NEW YORK — Conventional wisdom is dress for the job you want, not the job you have. But what if you don't have a job at all?

Could you get one without the proper attire?

In theory, yes. Try telling that to an interviewer — or a job applicant — though.

"How you look really does matter because you never get a second chance to make a first impression," says Joi Gordon, CEO of the charitable organization Dress for Success, which has added to its own resume since it launched in 1997 providing interview suits to those who couldn't afford them. The group now additionally offers office clothes, image counseling, career guidance and financial planning to women looking to re-enter the work force.

A worker's wardrobe is more than window dressing. It can be a statement about her aspirations, Gordon says.

Looking good leads to feeling good, and you can wear that with pride every day, she adds.

Dress for Success started as a targeted response to the federal push for welfare-to-work programs. The New York office and skeleton staff matched suits with poor job seekers. Although the group now does so much more, Gordon says, "at the heart of it, the suit is an important part of how to land a job, but also how to keep a job."

Suits come from both personal and corporate donors. More than 600,000 people have been outfitted nationally, and during that process they've also learned about expectations, presentation and professionalism.

Cynthia Acevedo, who has held an administrative job in a legal staffing company for two years, says she might not have gotten it if she had shown up for the interview in the clothes she wore in her native Dominican Republic. Those styles were tight, colorful, casual separates. The culture in her New York office is much more conservative, with women wearing mostly black or gray skirt suits and pantyhose.

"I have changed my style ... that's one of the things I've learned through Dress for Success," says Acevedo. "That gave me confidence, boosted my energy."

She says she keeps her makeup neutral, hair neat and nails polished, too.

She's also learned about networking and financial planning from Dress for Success.

Beauty industry icon Bobbi Brown is a volunteer, sponsor and adviser for Dress for Success. She served as chairwoman for its gala this year, and has created fundraising products, including a blue ikat-print scarf ($42), and a beauty kit with eye shadows, lipstick, gloss and mascara ($60).

"Dress for Success is very close to my heart," Brown says. "It empowers women to be self-sufficient and take care of themselves. What I do every day is give women confidence through beauty, and Dress for Success is about confidence, too."

In hiring for her own business, Brown says she looks for can-do people, and that includes pulling it all together for the interview: appearance, punctuality and organization.

"You have five minutes to let people fall in love with you," she says.

Brown spends much of her time at fashion shows, in corporate meetings and on photo shoots, but one of her professional highlights each year is shooting the campaign for Dress for Success, she says. She hired one woman with an interest in cosmetology right on the spot.

It's a gift for her to be working with these driven, inspirational women, says Brown.

Wardrobe stylist Rahel Berihu also donates time, helping pull the outfits for women ahead of their interviews.

"Some of them walk in and they don't want to be there. They're ashamed to be there, but then they walk out and their head is up and they are ready to get that job," she says proudly.

The clothes are the vehicle for transition, says Berihu, who also talks with the women about where they want to go from there. While they're switching out sizes and colors, she'll ask some questions likely to come up in an interview, and add some reminders about good personal and professional habits.

There's a little pampering, too — and the women appreciate it.

"I try to treat them like a star. I will bring suits to the dressing room, mix and match for them, find out if they like wearing skirts or pants. ... And when I can give out an Armani suit — and we have those — it's a great day," she says.

"They look in a mirror and see someone they've never seen before. A suit is really a symbol of success," adds Gordon. "You've achieved some level of success when you have the suit of armor."

Some interview dressing tips:

—Learn as much as you can about the work environment ahead of time, Gordon says, and even ask about dress code as you are setting up the interview.

—Use accessories to stretch what you've got: Two suits can look like more when you change the scarf, color of the top, necklace or shoes.

—Err on the side of conservative, says Acevedo.

—Wear a neat coat and carry a professional-looking bag, Brown advises.

—Perfume should be kept simple and light, if worn at all, recommends Gordon.

—If it is a more casual industry, Gordon says, still wear a suit for the interview, and then mix the separates — use the black blazer with the gray skirt, and the gray jacket with black slacks — when you go back as an employee.