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An interesting discussion happened today on Twitter about clothing and librarianship. It all started with Jaime Corris Hammond (@jaimebc) posting the following:

“Let’s talk about perceptions of leaders. How did you change your appearance when you became a manager/director?”

My response was a truthful:

“Bwa ha ha ha ha….ha ha ha ha ha….*gasp*sputter* I DIDN’T :D”

A smattering of conversation involving a dozen people then followed, with some themes coming out that I feel are worth commenting on.

Sarah Houghton

photo by Ticer Summer School

Style counts: Above all, stay true to who you are. Don’t dress a certain way because you think someone else expects it or you believe it will somehow make you seem more authoritative.  Dress in a way that’s appropriate for work but comfortable. For me that includes some combination of funky tights, high heels, spikes, velvet, lace, satin, vinyl, 50s style dresses, chokers, straps, ruffles, corsets, and cardigans (I know…yes, cardigans–they’re practical and comfortable so shut it).  For you it will be something else. But *be you*. A velvet suit jacket is just as dressy as a polyester one. I dressed this way when I got the job…so I figure why change? I think my look is part of what helps people remember me in the community – and being remembered isn’t a bad thing (usually).

Dress codes: If your workplace has a dress code, by all means adhere to it.  Several libraries I’ve worked at required closed-toe shoes. Others said no shorts and no bra straps could not be showing (e.g. under a tank top).  Adhere to the rules.

Dress and gender: Some commenters purported that there’s a double standard for men and women on dress.  Men can get away with dressing more casually and be thought of as “cutely sloppy” but a similarly dressed woman would be looked at as “frumpy.” True? Probably. Can we control how other people react to our appearances? Nope. Stop trying.

Who do you dress to match?: This is a great question. If you’re in a position of leadership, do you dress to fit in with other library staff or to fit in with on-par colleagues in other departments? My answer is “Don’t dress to match anyone; weren’t you listening before?” But if I had to vote for one, I’d say dress to match the “dressiness level” of your on-par colleagues.

Dressing seriously so people take you seriously: I expect people to take me seriously because of my ideas and professionalism. If they’re not going to listen (and some haven’t) because I’m wearing tights with stars on them or a skirt with unnecessary zippers then their opinion isn’t worth worrying about.  Some people are not going to like me and that’s just dandy. If you’re in a position of leadership realize there are going to be a fair number of people who don’t like you for all sorts of reasons. You’re not in this to be liked; you’re doing a job.

Combating looking young with dressing old: This one I understand. I was a manager in a library when I was 28. I looked 21. I understand the desire to look older, at least your age, so that people will stop with the “Are you old enough to blah blah blah…” comments.  As I joked on Twitter, what made those comments stop coming at me was the plethora of wrinkles I’ve developed after being a library director for a year and a half. So–get more stress in your life and continue to dress like a rock star.

Dressing up for certain events: Dress a little more seriously for City Council? Sure.  For a job interview? Yep. Wear skinny jeans, combat boots, and a sparkly tank top on a Friday when you’re going to be at your desk all day writing reports? Yep. Speaking of which, I’m gonna go finish up those reports.

“Wear What You Want: Dressing to Lead in Libraries”

  1. Julie C Says:

    Lookin’ good, Sarah! Thanks for the tips.

  2. ShawnW Says:

    Love the look. I am a children’s library media teacher in a school district. Dress codes are pretty stringent in the bible belt but I do get to dress how I feel, whether pants, capris, skirts or dresses. My goal is comfort first and everything else falls into place. The dress I wore to my interview is the same one I wear to work on occasion. I’d like to find a position where I could get away with more relaxed summer wear year ’round – and possibly no shoes!

  3. Henry Mensch Says:

    omg … you mean I have to dress like an adult now?!? 🙂

  4. Jessica Says:

    This really varies by role and workplace. Personal style and professional, age-appropriate attire are not mutually exclusive. My five year old loves star tights but they’re frankly ridiculous on anyone over 12. There’s a time and a place for scoffing at social norms and unencumbered self-expression through fashion, but it’s not at work. I expect to be taken seriously for my ideas, performance and impact, and my personal image conveys that professionalism. It also reflects maturity, pride and respect for my colleagues and my organization. Anything less would be inappropriate and distracting. I also think there’s an unspoken element of white privilege to getting away with dressing like a teenager, 50s pin up girl or 90s grunge singer at work. Call me crazy, but a lot of people have a hard enough time being taken seriously in a suit…

  5. Sarah Houghton Says:

    I disagree Jessica. I am taken seriously at work. I’m successful, accomplished, respected both within my own city structure and within the field as a whole, and I still manage to dress and act the way I want — with sincerity. I wish the same for you.

  6. Alan Wylie Says:

    I’m a Public Reference Librarian and always wear jeans and t-shirts to work, what the hell does it matter? I’ve got heaps of knowledge, experience, commitment and ethos and that’s what’s important!

  7. Catherine Voutier Says:

    If you’ve established yourself as a professional before management roles, that is no reason to change your look. I dress more seriously than my boss sometimes (usually when I have to teach a class of medical professionals). My boss likes the boho look, and it suits her personality. There is a young neurologist at work who wears a bow tie. You’d think only much much older men wear bow ties. He is very sharply dressed, a young dapper man (his colleagues wear ordinary ties). Another clinician wears shorts in hot weather, and he must be in his early 70s. We do have a dress code, but it is only relates to respectful dressing and no open toed shoes in clinical areas. I wear black a lot and as I am relaxing into my role and work place, I am getting more relaxed about wearing my skinny jeans and black stretchy tops.

