Her thoughtful questions were,
1. How concerned do I need to be about looking credible (visually) to those who don't already know my work?
2. If credibility is borne in my appearance, how do I dress to look credible?
3. How does credible dovetail with chic?
In this context, I define "looking credible" as appearing convincing for the particular role.
Her e-mail was headed, "What's More Important, What She Wears or What She Does?" I don't see it as a dichotomy; instead, I'd ask, "When an interviewer meets you, what impression do you intend to make, and what will visually reinforce that?"
After decades spent working with both interviewers and candidates, my answers to the first two questions came readily. I considered C.'s field, qualifications (a recent PhD.) and location, which suggest a business or polished business-casual environment.
My answers are:
1. Be concerned about—and therefore attend to—your appearance unless they know and love you to bits and the interview is just a formality.
2. Appearance especially contributes to the impression of credibility in the initial meeting. Dress in a manner that reflects the norms of your profession and the organization who may hire you. If in doubt, follow the cues of the latter.
C. wondered if she could "get away" with no stockings; I replied, be careful about cutting a corner for one of the most important meetings of your career. Being more 'dressed up' than your interviewer is no error; after all, it's a job interview, where everyone knows you will be better-dressed and more nervous than on any other day except maybe your wedding, if you had one.
As I often advised candidates, "The first day at work is the interview."
A few more points from my reply:
1. Project vitality foremost
Employers don't want to hire anyone who looks tired, so a woman (or man) over 50 should project cues of vitality. If you peel back age discrimination—which is rampant—the fear employers have is not solely that older workers are obsolete, it's that we have less stamina.
To transmit vitality, the visual and movement cues include relatively average weight; overweight is OK but severe obesity telegraphs "here come the sick days" even if that's an inaccurate stereotype. What-Mom-taught-you grooming and posture, eye contact, a firm handshake and warm smile: all contribute to that sense of vitality.
You would think that's common sense, but I saw a highly-qualified fifty-something woman cut because she wore no lipstick to the interview; the comment was that she looked "limp". One coat of rose away from being short-listed! "Not fair", you might be thinking, and no it wasn't— but there were other good candidates, and she was passed by.
Judge for yourself; this is not the woman from the interview, yet there is a resemblance. She appears in Lisa Eldridge's video about how to apply makeup when you're mature. Look at the difference the lipstick alone makes.
Some 50+ job-seekers get fillers and lifts to compete with younger candidates. I can't make an accurate assessment whether this gives a proven advantage; it may boost the candidate's confidence.
2. Accept that in many organizations, you will be sartorially constrained, either because of the culture or work requirements
If you really cannot abide "looking the part", find one of the more freewheeling places or work from home.
Only a few business settings remain navy-suit bastions; a dress like Tara Jarmon's black floral shift would look stylish for many interviews, accessorized with a laptop bag, briefcase, or portfolio (not a purse) in good condition.
When Barbara Ehrenreich talked about her futile job search in "Bait and Switch", her book about white-collar unemployment, she wrote rather
disingenuously, "I guess I should have carried a briefcase instead of a grotty canvas tote bag". Yes, even if she had to borrow one. (Leather not required; the Graceship laptop bag shown is a high-quality "vegan leather".)
If in doubt, sit in the lobby and watch women leave, or enlist a friend who works in that city as your scout.
3. Be yourself, but your professional self
C. said "I...tend to be slightly flirty. I can't seem to squelch it nor do I really want to." She also noted that her field is "ruled by the masculine".
The coquette is not an ennobling stance in office life. I mentioned Christine Lagarde as a model of feminine yet authoritative business attire; we need not meet her posh price point, but her elegance is exemplary.
C. sent a thoughtful reply, saying she was going to adopt a "uniform" kind of wardrobe, inspired, interestingly, by a respected male colleague.
She also opened another topic, that of how easy it is to be disheartened and buy into the prejudice against women over 50 in the workplace.
That reminded me of my friend R., who, because of a health issue, was not working for about five years and after successful treatment wanted to re-enter corporate life at 50-plus. All her friends told her, Forget it, the corporation won't want you, find another line of work—and she ignored us. After a year or so of interviews and a few near-misses, she landed a VP position in a major global company, and a short time later was named Professional of the Year in her field. She graciously refrained from saying, So there!
She is but one of the women whom I know who, after years out of the workforce, have then found rewarding employment. (Starting your own business is another matter; there is no job interview, but that woman will still gain from projecting vitality.)
On Thursday I'll consider C.'s intriguing third question: How does credible dovetail with chic?