Say Yes to the Sweater Vest

If you haven’t seen it yet, Sarah Houghton recently wrote a blog post entitled, “Wear What You Want: Dressing to Lead in Libraries”. It’s a great piece about dressing for the library workplace in which she advocates for personal style but acknowledges the existence of dress codes as well as peer and public expectations. It’s also receiving inevitable pushback from the people of the “you can’t just wear anything” camp despite Sarah’s acknowledgements of the limitations of her “wear anything” position. People seem to forget that just because her position doesn’t apply to everyone doesn’t make it a bad one; it just means it is not universal. (Your mileage may vary and all the assorted caveats one can muster.)

When I started out after college, I worked in commercial nurseries. From there, I worked at DuPont assembling plant experiments. My attire during those days was old jeans, crappy t-shirts, and other things that I did not mind getting dirty, wet, or worse. At the time I left college, I had hoped to work in a non-office environment and horticulture answered that prayer very nicely.

In going through the library science graduate program at Clarion, this all changed with my internship. Nancy Clemente, my internship mentor, brought me into her office and told me that my current attire was unacceptable. (I don’t remember what it was, but I’m guessing it was something in line with “high school presentation”.) I was to wear dress pants, dress shirt, and either a tie or a sweater from then on. From that point till the end of the internship, I was always dressed up for working at the library.

For me, it did two things. First, it made me feel the part. I didn’t feel like a student anymore; I felt like someone who was in charge, knowledgeable, and belonged there at the reference desk. Second, it made me look the part. I didn’t look like a graduate student; I looked like a librarian in an academic setting. It wasn’t simply a boost to my own self-esteem and confidence but also instilled professionalism that carried me forward into my career.

While I slacked off in my appearance for a period of time after getting hired at the public library (sorry Nancy!), I have found that as time goes by that I try to dress up more for the job. I’ve added more dress shoes, slacks, and (my beloved) sweater vests to my wardrobe. Once I get some dress shirts that actually fit my neck size, I’ll be looking add ties back in. It might be a bit of overkill for my library, but it feels rights for me.

For myself, it comes back to that “looking the part” in conjunction with who I am. The outfits are my uniform; they put me into “time to be a librarian” mode. It’s not that I can’t do my job otherwise, but how the public perceives me in that ultimate of first impressions (how I am dressed) is important to me. I want it to give them confidence that they can put their trust in me for whatever it is that they need. What I wear makes that difference.

In getting back to Sarah’s post, I can’t help but amuse myself thinking about how the topic of “what leaders should wear” meshes with “where are the librarian leaders?” line of thought. Apparently, people know what they should look like even as they claim that they don’t see any around. Given Sarah’s leadership on topics such as copyright, eBooks, and library filtering (to name a few subjects off the top of my head), it makes the comments saying that she is not dressed for leadership even more amusing. But I’ll admit in my own way that they are right.

No, Sarah is not dressed to be a leader. She is a leader. Those just happen to be the clothing that she wears. She could be in a burqa or dressed like a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader and she’d still be the person to talk about those aforementioned subjects and more when it comes to library issues.

Nor is Sarah a unique case; this applies to any of the librarian leaders I see out there right now. There is no prevailing clothing style or dress that links all of these people together; it is their ability to step up, speak up, and act up that makes them the individuals that librarians (including myself) look up to for guidance.

I don’t know about anyone else, but if people can’t get past how someone is dressed so that they can listen to the message they are sending out, then librarianship is going to spend a long time in the wilderness looking for leaders that “fit” the look they imagine them having. To focus on the end of that famous Dr. King quote, it’s the content of their character that matters when it comes to rendering judgment.

I wouldn’t say that appearance is inconsequential, but the reason why libraries are struggling in some areas is not because the staff doesn’t dress nicely enough. It’s a perception of the library as a modern institution in form and function that needs an image makeover. If we are going to concern ourselves with any kind of appearance, that’s the most pressing one right now.