Open Thread Thursday: Fashion Police

All things DO keep getting better…

Last Saturday, there was some drama about the ACRL closing keynote speaker, Clinton Kelly. The host of the television show What Not To Wear was the subject of discussion as to why there was a non-librarian chosen to give a keynote at a major conference and the subject of fashion within the library community.

In tackling the first point, I don’t see the problem with having a non-librarian give a keynote. We invite authors to do it all the time; as Clinton was there as part of his book tour (which knocks down his speaking fee to dirt cheap), it sounds like business as usual to me. I would certainly hope that we could get more non-librarians to speak at our conferences. And for that matter, why not someone controversial? Why not speakers like PZ Myers, Rick Warren, Al Franken, or Bill O’Reilly? For a profession that proudly touts how libraries should contain material that is potentially offensive to everyone, the inclination to pick the least offensive speaker seems to be a conference norm. Break out of the echo chamber, people.

In addressing the second point, I’ll just relate my experience. When I started, I just wore some inexpensive dress shoes, a button down shirt, and khakis or slacks to work. After a couple of months, the attire really made me feel (for lack of a better term) unprofessional. I felt like I was dressed for a high school presentation. In looking to add something, I bought a few pairs of decent dress shoes as well as added sweaters and sweater vests to my wardrobe. In coming to work, I felt that I presented more like a professional. I’m thinking about taking another step and adding ties and vests to my wardrobe to give me some other options (especially in the summer). I’ve come a long ways from the grungy jeans and flannels of commercial nursery work.

I know that my attire works for me as an adult services librarian at a branch library; it may not work as well with other jobs and positions within the library. The point I am reaching for is that there is a benefit to both dressing and looking the part within the profession. The attire works towards self-image and self-confidence; it also influence how the public perceives the librarian. Like it or not, personal appearance matters and it is judged; how librarians come across in those initial non-speaking moments matters as a first impression. You really don’t get a second chance for that.

So, pick your comment poison: non-librarian speakers at conferences or the fashion of the profession. And let’s hear it.

28 thoughts on “Open Thread Thursday: Fashion Police

  1. “The attire works towards self-image and self-confidence; it also influence how the public perceives the librarian. Like it or not, personal appearance matters and it is judged; how librarians come across in those initial non-speaking moments matters as a first impression.”

    Rock on, Andy. I was at the Clinton Kelly address, and what struck me was how in tune the audience was with him. He was genuinely nice and only playfully snarky on a couple of occasions. And what you wrote above actually very succinctly summarizes his main point.

    I found it extremely odd that several librarians on Twitter who were criticizing his selection as the final keynote speaker for ACRL were NOT THERE. As I tweeted (@reffervescent) on April 2: “some criticizing him weren’t even there. Wonder how they deal w/ book challenge from patron who hasn’t read book?”

    • This reminds me how people gasp when they are asked if they are volunteers or paid to be a librarian. I do sometimes wonder what they were wearing at the time when they are asked because I think that can be a factor.

      To be fair, I’ve been asked this when I’m wearing my slightly fancier work attire. But I can’t help but wonder if they were in a decorative sweatshirt or something at the time.

      • It does have to do with appearance, sometimes not related to fashion. Ex. Although I “dress the part,” I ‘ve been told I look/sound younger than I am. I’ve had people ask me to my face to speak to an actual librarian. Once, on the phone, a fellow co-worker (at another library on campus) asked to speak to someone in charge!

  2. It isn’t that he is a non-book typey kind of guy nor is it that I’m deriding on people’s personal choice of dress (for some reason, many thought it necessary to describe their current clothing options to me when defending Mr. Kelly’s appearance, which I think is irrelevant to the point).

    My first issue has been, and remains, Mr. Kelly’s presence AND the topic he spoke about (which was given to me by various people who did indeed attend) was sexist in the context that it is framed. Why is it it sexist? Because you have a someone speaking of body issues and dress/fashion at a predominately woman’s conference, albeit it may be a professional conference. You would NOT see this happening it at a conference were more gender equalized or predominately male.

    I was poo-pooed by many that I’m taking his appearance (pun intended) at ACRL too literally – and I just don’t believe I am. Which brings up my second issue is that almost every librarian I’ve ever met in the last two years has always made some sort of commentary either in jest or in seriousness about breaking the stereotype and here comes someone, presenting at the conference who specializes in telling people what to wear for a living, and his presence is solidifying the stereotype even more so of the frumpy librarian (by telling them what to wear), even more poignant to a conference geared specifically for academic librarians who are the tightest of the bunch (joke implied). This just boggled my mind.

    Finally, someone else pointed out to me that in a time when libraries are facing their worst budget cuts, branches are closing, jobs are being made redundant, and etc – it just seems incredibly frivolous to have a style guru present a semi-major conference.

