Debrett's Ask the Expert: I only own an ill-fitting, loud suit. Will it cost me a job offer?

Debrett's: Ask the Expert
Street Style in Madrid
Give the brown shoes a miss for now (Source: Getty)

Q: I’ve just graduated from university and I’m applying for training schemes with a few different investment banks.

My only suit barely fits me and I haven’t got the cash to buy an expensive new one. Given all the recent press about “brown shoes and loud ties”, I’m afraid I’ll be called out on my outfit at interview – or worse, that I won’t get the job because of it. I’m not naïve enough to think dress doesn’t make an impression, but is there any way to get past this barrier?

It's a sad state of affairs when a woman is sent home from work for not wearing heels, as happened to a receptionist in London in May, or when an interviewee misses out on a job for wearing brown shoes.

The recent report from the Social Mobility Commission you mention found that job applicants who wear the wrong kind of suit, shoes or tie are often judged negatively by recruiters, to the detriment of their career prospects. In particular, the report cited banking industry employers taking exception to brown shoes, ill-fitting suits, garish ties and poor haircuts. This was reflective of a wider bias against applicants from less privileged backgrounds who may be lacking the “polish” of their upper-middle class, Russell Group-educated contemporaries.

While it’s unfortunate that employers still make decisions based on a candidate’s appearance rather than their competence and potential, there’s no escaping the fact that they will often be looking to recruit someone who will fit into the company culture – and this can extend to dress codes and style.

It’s not just a case of conforming, however. Dressing appropriately in an interview shows respect to the employer and the process, and demonstrates your seriousness about the role. It will also reassure the recruiter that, if hired, you will show a similar level of respect to clients and colleagues.

You may perform better too. Wearing any kind of uniform that supports our professional persona can register an internal shift so that we feel more confident and act accordingly. The charity Suited & Booted recognises this by providing suits for job interviews to the unemployed and those on low incomes. One of its clients says, “I was fitted with a beautiful suit, shirt, tie and cufflinks. That felt so good, I looked very smart. That feeling gave me a great deal of confidence.”

Read more: Scooters in the City: A quick way to kill your credibility

The London College of Fashion’s director of psychology Dr Carolyn Mair agrees: “wearing appropriate clothes, for example a formal suit for an interview, builds our confidence and can make us appear more serious, conscientious and respectful.”

That same confidence is often key to overcoming the barriers you mention: we’re frequently told that it takes seven seconds to make a first impression, and self-assurance, warmth and conviction can – and should – supersede any judgements about whether your suit is Prada or Primark.

Try to assess the formality of the company before attending an interview and always err on the more formal side if you’re in any doubt. A traditional business suit and tie are the safest options for men, and while women have a little more choice, an equivalent level of formality is usually advisable: a skirt or trouser suit, or a dress and blazer, for example.

Good quality businesswear doesn’t have to break the bank: inexpensive options are available at high street retailers like M&S or Debenhams. Alternatively, you could ask to borrow a suit from a friend of a similar size, scour charity shops, or hire one ahead of the interview. Just give the brown shoes a miss for now.


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