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Your Interview Wardrobe on a Budget


The big interview is almost here and you’ve done your research on the employer, assembled a list of glowing references and rehearsed your winning answers. Now you just need to look the part. You may have have heard the axiom “dress for the job you want, not the one you have”–hard enough if you’re looking to climb the ladder, but that old rule can be daunting when you’ve been wading through the shallow waters of unemployment for months. You already know perfectly well you can’t turn up in worn, stained or ragged clothes, but then how do you put together an interview outfit that makes you look capable and confident?

Shop your closet
Before you spend a cent, you need to take stock of what you have. Lay out everything you have that’s “work appropriate” and be honest with what you find. Does it all fit? Can it be taken in or let out? Is it stained and have you tried to have it professionally cleaned? Is the garment in poor condition? Can it be repaired? Be realistic and set aside three piles: items to be professionally cleaned, items to be repaired by a tailor, and items to pitch. You can donate them if you think someone would use them, but if they’re damaged beyond use, it’s probably best to toss them.

See your drycleaners
If you’re on a tight budget, you probably don’t spend a lot of time at the drycleaners but they’re experts at removing tough stains. The fifteen or twenty dollars (or less) you spend on stain removal will likely you save tens or even hundreds of dollars replacing the garment. If they can’t get the stain out, you’re still on the hook for the bill, but it’s a small investment compared to replacing a garment every time it gets stained.

Meet your tailor
Tailoring clothes you already own that don’t fit properly or are in poor repair is one of the single best cost-saving measures you can take. A good tailor can dramatically alter the way clothes fit your body, as well as repairing a wide variety of rips, wears and tears, all at a fraction of what it would cost you to replace them. And don’t forget about your shoes. Cobblers are tailors for your footwear and they can fix those scuffed dress shoes or stripped high heels for a lot less than the cost of new shoes.

Shop smarter
Now that you’ve taken stock, cleaned, adjusted and repaired your interview clothes, it’s time to fill in any gaps. Even on a strict budget, you have a number of options when shopping for new work wear.

  • Be thrifty: Shop thrift stores for quality clothes that fit the widest part of your body. If it’s quality item, it can probably be taken in or let out or even repaired on a shoe-string budget.
  • Stay posted: Sign up for the email lists from your favorite stores, as many stores have special sales and promotions for their mailing list customers only and you can get a great bargain.
  • Hunt off-season: If possible, re-up your missing pieces out-of-season for the deepest discounts as stores try to empty their seasonal stock.
  • Buy online: If you find a brand you like hugely discounted online, consider buying it and having it tailored. This works better for some pieces than others; make sure you know the store’s return policy. You can’t usually alter clothes and then return them.
  • Be practical: Most people wear 25% of their wardrobe 80% of the time. This means that often it pays to invest a little more in a new garment as it will last longer and cost you less per wear. Read the cleaning instructions on the label before you buy and make sure you’re prepared to follow them. A great sweater at a discount that requires professional cleaning is no bargain at all. Also remember that no matter how much you like the look of a garment or how well it fits you, if you’re on a budget then your whole work wardrobe needs to work together and mix well. That green paisley dress shirt doesn’t make much sense when all your suits are blue and patterned.

Putting it together
Do a trial run the day before your interview and give yourself a thorough going over. Is everything clean and sharp? Does it fit well? Is it interview appropriate? If you’re not sure then it probably isn’t. If your employer hasn’t told you the dress code, treat it like a test of your common sense and good judgement. It’s better to over-dress than under-dress.

Accessories like your bag, coat, watch, scarves and jewelry are a “do”–but only in moderation. The goal of careful accessorizing is to look complete–well planned but effortless. Too many accessories are worse than none at all. Dress for the weather, wear colors that compliment each other, keep jewelry small and tasteful so they don’t distract, and make sure that your bag (you know, the one with your resume and references) doesn’t undo all your hard work. It should be clean, in good repair and compliment the rest of your image.

Details, details
Make sure your hair is clean and reflects a the professional image you’ve created with your clothes and accessories. Men should make sure any facial hair looks tidy and trimmed. Remember to keep scented products away from the office–many employers have policies against them due to allergies. Make sure your nails are clean and that any polish is chip-free. Women should make certain their makeup is conservative.

Keeping up appearances
Keep your interview clothes in good condition by changing out of them as soon as you get home. If your clothes need professional cleaning or tailoring, separate them out.Otherwise, hang them straight away on wood or padded hangers (never wire–they warp!) or else fold them so they don’t crease. Keep your favorite stain remover on hand and follow the cleaning directions on the label to make the most of your investments.
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