Not much is more depressing than gazing into your closet a few days before a job interview and thinking, "There is nothing here that I can wear.
"But I have no money."
These days, with college graduates hitting the job market in time to compete with employees laid off in the recession, thousands of people like Joan Borgealt of Hampstead are surveying their wardrobes and scratching their heads.
"We had a consulting firm come in and tell us how to write resumes," says the systems analyst who is job hunting after being laid off by USF&G. "We kind of wished they had told us what to wear and how to wear it. I mean, is dress-for-success still the suit with the little bow tie?"
Whether starting out or starting over, the basic rule for what to wear to most job interviews is simple and similar for men and women: "Go classic," says Michele Morris, buyer for Caren Charles stores.
Classic means gray, navy or pinstripe suits for men and usually leaning-toward-conservative suits for women. "Depending on what you're interviewing for, it's better to go in conservative than not," says Susan Bixler, author of "The Professional Image."
"The interviewers figure that's the best you're ever going to look."
Sometimes, however, the problem isn't just what to wear -- but also how to pay for it. As Ms. Borgealt puts it, "This is not the time to spend all your money on a new wardrobe."
With that in mind, we asked fashion experts for advice on how to put together a respectable interview wardrobe -- as well as how to outfit yourself for those first few months on the job -- without hawking the house, the dog, the kids and your college textbooks.
* No matter how budget conscious you are, say experts, sometimes it might be wise to spend a little -- for an interview outfit -- to gain a lot -- a job.
"Recognize that most of us try to buy quantity, not quality. We try to get as much as we can for our money and that's a mistake," says Ms. Bixler.
"You need to invest in the best suit you can buy," she adds. "It is so much better to repeat a quality outfit than go in on the second day with another cheap suit."
* Don't be afraid to try bargain stores or outlet malls, she says. "Quality doesn't mean you can't get bargains."
But do some research. Check out the outlets, look for good quality name brands.
Educate yourself about top labels: "Go to upper-end stores, look at garments, look at fabrics, look at the labels. Then when you warehouse shop, look for those labels."
If you can't find labels that you recognize, look at the details (seams, how the jacket falls) in the garment to see if it is well-made.
* Try to buy seasonless clothing. "A part of everyone's wardrobe should be year-round -- that's investment," says Lee Hogan Cass, national fashion merchandise director for Sears.
By that she means easy-to-care-for, lightweight materials such as some polyester and poly-blend fabrics that "don't feel like polyester," she says.
For men, suits that tend to be in plain-weave fabrics and are of a 9-ounce-per-yard weight are most versatile, says Michael Weppner, vice president of men's tailored clothing at Jos. A. Bank Clothiers.
* Pay attention to grooming details.
So what if you're not wearing a Chanel suit? Is your hair neat, your shoes polished, nails short and clean (for women, "a quarter inch is plenty long," says Ms. Bixler. And no colored polish.)
* Analyze your closet. See if there's anything that can be %J updated or paired with a new item to make a complete look. "I just had a suit restyled and I did two things. I had it hemmed to right directly below the knee," says Ms. Bixler. "And it was double-breasted: I took the two buttons off and put on six buttons. It looks like a brand new suit."
For women: * Try on a lot of suits before you choose one. Women's suits this year are increasingly varied and feminine with fashionable jackets, either cropped or long. Make sure your suit suits you: "The styles are shaped for different bodies," Ms. Morris says.
"If you're hippy, don't wear a short jacket. Go longer for a long and slenderizing line." Shorter jackets will flatter a petite woman.
High fashion suits have increased interest with bright colors (even color blocking), piping and brightly colored buttons. However, experts recommend staying away from the trendy looks -- and buying a classic outfit that can be worn year after year. (After you get the job, watch for the trendy looks to go on sale.)
* Before buying the suit, look at it critically. A lot rests on its shoulders: "The body of the suit hangs from the shoulder pads -- if the shoulder pad feels flimsy, take another look at the suit," Ms. Morris says.
"It should drape very nicely from the shoulder, no pulling, the sleeves should be hanging straight when your arms are down."