), choose stress-free online shopping, or visit stores on Sunday when crowds are much much quieter. Many other workarounds are discussed below. In the end, clothes shopping is like buying groceries: it's an errand you must do occasionally (but not every day or even every week), you might not enjoy it, but if you suck it up and don't focus on the negatives it will be over and you will have a good result soon enough.

I wasn't sure how to structure this post, so here is a general list of things you should be thinking about. Especially if you're going to need an interview wardrobe soon:

Before you do anything, watch TLC's "What Not To Wear" 

(herein referred to as WNTW) Seriously, this show will change your life. You will learn so many things! Like these tips, for example. In fact, a lot of my advice below is pulled straight from WNTW. The hosts, Stacy London and Clinton Kelley, don't just talk about how to style yourself and put together outfits, but they also discuss the emotional and personal reasons underlying the way that people dress. Its amazing to see people regain their confidence and reboot their life with something as simple as a wardrobe makeover. WNTW just had its series finale, so I would recommend watching the last 2-3 seasons (episodes from 2010 onwards, just so you are getting the most "on trend" advice). All grad students and postdocs should definitely watch this episode where they revamp the wardrobe of an algae researcher. WNTW also has a few shows featuring men, but another show for men's fashion advice is "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" (although the trend advice might be a little dated now, not sure what year that show went off the air).

Shopping is hard. And emotional. And exhausting.

That doesn't mean you should give up, or not even try. It just means you should be prepared for inevitable frustration and periods of hopelessness. Case in point: every episode of WNTW involves someone breaking down from stress. You are not alone, and it happens to everyone (including me). I'm still traumatized by an incident in 2008 where I spent SEVEN HOURS in the mall shopping for a dress to wear to my cousin's wedding the next day. I learn from these mistakes - I do not leave important shopping trips until the last minute anymore, and I try to shop in spurts (only visit one or two stores on any given trip). I also plan ahead - I always have one or two "unworn" (e.g. I haven't been photographed in) dresses in the closet that I can break out for formal occasions. I buy conference outfits way ahead of time (usually randomly if I see something I like while browsing online or at a store), and I choose items that can be multipurposed for different things.

Shopping is a process.

You won't know what stores you like at first. Hell, you won't even know what stores' clothes you can fit into. Eventually you will have shopping down to a science. Indeed, you should view it a bit like science. Define your aims ("I will find a pair of comfortable heels"), pursue methods that test your hypothesis ("Null hypothesis: Nine west wedges will not be comfortable"), and then observe and reflect on your results ("I could walk all day in those red 2" wedges, but anything higher than that will make me fall over"). Take incremental steps, don't be afraid of this trial-and-error approach, and build on from there. I have a few stores I really like at any given time, and I occasionally add or drop brands from my roster (sometimes stores change their sizing or product quality without notice). One of my stalwarts is Express, and I've gotten to the point where I know my exact sizing and can just order some things online without having to go into a physical store.

Get to know your body type, and what styles work for you.

I will never be able to wear empire lines or bandage dresses - I'm 5'3" and neither of these items have ever worked well when I've tried them on (however, they both look fabulous on leggy supermodels). Dress for the body you have, not the body you think (or want) to have. Otherwise it will not turn out well. Refer to WNTW for lots of tips on body type (hourglass, pear shaped, broad shoulders, etc.).

Give some thought to how you want to define your style, and how your lifestyle (or the event you're dressing for) will influence your wardrobe choices.

Above all, clothes must be practical for your lifestyle. But that doesn't mean you have to sacrifice style. Maybe you run around all day and need to buy a pair of chic flat boots instead of those killer heels. Once you build up the right wardrobe and learn how to put together outfits, dressing in the morning should be a snap. It usually takes me <10 minutes to get dressed in the morning: I'll usually know what my day is like (biking around campus a lot? Sitting mostly at my desk?) and then I'll specifically think about something particular I want to, or need to, wear (flat boots are better for biking. Or if I have an meeting, I know heels will make me feel more professional). Then I'll build an outfit from there. I'll admit, this might sound a bit like voodoo - it can be more of an art than a science - but you'll eventually get the hang of it. The most important think is thinking about (and buying!) clothes in terms of "outfits" that can fit together. Again, watch WNTW and see advice about BASE below.

You MUST try things on. 

Even things that you don't think will look good on you (keep an open mind, especially at first). You must try things on in an unfamiliar store to get to know their sizing. If you're interested in a new trend or style, definitely do some experimenting in the dressing room. Trying on clothes is time consuming and one of the reasons I only target a few stores at a time - often I have to go back into the dressing room a few times to make sure I tried on everything I wanted (stores inevitably have limits on how many items you can bring in, which is annoying), and usually I have to exchange sizes and/or colors of items I really liked but didn't quite fit.

Evaluate every piece of clothing you try on using the BASE acronym (straight off WNTW):

Body - Does this suit my body?
Age - Is this appropriate for my age?
Suitable - Is this item suitable for the event/occasion/purpose I'm going to buy it for? Is it multipurpose so I mix it with other things in my wardrobe?
Expense - Is this item worth the expense? Do I already own something similar?

Your local tailor is your new best friend.