    I’ve also heard, privately, from those who were at ACRL or those thinking of joining ARCL are either not renewing their memberships or joining. Many are taking Kelly’s appearance as an insult to the profession and are protesting by leaving ACRL or not joining, period.

    Many people seem to think my anger at this decision is personal jab against them and it isn’t in the slightest and I want to point out, I never said anything that could be construed as such. This is just another item in a long list of things about this profession that drives me insane. For every 2 steps forward, it’s 5 steps back. We fight to be considered professional whether due to the right to earn a masters, make better wages, have better working conditions, etc etc. Really, librarianship has a lot to learn from the women’s movement. Seriously.

    • As to the statement “You would NOT see this happening it at a conference were more gender equalized or predominately male”, Clinton did speak to meeting of the American Chemical Society American Historical Society. I’m willing to bet that they are *not* female dominated conferences. (Call it a hunch.)

      Even then, my present understanding is that academic librarianship is on a closer gender parity than public or school librarianship which continue to be female dominated. (Someone can refute me on that one.)

      Still, I still don’t see the sexism you are referring to unless you mean to say that a male fashion expert cannot speak about body issues or fashion to a female dominated professional conference. From what I read (and I wasn’t there as well), I didn’t realize he specifically addressed female body issues; the tweets and notes I saw made it sound general.

      As to your second point, I’m unsure how a closing keynote speaker has set back the urge or inclination as to break the librarian stereotype. And as much as you wish to harp on the idea that Clinton is telling people what to wear (which happens to be his profession), I’m pretty sure that anyone in that audience can very easily ignore that advice as well. This notion that he has descended down from some sort of fashion Mt Sinai to hand out the Ten Couture Commandments is absurd.

      As a followup, in these two years of anecdotal research, are you saying that everytime people said they wanted to break the stereotype, they meant fashion one?

      As to people who are not renewing their ACRL membership because of Clinton Kelly, do you really think that this was the turning point for that decision? I would wager dollars to donuts that they were on their way out of the organization anyway and this was just yet another thing to toss on the dissatisfaction pile.

      Who are these people anyway? If they really are insulted, then they have chosen to suffer in silence. It’s probably a good idea because the idea that they would quit over a closing keynote speaker at one conference is pretty damned stupid. I wouldn’t want to know who these thin skinned vain delicate flowers are because, if a fashion expert speaking is an insult, I can’t imagine them stooping to the drudgery of committee work.

      You’ll have to explain this ’2 steps forward, 5 steps back’ thing because I’m not really sure where it is going. I presume it is on the long list of items that drive you insane. Like male fashion experts.

      • Clinton did speak to meeting of the American Chemical Society American Historical Society. I’m willing to bet that they are *not* female dominated conferences. I can’t find reference to the American Chemical Society Historical Society. Can you provide a link? The big question would be, did he discuss the exact same topic fashion/style advice with the chemists as he did with librarians? My hunch would be no.

        Still, I still don’t see the sexism you are referring to unless you mean to say that a male fashion expert cannot speak about body issues or fashion to a female dominated professional conference. It’s sexism when he’s gearing his topic (fashion style) to pander to a specific audience (mainly female librarians) that will not be duplicated anywhere else. And from the reports people were tweeting, it was beyond general self-image, huggy feel good stuff to female body image (models are freaks of nature, etc).

        This notion that he has descended down from some sort of fashion Mt Sinai to hand out the Ten Couture Commandments is absurd. Oh, I never implied that at all. :) But it is irony that not only yourself but others were blathering about his techniques and suggestions after the keynote. Huh, isn’t that interesting.

        As to people who are not renewing their ACRL membership because of Clinton Kelly, do you really think that this was the turning point for that decision? That’s a good question for the populace on their decisions. Mine is more financial based, really. Money is tight. Personally, I’m dropping numerous professional associations as I’m no longer a student, thus I do not get the cut-rate pricing anymore. My job does not provide monies to supplement so I’m making sure what I join will be beneficial. I was on the fence about joining ACRL, now, I’m not so sure.

        No one was suffering in silence.

        I wouldn’t want to know who these thin skinned vain delicate flowers are because, if a fashion expert speaking is an insult, I can’t imagine them stooping to the drudgery of committee work. Oh, you make me giggle Andy, really you do.

        I’m a big fan of WNTW:UK version. I’m not opposed to being girly. I’m not opposed to bringing non-library related people to conferences as long as they can make a connection to the audience they are speaking to. I just don’t see Kelly in that role.

        I continually told people that if they got something out of it, fanfreakingatastic. No sarcasm implied. I just do not agree with this choice.

        I’m going to assume your last point is sarcasm since you continually discuss, whether on FB/blog/etc about the roles of various librarian-based organizations and profession itself are continually screwing themselves over whether in advocacy or whatever.

