Suit yourself

You've earned the degree. You've polished that resume. You've practiced your interview answers. But what are you going to wear?

Whether you're a new graduate or an experienced worker in a career transition, picking the right suit can be a major investment and a major source of stress.

But it doesn't have to be.

We asked fashion directors at some of the nation's top suit-sellers, as well as style experts, for their advice on selecting the perfect suit for your body — and your life.

What colors and styles are best for women? Must the pieces match?

"Traditionally when it comes to suits, bottoms and tops match," says Tom Julian, Nordstrom trend expert. That includes matching fabric as well as matching details and construction elements. A suit should reflect your lifestyle and personality, experts agree, so if you're more comfortable in pants, go for the pantsuit. Traditionally, the skirt suit has been the more formal option, but if you're uncomfortable in skirts, a pantsuit will be appropriate for any situation.

If you're after a classic suit that can be worn for years, go for a two-button notch lapel jacket with an A-line skirt that reaches to the knee or a flat-front trouser, Julian says. Stay away from high-fashion looks like wide pant legs or

balloon skirts.

Aim for suits made from classic lightweight stretch wool fabric. The lining should have stretch as well.

Kate Leser, image consultant and president of A Distinctive Image in Raleigh, N.C., says your first suit should be navy or deep gray. "Those are your most authoritative colors," she says. Be careful choosing black, Leser warns, as it doesn't work with every skin tone.

I've already got some staple suits in my closet. What are some trendier options?

Designers are hot this season for suits with short cropped jackets, trousers with one pleat and a fuller or ultra-slim leg, says Claudia Scala, vice president of merchandising for Brooks Brothers.

And you can add color — a blushy rose or a deep burgundy — if you already have that staple gray, navy or black suit in your closet.

Suits with embellishments also can be fun in creative industries. Unique buttons and zippers or ruffled lapels can be statement-makers. Just be prepared to put them away when the trend is over.

How do I personalize a suit to make it more feminine?

Know your audience, Leser advises.

If you work in a creative industry or are hunting for a job in a creative field, go for a blouse and accessories with embellishments and texture. Shoes in exotic skins or suede, a trendy purse or a colorful scarf can make a statement and be easily changed according to the season and trend.

Tone it down if you're headed for a job in a conservative industry like finance or government. But that doesn't mean you can't let your personality shine through.

"If you're a natural person, look for natural jewelry like wood beading or things that kind of evoke nature that you can wear with that classic suit," Leser says. "Perhaps a rattan woven shoe."

If you've got a dramatic personality, unique pins or earrings, or a shoe in a dramatic color can work.

"Try a dark brown suit with a robin's-egg blue," she says. "It's unexpected but it still works."

How do I know if the fit is right?

Many times, a suit will require some tailoring. Rarely does a suit fit a woman right off the hanger, experts say.

Skirts should fall either at the knee or an inch above or below, Leser says. "You want the skirt to fall at the narrowest part of the leg, and typically that's right below the knee." Conversely, those with super-thin legs should wear skirts that end at a wider part of the leg, like the beginning of the calf.

The suit jacket should lay flat across the shoulders and allow you to move your arms freely. The sleeves should end a half-inch below the wrist, Leser says. "That half an inch makes the difference between a polished suit and one that looks sloppy."

The most flattering suits follow the body's natural contours.

Tips for buying a man's suit

The current trend for men, fashion experts say, is a two-button suit with side vents and flat-front pants. But don't worry if your suit doesn't fall into that specification.

"Fashion for men moves at glacial speed compared to women," says Paul Simon, who opened his first upscale men's clothing store in Charlotte in 1975.

What's most important, experts say, is the way a suit fits. Simon's tips include:

* The jacket should hug the back of your neck and should lie perfectly across the back and the shoulders.

* The sleeves should end at the "break" of your wrist. You should have about a quarter-inch to a half-inch of shirtsleeve showing below the jacket sleeve.

* The hem of your pants should break over the top of your shoe.

* The shoulder of the jacket should end right at the end of your shoulder. Don't wear a jacket that has too much shoulder padding or comes out past the shoulders.

* Sleeves should hang flat without ripples.

* The jacket should not pull when buttoned.

"Men don't want to stand out. They don't want to be the one who's different," says Simon. "There's a saying: If you remember the suit, it was too loud."