Massive shoulder-pads are a no-no, although tulip skirts could be a bonus, says a style consultant. Susannah Kirkman discovers the shape you should be in for an interview
What should women wear to that all-important job interview? The experts agree that, although a jacket is compulsory, shoulder-pads are out.
"Massive shoulder-pads would be a minus," says Jan Goodwin, a style consultant who trains teachers in personal presentation. "The image mustn't come over too sharply; teachers need to remember that they're in a caring profession. The main problem for teachers is that they haven't had a professional dress code since they threw out their gowns and mortar boards."
Mrs Goodwin believes that women should try to dress formally for an interview, but avoid suits that make them look like traffic wardens. "Competing in a man's world doesn't mean you've got to look like a man. A woman's body shape doesn't always lend itself to a suit. Larger ladies look far better in slightly shaped jackets and tulip-shaped skirts."
Don't scoff. Research shows that the right jacket could make all the difference. Women wearing jackets project an authoritative and knowledgeable image, according to a study published in the journal Perceptual and Motor Skills. The researchers gave management students four drawings of a woman wearing four very conventional, plain outfits. The only difference was that in two of the drawings the woman was wearing a jacket, either over a dress or with a matching skirt.
The woman was rated as more powerful when she was wearing a jacket than when she wasn't. "Women should wear a jacket to convey an aura of power," the researchers conclude. "It is the jacket, rather than the entire suit, that is the important component in the female uniform."
But the main message from psychologists is that you shouldn't try to mask your personality with clothes. "Try to dress the way you are, but make sure it's a professional presentation," says Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology. "If your appearance is inconsistent with who you are, the interviewers will get the wrong message about you."
Professor Cooper advises women to avoid heavy make-up and chunky jewellery. "Don't present yourself in a way that will give men the chance to discount you. You might ask, 'Why should I have to dress in a different way', but in a profession where there is a glass ceiling the way women present themselves is extremely important."
"It is very important for your personality to come over," insists Sue Johnson (not her real name), deputy head at a Hampshire secondary school. "If you suppress yourself too much, you won't get the job anyway."
When she was interviewed for her present job, Sue Johnson wore a well-cut yellow jacket over a navy skirt. "It isn't the conventional idea of appropriate interview dress, but it would be wrong to go in something you didn't like wearing as you would feel self-conscious," she says. "Afterwards one of the panel told me, 'As soon as you walked through the door, I knew you would get the job'."
Mrs Johnson believes women must tread a fine line between expressing their personality and conforming to the expectations of the interviewing panel, which is usually conservative and predominantly male. She advises against short skirts, trousers and high-fashion outfits.
"Whatever you wear must be business-like and formal," agrees Rae Ansley, who teaches textiles and fashion and has co-written a booklet of advice for interviewees, Apply Yourself, published by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. "You want to be memorable for the right reasons." She thinks trouser suits are acceptable, providing they are crisply cut.
Jan Goodwin suggests a careful combination of colours for an interview; a red suit could come over as too strident.
Comfort is important, according to Jan Christie, head of Crofton Hammond Infants' School near Fareham, Hampshire. "If you're giving a presentation, you need to be able to move around easily and feel that your clothes fit well, " she says. "And as interviews can be pretty stressful, it's better not to wear anything too hot or bulky." Low-heeled shoes are the most suitable, as long as they're not frumpy.
Immaculate grooming is essential. "I'd like someone to look as if they'd taken a lot of trouble with their appearance," says Monica Galt, head of King's Road primary school in Old Trafford, Manchester, who has interviewed many would-be deputy heads in her time. "Smart make-up and tasteful jewellery are important. I wouldn't want someone who looked drab. Children relate better to someone with personality."
It is, however, a mistake to go out and buy an "interview outfit", Sue Johnson believes. "If you already have a good professional wardrobe, you will find it easy to choose something appropriate. It's important to dress up for your pupils as well as for interview panels. It's good to present children with a positive, business-like image."
Information on training courses in personal presentation and interview skills in the Southampton area from: Maureen Bromley-Smith, Southampton and New Forest Education-Business Partnership (tel 01703 237662)