A few tricks can take work out of workplace attire

For recent graduates, looking for a job and entering the workforce is stressful enough without the added task of recycling student group T-shirts for blazers and dress pants.

However, research shows that in an interview, your appearance is just as important as what’s on your resume when you walk in the door.

“Only 7 percent of a first impression is spoken word,” says Michelle T. Sterling, founder of Global Image Group, an international image consulting firm.

Most experts agree that exactly what you are wearing is not as important as looking prepared and professional. Sterling says this generation’s job seekers are very relaxed, so they need to be careful about projecting a polished look.

What to wear

Generally speaking, offices have become more casual, so the rules for proper business attire have changed over the years. Some clothing items that used to be taboo, such as jeans, open-toe shoes and even shorts, are now perfectly acceptable in some offices.

Interview attire, however, should still be somewhat formal, no matter what the culture of the office.

“I think the mistake that a lot of young people make is that if the company is casual, they go very casual (for the interview),” says Nancy Plummer, Chicago.-based image consultant and owner of Fine Threads. “Stick with traditional until you get the job.”

For young men and women, Plummer advocates what she calls a “classic yet contemporary” look. Choose basic pieces in a neutral color (black, navy, gray khaki), such as a shift dress for ladies and dress pants and a jacket for men. Then add color and personality with accessories. Ladies can add a bright shoe or belt, while men can add a contemporary touch with a patterned tie or colored shirt.

Lisa Orndorff, manager of employee relations and training for the Society of Human Resource Management, recognizes that many young job applicants don’t have the money for lots of fancy business clothes and says it’s not necessary for young people to show up in a $3,000 tailored suit to a job interview. It’s about putting your best foot forward to the company, whatever that best foot may be.

“That could just mean you buy an iron and iron your oxford shirt and khakis,” Orndorff says. “Showing up in a wrinkled shirt — you can fix that.”

She says that after you get the job, pay close attention to what others are wearing during your first week at work.

And while it may be a casual environment, leave your Dollar Store flip-flops, ripped jeans and T-shirts describing the details of your Cancun vacation at home.

Good news for ladies, though: In most offices, hosiery is out, and peep-toe pumps are also acceptable, even for the initial interview.

Building your wardrobe

Dropping big bucks on a new wardrobe can be tough to swallow, especially if you are a broke college graduate who doesn’t have a job yet. But image consulting experts say that you can purchase office-appropriate pieces in a relatively painless, even thrifty, manner.

Even if you are going for a traditional office job that requires you to wear a suit, Sterling says it doesn’t have to be pricey, and it doesn’t have to look like you borrowed it from mom or dad.

“If you’re going for something fashion-forward, brands like Tahari are very professional, and you can find them at Macy’s,” Sterling says. For both men and women, she recommends stores like H&M and Zara.

Every wardrobe, Sterling says, is based around basics and classics that fit perfectly. Fit is critical and makes an inexpensive piece look just as nice.

Once you land that job, don’t think it’s necessary to buy a month’s worth of clothes. Plummer’s “cluster concept” allows you to buy seven to 10 pieces of relatively good quality that can be combined to create 30-40 office outfits.

For ladies, this might be one dress, two jackets, three bottoms and four tops that can all be worn together in different ways and reaccessorized to create an entirely new look. For men, it might be three suits and six shirts that can be mixed and matched.

In a casual office that allows jeans, Plummer says she recommends sticking with dark denim for both men and women, as it has a less casual look. For men, pairing jeans with a loafer instead of a sneaker is usually the way to go.

Sometimes makeup gets a bad rap in the workplace because it can go over the top, but Sterling says that for ladies makeup is an important part of looking polished, not like you just rolled out of bed and came to work. She recommends Bobbi Brown’s 10-step Beauty Tutorial, available at, using neutral or nude shades.

And remember, no matter whether your workplace is formal or casual, showing too much of anything is never a good idea.

“Too much cleavage, too much crack and see-through blouses are meant for after 5 p.m.,” Plummer says. “We want to see your personality, not your breasts.”

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