I went to a job fair today.
While the fair itself was only mildly successful (half of the employers there were only interested in talking with people who already have a security clearance, and most of the remainder were not hiring anything remotely resembling mechanical engineers), I learned the most while standing in line, waiting to get in.
I found myself speaking with a woman who had recently learned about how to dress for an interview from a specialized "how to dress for an interview" consultant. I did not catch his name, but if you wish to hire him for his advice, it's $300 up front plus $100 per hour. I believe the woman heard him speak at a get-a-job seminar; she did not hire him herself. The following is a summary, in my own voice, of what she relayed to me about his advice, to the best of my memory, with some commentary of my own.
Now, for a job fair, it's not too terribly important to be nitpicky about your attire. Wear something businesslike, yes, but don't get uptight about it. However, interviews are a very different thing. Upon walking in the Room of Interviewing, you will be judged "within 8 seconds" on your appearance. Your interviewer already has decided what they think about you in those first critical 8 seconds. How? Body language and facial expression certainly. But what is really key is how you dress.
Men, you need to wear a suit. No sport jackets. No light suits, for that indicates you're on your way to South Beach to have a tequila, and no black suits, for that indicates you're on your way to a funeral (or possibly preemptively mourning your unsuccessful interview). Wear a gray suit. That says you mean business. It also says you are "here to play."
Wear a power tie. You need a tie that says "I am here to win." Bold colors can be good - lime green or lavender even. But don't get too crazy with it. And don't wear something muted. Heaven forbid the interview finish and your interviewer forget you exist because your tie was boring. It is also good to have a handkerchief in your suit pocket. Doesn't matter if it's a slightly different purple than your lavender tie. You just need the interviewer to think, as he looks over his notes and chooses whom to employ, "oh yeah, I remember the guy with the handkerchief in his pocket. That's who I'm going to hire. What a fine handkerchief."
Wallets. Do not have a fat wallet. Remove all the business cards and high school photo IDs you still keep for some reason. Slim wallets are key. And they must be in your front pants pocket. Not the back pocket and not your shirt pocket.
Have excellent shoes. The woman with whom I spoke pointed to a man in line and said, "The consultant recommends those type of dress shoes." I regret to inform you that I do not remember what they look like. So hopefully you do not choose the wrong type of shoe for your interview. I can assure you that they were neither sandals nor Vibram Five-Fingers.
As for women (the consultant, being a man, had less to say for women, it seems), you should wear a skirt ("appropriate length, of course"), to let the interviewers know you are comfortable with your femininity. However, you should bring a briefcase to your interview. Not a purse. Your shoes can have an open toe or open heel, but not both, as this is tacky. If you have long hair, tie it back. Wear simple earrings and a simple necklace to accentuate your neckline.
So ends my recollection of our conversation. You will note a hint of exasperation in my retelling. Clearly, one must dress well for an interview. It is an important part of the hiring process, and one must demonstrate their seriousness and commitment. Yet as I thought about this consultant's advice as I returned home from the fair, I found it to be rather frustrating. Is my competency for a job to be determined by the size and location of my wallet? Will I be remembered more for my tie than my problem-solving, communication, and multi-disciplinary abilities?
Granted, one must remember the context, or lack thereof. We spoke only of this consultant's general advice. Our discussion did not move to other aspects of a job interview, what industry in particular (if any) with which this consultant was associated, and where one's attire really does rate on the scale of interview importance (I assume the existence of such metrics).
Do what you will with the information above. My advice? Dress well for your interview. But what truly matters is who you are, what you bring to the table, and how your gifts and talents can fit into the broader vision of whoever is thinking about hiring you.
An interviewer who gets hung up on the size of your earrings (exceptions made for literal cases), or allows the color of your tie to majorly influence a hiring decision, is focused on the wrong things.
You are intrinsically valuable. Be remembered for that.