If you find a pair of pants that you love, don't immediately discount them if they're a bit too long. It is usually very easy, and relatively inexpensive, to find a local tailor to take up the hem. Same with dresses - loose fabric at the shoulder or waist is extremely easy to get taken in.  In fact, thinking about  tailoring during shopping can make the clothes more comfortable in the long run: you don't have to squeeze into that smaller size (and risk discomfort in certain places) just to get rid of the baggy waist, shoulders, etc. WNTW has some fantastic advice about tailoring peppered throughout their episodes.

Shoes: The Eternal Debate.

#1: These must be suitable for the occasion. Sure, I have 5" diamante sandals that I absolutely loooove. But I cannot walk in them, and they are only appropriate for a fancy event where all I have to do is walk into a room and sit down for the rest of the evening. Personally, I will always wear (appropriate) heels to interviews and important meetings. Heels give me confidence and make me feel powerful, in a way that no other piece of clothing can. I would not sacrifice that feeling for anything, regardless of what people in the room might think or what advice is out there on the web. Plus, I think at this point they're kind of my trademark (I can't help it if I have a weakness for colorful shoes...) - and if a piece of clothing can make you memorable as an early career scientist, hey, I'm all for it. #2: Unless you are going to the Oscars, buy comfortable shoes. #3: Comfortable shoes will not necessarily look comfortable. Try on every pair of shoes that grabs your attention. Every pair of heels I buy gets scrutinized for about 20 minutes. I will wear them around the store while I shop more, run down the aisle, jump around. They must be comfortable or be capable of being comfortable (e.g. putting in gel inserts, or knowing that new leather in boots will stretch out). Some brands are going to be way more comfortable than others (my personal favorites for comfort are Nine West and Calvin Klein). Just like clothes, you will figure out what shoe stores suit your feet best. Places like DSW are great, because they offer a range of brands and both classic/trendy styles at affordable prices. Zappos is also fabulous because you can order online and get free return shipping if the shoes don't fit (also they have comprehensive photo angles and zoom features for all the shoes, making it easier to evaluate what they'll look like in person).

Cheap clothes look cheap.

Unless it is in near-mint condition (and originally bought from a good store), I will be able to tell if you bought that outfit from the thrift store. Now, other people might not notice, but why take that chance? It pays to invest in new clothes. Especially for important events like interviews!

Expensive-looking clothes can be very affordable.

You just have to know where to find them (and initially, this might take some work to figure out). I personally am a big fan of H&M and Nordstrom Rack, two places where you usually get durable jeans and nice dresses for $25-50. More classic styles can be found at stores such as Banana Republic (they have a great Mad Men collection), although this is a more upscale store and more thus more expensive. Other places I love are ModCloth and vintage stores such as Concetta's Closet (my former local haunt when I lived in New Hampshire) - often you can nab unique, quality goods at these kind of quirky stores for $50-100. Note here: I typically spend $50-80 on each of my dresses, and I get good use out of them at multiple conferences; usually I "retire" a subset of dresses every year if I'm bored of the item, if it shows wear & tear, or if it isn't fitting quite right anymore. I'm always willing to spend more money on quality fabric/sewing so I don't have to be afraid of things falling apart (this is especially a problem with some of the cheaper clothes from H&M and Express - you often have to be careful how much you wash them...).

Accessories make an outfit versatile.

A little black dress can be uber-fancy or super casual depending on how you style it. WNTW has awesome advice on accessories, but the bottom line is: accessories make an outfit interesting, and either dress it up or dress it down. They're an essential part of constructing outfits and should not be overlooked. Accessories include jewelry, belts, hats, bags, and yes, even your visible tattoos. For example, part of your interview outfit should be a professional bag (briefcase, purse) that is not a) a backpack or b) in tatters or showing serious signs of wear. These details can make or break an outfit.

These are just some general musings and not meant to be a comprehensive guide or hard and fast rules. Above all, remember that your wardrobe will require a time investment, but it will be 100% worth your time. Please discuss and add further comments, and I will update this post as necessary!


  1. Thank you for your post. I have certainly learned a lot from WNTW. I have a couple of questions. One, how does one go about making a cohesive wardrobe? Secondly, I have a lot of issues with the garment industry, and really don't want to support business practices in which I don't believe. Other than shopping at American Apparel (which has a limited selection, and its own questionable policies), what can you recommend?

  2. LOVE this post, Holly! I would add that the Banana Republic sale rack combined with their regular 30-40% off sales is an amazing work/conference clothes resource. I usually order online, but then return clothes to their stores if they don't fit. I have also had a good experience with eShakti, which makes good-quality custom dresses for a reasonable price, which is especially useful for women whose top and bottom are not, shall we say, traditionally proportionate.

  3. This is a great post! I am taking a bit of a different strategy in that rather than learning to shop better, I am learning to sew my own clothing and make my own alterations to items I purchase or already own. Most of the points you discuss apply to sewing your wardrobe as well as shopping for it. I'm learning to be much more honest with myself about how well things fit me, and it's also a great creative outlet. I am a field biologist, so I get tired of wearing jeans and tshirts all the time, and I am sick of wearing the same outfit every time I give a presentation. At 30 minutes sessions of fitting and sewing a handful of times each week, broken up by week long field trips, this is a very slow process, but I'm having fun with it!

  4. THANK YOU for this post. I've always struggled with what to wear when attending scientific interviews: you try to appear formal, so wear heels, suit trousers and jackets, and walk in to meet the lab which is dressed in sneakers, jeans and t-shirts. Makes me feel like such a fraud! Hopefully now I can find some way of dressing which makes me feel more like I belong.