Fast Track: Yes, you look great. When can you start?

Choosing the right outfit is the key to interview success. By Jennifer Rodger
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The Independent Culture
SHOULD YOU go for jewellery? Should you wear your hair loose or in a ponytail? Should you choose bright colours? Image has always been one of the biggest dilemmas when it comes to the graduate interview. To top it all, it now seems that going for the latest fashion in smart suits isn't necessarily the right decision. After all, image consultants say, what you choose to wear to today's interviews is not just about being well-presented. It also speaks volumes about your suitability to a particular work culture.

In graduates' favour is the fact that interviewers are increasingly trained to look for a whole range of visual clues, rather than allowing instant prejudices to set in. Neal Anderson, a professor in work psychology at London University, explains, "Recruiters can go by immediate impressions - for instance, whether a candidate is wearing white socks or an earring - which is quite invalid and unfair. So we train recruiters to look for samples of signs rather than the one, single thing that may take over."

Anderson recommends that for the interviewee, the best start is to consider the industry. If, for example, you are going for a job in the civil service, and usually wear fashionable clothes, then common sense should tell you that "trendy" may give the wrong message for a such a formal organisation. It sounds obvious, he says, but all too many graduates are obsessed with self-expression, to their own detriment.

According to Judi James, author of Body Talk and adviser to the Industrial Society, your next step should be assessing the organisation itself - never allowing yourself simply to guess, since the world of corporate wear is increasingly unpredictable. "Companies include staff dress as an important part of marketing, and traditional ideas of what is the best way to market a business have changed beyond the old stereotypes," she explains.

She points to the way accountancy has recently adopted a rather maverick image, whereas IT - which has always been casual - is now moving towards mainstream formality. "A lot of work cultures are changing on a monthly basis," she adds. "I have never known it to be so dramatic. This is partly to do with the frequency of business take-overs, which often initiate an image change. And even from one consultancy to another, you'll find that rival firms differentiate themselves with their image."

Do not, however, assume a potential employer will offer information as it's another way they can test your resourcefulness. In fact, the recruitment agency Manpower has gone one step further during its selection of staff for the Millennium Dome exhibition, by refusing to provide any suggestions. "If they need advice on appearance at the selection stage, then they aren't necessarily the type of people we are looking for," says a spokesman, Stuart Neil. "They will already know that the job is front-facing, so that's an important point that should have been picked up on."

If you want to be really crafty, advises Mr Neil, then stand outside the prospective company and look at the staff as they come and go. In addition, whether an organisation's employees are expected to dress formally or informally can usually be gleaned from a company brochure.

"We usually advise people to find out as much as they can about the company culture," he says. "You can phone the personnel department with a series of questions: is it formal? Are people on first-name terms? Do you have a lot of hot desking? Are people referred to as colleagues or associates? Companies don't mind, and it shows that you take an interest. Nobody should go by a rule of thumb any more."

The good news is that nobody expects you to splash out on a different outfit for each interview. Mary Spillane, director of the Image consultancy firm Color Me Beautiful, offers some advice to building up a flexible interview wardrobe: "If you are on a tight budget, then get a smart, neutral- coloured suit in this season's shade.

"The trouser suit is the safest option these days for women, replacing the skirt. For a chap, go for a suit that is modern, without being too trendy. And think about how you can adapt your interview suit to various organisations."

Finally, here are a few pointers towards dressing for a successful outcome at your job interviews:

t Looking well-groomed is all in the detail - such as good shoes and a business bag.

t Don't attempt to go for smart- casual - it's a pretty meaningless phrase and is open to completely different interpretations.

t Be prepared to mask your personality slightly. It's possible to gauge the office culture and make it suit you.

t Don't be upstaged by a Mickey Mouse tie - it's not what you'll want the interviewer to remember 10 minutes later.

t Don't be overwhelming. For instance, if you're usually fashion conscious, then only wear one trendy item of clothing.

t With a foreign company, you can find out about it's etiquette and dress codes from guide books.

t Bare legs are always a big no-no - even in the summer, wear tan coloured tights.