What to Wear When You're Not Sure What to Wear

(U.S. Marine Corps/Lance Cpl. Erick J. Claros Villalta

Question: This might seem trivial, but I'm struggling to put together a "look" for my post-military career. I don't know what to wear to job interviews, networking events or even social gatherings. How can I know what's appropriate to wear?

Answer: The challenge of knowing how to dress isn't unique to the military-to-civilian transition. Many civilians struggle with what to wear to business-related functions, how to project their sense of style and what's fashionable. When you exit the military, where uniforms clearly indicate what's to be worn, the wardrobe question can be difficult.

While your post-military look might need developing, consider that how you present yourself (your wardrobe, style, use of colors and texture, and outfit choices) will tell someone a lot about who you are. They'll form quick opinions about your professionalism, approachability and even sense of humor by how you look. This is human nature; we often judge on appearances.

Let's look at some guidelines for the situations you indicate:


  • Make sure your clothes fit. Tailor clothing to fit your body.
  • Some clothing pieces need updating. Clothing can be seasonal (light, linen fabrics that are appropriate for summer, for example) and trendy (lapel widths, hem heights and patterns can vary). If you've had an item for a long time, check whether it's still in style.
  • Repair items that have become torn, worn or broken. If you think no one will notice the hole in the jacket or the frayed seam on the pants, you might be wrong.
  • Wear items that make you feel great. Just because someone in the store told you it was a good look on you, don't buy it if you feel uncomfortable or awkward.

Job Interviews

  • This occasion requires professionalism. Even if it's a video meeting, dress the part. Consider the company culture, the status of the job and how to project confidence. You'll never go wrong dressing above the station of the role, as it shows respect for the interviewer and the process. Consider the setting, too: If you're interviewing on a construction site, for instance, and you wear high heels with a dress, you could be uncomfortable.
  • Don't try a new look for this occasion. A new hairstyle, outfit choice or bold color can make you self-conscious. Stick to choices that you're comfortable with.
  • Avoid logos or bold jewelry. These could be distracting to the interviewer who's trying to assess you as a candidate.
  • Since you might be nervous for the interview, consider wearing dark colors. Dark-colored clothing hides perspiration and stains (if you grab coffee on your way).
  • When in doubt, go neutral. A coordinating tie and shirt with a traditionally styled gray or navy suit (men) won't fail. For women, consider a tailored dress with coordinating jacket and modest jewelry to keep the focus on you, not on what you're wearing.
  • If you embrace bright colors, bold patterns, accessories and more, remember that too much of a good thing can overwhelm and distract. The focus should be on you and your fit for the position and company.

Networking Meetings

  • Many people come to networking meetings straight from work, so you might see attendees in professional attire. Wear what you feel comfortable in and strive for a look that is welcoming and polished. Even if you dress casually, resist the temptation to try to make too much of a statement with what you're wearing.
  • Minimize accessories that make noise or are bothersome. Some jewelry can jingle or click and could be distracting.
  • Pockets can be helpful if you aim to bring business cards to hand out to new contacts.

Social Gatherings

  • Here, you might feel like letting more of your personality show through. Continue to be mindful of wearing anything that could be off-putting, as this sets a first impression. A T-shirt with provocative statements or overly revealing clothing could turn off a potential networking contact.
  • If the event invitation indicates a dress code, such as "business casual" or "cocktail attire," ask others what's appropriate. Different venues, regions of the country and event types might require different outfits. For example, "cocktail attire" at a country club on the East Coast could mean a tea-length fancy dress and heels, whereas in the Midwest, such a dress code could indicate a more relaxed look.

Whatever the occasion, whatever your wardrobe budget, wear your clothes with confidence. A self-assured posture can make any outfit look right.

The author of "Success After Service: How to Take Control of Your Job Search and Career After Military Duty" (2020) and "Your Next Mission: A personal branding guide for the military-to-civilian transition" (2014), Lida Citroën is a keynote speaker and presenter, executive coach, popular TEDx speaker and instructor of multiple courses on LinkedIn Learning. She regularly presents workshops on personal branding, executive presence, leadership communication, and reputation risk management.

A contributing writer for Military.com, Lida is a passionate supporter of the military, volunteering her time to help veterans transition to civilian careers and assist employers who seek to hire military talent. She regularly speaks at conferences, corporate meetings and events focused on military transition.

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