Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Which Is It? Clothes Make the (Wo)Man or Don't Judge a Book By Its Cover?

It seems like an odd thing to discuss on a blog about librarianship, but it turns out that how we dress as librarians is very important. Whether we're wearing sparkly, spangly, cute attire (as is appropriate for a children's librarian) or a three piece suit (more de rigueur for a law librarian), how we dress at work is more important than you think.

And I do think about it, probably more than I should. You see, back when I was a baby librarian, I looked much younger than I was. Up until a year after I started working at that college library, faculty and staff would occasionally assume that I was a student upon first meeting me. Further, the situation wasn't helped by the fact that we attracted a lot of non-traditional students. As a result, I dressed excruciatingly professionally everyday. Forget about wearing jeans, I didn't even wear slacks that often. The school was in semi-rural Southern Vermont, but rare was the day that found me wearing anything but high heels. I even dressed more upscale than my director on occasion. I was trying to make a point with my apparel: I wasn't a student and I didn't want anyone mistaking me for one.

I'm no longer mistaken for a student (I think the silvery-grey streaks in my dark brown hair are to blame), but I'm still trying to make a point with what I wear. Things have changed, though. I can't remember the last time I wore high heels. In fact, I practically  live in my Dansko clogs. I wear jeans at least once per week, sometimes more (caveat: I always wear my jeans with a fancy top). Heck, I've even been known to wear t-shirts with graphics to events I run for students. I dress much more casually than I'd ever have considered at my previous institution. The difference is that instead of trying to stand out, as I did back then, here I'm trying to blend in... with the faculty. The combination of jeans with a white, buttoned down shirt is worn so frequently in some academic departments that it could pass for a uniform. Sure, there are some members of the faculty who always come to work wearing suit coats and ties (I'm looking at you, Political Science), but that isn't the norm on my campus. I dress with the campus norm in mind.

The common factor between how I dressed as a brand new librarian and how I dress now is that my work clothes are always a reflection of campus culture. I've never actually liked the adage, "Don't judge a book by its cover," because I do that everyday as a librarian. Instead, I believe that clothes do indeed make the man or woman, and I dress accordingly.

How about you? How do you pick what you wear to work (or school)?


  1. I try not to look like a student (I have already been mistaken for one multiple times) at the HS where I teach. I always wear dresses or skirts, usually with sandals (this makes me different from the students who wear sneakers, uggs, rain boots, etc.-- somehow sandals are "out"?) - never short skirts or low-cut tops. The teachers at the school follow an unstated "dress casual" dress code for the most part. I feel like I am usually more "dressed up" than the students and in the mid-range of "dressed up" for faculty.

    When I first started working here one of the faculty's partners told me that I dressed like an old maid and I should dress "younger." I think this was borderline sexual harassment, if not outright, and it still bothers me, but I don't follow that terrible advice.

  2. I too am often mistaken for a student or work study at the small college where I teach. Our dress code is pretty business-strict (no graphic tees, jeans only on Fridays, etc.), and I try to dress as professionally as possible to set myself apart from the student populace: trousers, blouses, vests, heels or wedges. I wear more makeup than I used to as well.

    I'm hoping my next library job will have a looser dress code. I like my Batgirl and Jurassic Park shirts!

  3. I've been here for six years, and I'm still aiming for "not a student" - but in my case that mostly just means no jeans/t-shirts/tennis shoes.

  4. I picked librarianship so I'd never have to wear a suit. Then I discovered the world of Library IT and I've never thought about my clothes since.

  5. I wear slacks & a tie every day (no tie on Friday). I don't interact with public, but I find people treat me better because I dress professionally. Especially true out of the office like grocery store stop on way home.

  6. @Jessica, yikes about that comment. It's odd how often those borderline sexual harassment type comments still happen in what is supposed to be a painfully P.C. age.

    @Diana, I've worn my Batgirl top to work once or twice, but always for an event I'm running for students.

    @Katherine, I can achieve "not a student" here by not wearing ripped jeans or shorts with Uggs. Much easier than at my previous library.

    @bibliotechy, I know so many directors who wear suits every day. As I consider my next career step, one of the big costs I see is having to dress more formally.

    @J Shore, exactly. I dress like faculty so that group will treat me more like one of their own (and they do at this institution).

  7. I, too, found myself overdressing when I first started as a professional librarian- always wearing a button-down shirt and tie, even during the hot summer months. Even though none of my male colleagues dressed as formally, I felt the need to mark my passage from the paraprofessional ranks somehow.

    Nowadays I'm a bit more relaxed, dressing up when the occasion calls for it but otherwise keeping it casual. This, too, is a reflection of who I am at this stage in my career- more comfortable with myself, with less to prove.

    I wonder what the next sartorial phase of my professional life will look like, or (more importantly) whether or not I'll be able to afford it...

  8. At 4' 11", I get mistaken for a student if I'm not clearly in an "authority" position (e.g. behind the reference desk). I'm so used to it, that it doesn't bother me. I usually laugh it off.

    I think how one dresses is important. Dress should be appropriate to the situation and to one's personality. I use work to dress for one side of my personality, so I tend to dress up more than I do for non-work days, but I always try to wear clothes that allow me to feel comfortable and confident. For me this means washable dress pants that fit as comfortably as jeans, a dressy knit top, flats or boots, interesting jewelry, and slightly creative eye make-up. I'm a little dressed up based on what the other woman workers wear (stretch "dress" pants, knit tops, and sandals), but I try to be sure I don't go too far overboard.


  9. I work in a large (non academic) organisation. The geeks (who, as we all know, rule the world) wear jeans and t-shirts. The seniors wear snappy suits. I pick something in the middle, and wear a skirt and heels. It's probably a bit shallow, but I find the nicer the clothes and shoes I wear, the more confident and professional I feel.


  10. I work in a public library children's room, and I strive to dress professionally. I often feel overdressed compared to my coworkers, but I feel better about presenting myself as a professional, rather than wearing worn out khakis and a polo shirt. I want to stand out from the patrons, and I want the patrons and my coworkers to see me as a professional who takes her job seriously.

  11. @Tom, I know what you mean about that next step. *gulp*

    @R, you're right. I laugh when someone mistakes me for a student these days. I sometimes even take it as a compliment.

    @jothelibrarian, I agree. Professional dress can help me feel more professional, and when I'm going to be around parents or around trustees, I dress up to get that extra boost of confidence.

    @rachelnk, That's the other side of it. When I dress professorial, I FEEL professorial.

  12. I'm a Children's Libarian and I'm in a habit of wearing jeans almost every day (always with a nice top), partly because lots of my dress pants are on the thin side and better suited for summer. I also never know when I'll be on hands and knees digging books out from under shelves or reconnecting cables under the computer tables.