          • Interesting that for as often as you malign AL, you have zero problems using her as the reference. Also even more interesting AL stated much of what I was “harping” on.

            I’m also willing to bet, dollars to donuts, that at those particular conferences, he didn’t make it a point to discuss that models are a freak of nature nor that you don’t have to be a size 00 to be happy.

            • Malign doesn’t mean I won’t cite. That would be rude. I read people I don’t agree with so I have better understandings of their positions and my own.

              You keep using the word “interesting” as if it was an actual counterpoint or a substitute for content. Why don’t you write up a blog post to explain your stance rather than allude or insinuate points in your replies to me? I’d like to hear a more detailed explanation as to the sexism, the aforementioned laments about breaking the stereotype, the people (like yourself) who are on the fence about ACRL membership because of one keynote speaker, and the “2 steps forward, 5 steps back” list you mentioned in your first reply.

              I’m serious because I think your view is better suited for something larger than a comment box to me.

              • I have roughly 75% completed blog entry in draft form that I’ve been working on and off this past week that addresses the points, in depth, the I’ve made here. I’m woefully behind on currency of my own blog, which I have zero problem admitting to anyone.

                My intention was to never highjack your blog but thanks for politely to tell me to go away. :)

                • Lisa, I could never tell you to go away because you wouldn’t actually leave. ;P

                  I am looking forward to reading your blog post. I’ll add it as a link to the bottom of this post.

  3. I was so hoping that you would blog about this…I was there, and I would defend the selection of Clinton Kelly as final keynote speaker on the grounds that it was pure genius. This was my first ACRL conference, and I am currently working in the public sector, not academia. I was only able to attend two days–Friday and Saturday–however, by virtually all accounts, this was one of the best ACRL conferences ever with regard to content, usefulness, socialization, etc. What better way to end a conference bursting with educational information geared toward the scholarly than with a little frivolity? Something unexpected, a bit out of place, and very entertaining. Much of the content of the conference had to do with the changing environment of libraries. If we want to accept change as a profession, shouldn’t we be able to at least listen to input from everyone from all areas of life about anything and everything? Listening doesn’t mean accepting what’s been said, it just means being open to new and different ideas that push us out of our comfort zone. Judging by the laughter in the room and participation by attendees, I think many if not most people there were just along for a fun ride. This is a great example of how we can take ourselves too seriously.

    As far as sexism, I just don’t see it. I did see one Tweet from a male who indicated that when Clinton Kelly signed his book, he told him that he wished he had known there were more men in the audience before the lights went up for Q&A. So while much of what Kelly said was geared toward women, I think that might have been different had he known the composition of the audience.

    I think his advice to dress in a manner that shows the world how you believe you deserve to be treated was excellent, as well as noting that comfortable shoes do not have to look like baked potatoes. : )

  4. I was at Clinton Kelly’s address – and I’m a public librarian (there I said it). As someone who has seen more than one episode of What Not To Wear, I can tell you that the issue is not librarian stereotypes or what the latest style is, it is self esteem. You could tell from the questions that people ARE either unhappy or uncomfortable about aspects of their appearance and realize that, as they get dressed in the morning, they are choosing to deliver a certain message about themselves and that message may be scrambled as they are currently portraying themselves.
    Regarding male librarians, more than one got up with a question. One memorable question from a male librarian was “how do you feel about facial hair, particularly if you have a round face and a double chin like me?” (his answer -until yesterday, I had a beard since I was on vacation so I feel fine about facial hair. And, look at my double chin!). Some might have thought this was so much fluff, but honestly, our appearance (and our body language and our tone of voice and …..) are the message we are delivering.
    As you describe the evolution of your dress, Andy, I think about my own. I dressed differently as a children’s librarian than when I became a director. And, in the early years of my directorhood, I dressed differently than I do now, as I am more confident in my role. But, I would no more go to a meeting in City Hall in jeans than I would garden in high heels.
    Clinton told the audience to embrace their weaknesses and strengths, to think about if they are accurately representing themselves in their dress and to be bold. That is a valuable message for anyone.
    What I thought might have been particularly interesting is to have Clinton and Jaron Lanier (the 8:30 am speaker) in a dialogue! ;-)

    • I also thought Clinton had some good points:

      1) Clothes are designed for models on manikins with size 00 waist and equally proportional shoulders and hips (a rarity in the real world)-choose clothes that fit you and make you feel confident instead of what marketers/advertisers say you should wear.

      2) Invest in tailoring/expensive labels aren’t everything. A cheaper suit that fits you well can look better on you than a woman wearing off the rack Versace.

  5. I have one more thing to add since someone mentioned jeans. I’ve had a gripe about this for a long time. I contend that jeans–the right jeans–can look just as professional (or more so) than other attire that may be considered more acceptable in the workplace just because it’s not jeans. You can dress up a pair of jeans with the right shoes and a tailored blazer and look more professional than someone in sloppy or ill-fitting trousers that are technically within the realm of professional attire because they are not jeans. I think jeans can be appropriate in the workplace if worn correctly. And I have not said this very well, but hopefully you get my point.

  6. Professionalism is manufactured, it only matters because we’re taught to believe that someone’s appearance is a good indicator of how they act, work and are as a human being. The concept of “professionalism” is mired in our societies’ prejudices. Don’t look too SLUTTY, don’t look too GHETTO, don’t look too POOR, don’t look too MILITANT, don’t look too GAY… etc. Try to look attractive or you won’t get promoted. Don’t look too attractive or people won’t take you seriously. Be as visually neutral as possible so people don’t make assumptions about you! Don’t challenge people’s prejudices, just change yourself to make it easier!

    It’s all a load of crap but we all play along with it, either because we believe all the above is true or we don’t want the bother of trying to change it. We’re all complicit in it, I dress up for a job interview because I chose having a job over fighting these oppressive views. Am I particularly proud of it? No. But I am not happy about championing that behavior either.

    • I think this is the key issue as well, not whether Kelly was the appropriate choice for the ACRL conference or not (though that is an interesting discussion). For me what jumped out of the initial posting was the idea of Andy’s that appearance equates professionalism. We need to challenge that idea. As long someone is not wearing something offensive it doesn’t matter what you wear.

      What makes someone a professional is not the way they look or dress or what their degree is. Rather it is that they do what they say they will do when they say they will do it. If they can not, they communicate it. It means doing your job.

      The dentist I see looks young and dresses like a skater, but he is an excellent dentist. Yes appearance does have an impact, but haven’t we (or shouldn’t we) progresssed past this, where we know to look past the appearance. By continuing to associate appearance with substance we are not helping this change come about.

      I personally find it pretentious to go into a library where the staff is overdressed for the community (and the job) and I don’t think it is something the public or students expect or want. The most important thing people want is someone to help them with information needs and for that someone to be helpful, friendly and accessible.

  7. While the ideal would be that we are all judged by our abilities and knowledge, we live in a world where our appearance is the first impression. One (male) librarian friend of mine shared a story where he was negotiating a new car lease. He showed up one day dressed really casually and could barely get someone to take the time to talk to him but managed to get some estimates.
    He showed up after work on a weekday, wearing his suit. (he is a library director, but one who actually, for many years, also worked part time at Nordstrom’s, so that’s the job he really dressed for!). Guess what? The sales staff were competing for his attention.
    Is this fair? No. Is it reality? You tell me.

  8. Andy, thanks for bringing up what is really an important issue to discuss. I have been fascinated with this discussion about dressing professionally for some time. I’ve worked for three libraries. At my first job, the library manager took “California casual” seriously. I wore jeans, a nice shirt and tennis shoes daily. Second job, jeans only on Friday. Third job, I’m back to jeans, but I do wear my nice Keen shoes.

    Honestly, I can’t say that I’ve ever felt that I’ve been taken less seriously or seen as less professional when wearing jeans. In fact, in the branch where I currently work I believe that being dressed more casually makes me appear less intimidating to our customers who are nervous to approach an info desk. For me, working in a neighborhood branch is more about making connections with our customers and building trust. I don’t think they care whether I wear jeans or not.

  9. Annoyed Librarian was *kidding* about Kelly speaking at the American Historical Association and American Chemical Society conferences. I attended the AHA conference earlier this year. He didn’t speak there. The AHA is a different audience — yes, more heavily skewed towards men, but plenty of women attend — and wouldn’t feature a fashion celebrity/host as a keynote speaker.

    • That’s so damn disappointing! Oh man, I thought it was a great line. I thought it was a good tale about book tours and how they will send authors *anywhere*.

      My mistake, although I can’t seem to find a listing of tour dates for Clinton’s book tour. If you can find a link, let me know.

  10. @ jeanie: It helps if people actually look up additional resources before citing something, especially from a blogger that tends toward sarcasm. Thanks for pointing this out.

    @OP: It’s Myers, not Meyers. As a sometime commenter on Pharyngula, I can say that’s one of PZ’s pet peeves.

  11. This debate is kind of hysterical to me. We don’t live in a perfect world, appearance matters, how you present yourself matters. You might not like it, but you have to live with it. Clinton Kelly is fantastic, his show has a big following, and he just released a book! Why not have him speak at a big conference? I don’t understand why it is a big deal.

    If Tim Gunn speaks at the ALA Annual, I’m there! (Yes some librarians are ACTUALLY into fashion.)

    • No one is suggesting that appearance doesn’t matter, but that doesn’t mean we have to buy into it and perpertuate the belief that style equals substance. Things only change when people consistently challenge the status quo. There was a time when women were not allowed to wear pants!

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