  8. Nicolette Says:

    I am seeing both sides. I truly believe that there are places, particularly in the South and Midwest, where a person’s competence and innovation will not be recognized as much if they do not dress to prevailing expectations–at least when first establishing oneself in the profession. I am older than some of you, from the South, and work in the Midwest at an institution where my final interview for the position included a discussion of what I might wear in different teaching, networking, and fundraising venues. Starting out in such a place, it may be prudent to err on the side of discretion, then as your talent is recognized, to let your attire more adequately reflect your personality. I have played quite a bit with attire as I became surer of myself in the profession. More is forgiven or accepted once one has adequately delivered.

    To use the LIB as an example, Sarah delivers in spades, so the fact that she does so out of a vegan Goth persona is accepted as part of the package. Not all of us are as talented nor as distinctive in style as Sarah. I think that in having much of her career on the West Coast, she may have had an environment where her personal style was not held up as a primary index of suitability for a position to the extent that it might be in another part of the country. That being said, she has accomplished a great deal in a relatively short amount of time. To those of such talent, more slack may be given on the sartorial front. Now that she is at the level she is, perversely, there are numerous places in conservative areas who would probably be thrilled to hire her away to the South or Midwest, in part to show how “cool” they are as institutions.

    The questions that you have to ask yourself when being hired are
    1) How important is my personal style to me?
    2) Am I willing to “go undercover” until I have made my mark to some degree?
    3) If I have to mask my preferences, how important is it for me to work at that institution? Will I be happy there?
    4) Once people have seen how competent I am, will they be more accepting of me, and if they are not, do I feel strongly enough to leave?

    Disclaimer: As a person who went to a grade school and high school where I had to wear a uniform, I may or may not be an outlier in this discussion.

  9. sharon Says:

    What Nicolette said. Style is something that varies from state to state, town to town, library to library, and job to job. The whimsical style of the children’s librarian might not be so desirable in the tech services librarian — in the same library. The LIB has a “brand” now, as do several of the superstars in the on-line library world. Each of us must decide for ourselves how important it is to have a “style” or “brand”, how desirable a particular position is, and what we are willing to do to get and keep that position.

  10. Alicia Turner Says:

    Hi Sarah,
    Where do you draw the line as to what is inappropriate to wear to work? Also, where do you stand on how you dress and your approachability to the people you serve in your library. I would be very uncomfortable approaching someone wearing a corset and spiked collar. Some people may even be offended by a librarian who dresses too much to the left of the norm. I appreciate someone who expresses their personal style in their wardrobe, and there is a way to show your personality without wearing underclothing as outer wear.

  11. Michael Golrick Says:

    Thanks Sarah. Great post. From the perspective of an older, white (i.e. privileged), male, I personally think that women have a lot more leeway and choices when it comes to dressing for work than men do. Sarah is correct when she says “But *be you*.” I also think that for middle and upper management, she is also correct when she says “I’d say dress to match the “dressiness level” of your on-par colleagues.” And her final comment about dressing to a level appropriate for the occasion is critical.

    I read all the comments and want to reflect on two of them.

    My friend Nicolette (yes, I really do know her) said “I truly believe that there are places, particularly in the South and Midwest, where a person’s competence and innovation will not be recognized as much if they do not dress to prevailing expectations…”

    I have worked in four different states in different areas of the country. I worked in Tucson in the early 1980s where, for me, wearing a guayabera was the “standard” summer dress for male business professionals. (Yes, I still own one.) In Connecticut, I wore a suit. (When it was in style it was a 3 piece suit.) I even had custom made shirts (because my arms are long, and department stores did not carry a shirt that was long enough).

    And then I read the comment by Catherine Voutier who said “There is a young neurologist at work who wears a bow tie. You’d think only much much older men wear bow ties. He is very sharply dressed, a young dapper man (his colleagues wear ordinary ties).”

    I was known for sporting a bow tie periodically. It was the way I could stand out (while fitting in). I can think of several professional colleagues who have, or still do, sport a bow tie, It is one of the few ways that a male can make a fashion statement.

    I worked in the upper Midwest, where the dress code was slightly more conservative (if that is possible). I am now in middle management in the South, and can speak to the truth of Nicolete’s observations. I don’t wear suits any more, given the changes in society over the years, it is dress shirts and slacks these days (not even a tie). But that it partly to appear more welcoming at the Reference Desk.

  12. Sarah Says:

    Alicia: There are certainly lines of what is appropriate and what isn’t. I have never worn a spiked collar to work (in fact, I don’t own a spiked collar). If I’m wearing a corset to work, it’s part of a larger ensemble with a jacket or sweater over it. About half of my wardrobe would never make it to work, so there’s certainly a line in my head. All of that being said, if someone is offended by what I wear or thinks I’m automatically incompetent because of it, that’s their perception and problem–not mine. I know of one person in the community who thought I shouldn’t be library director because I have tattoos. Another complained to one of the library staff that the young female library director shouldn’t wear high heels–that she, as a 50-something, could “get away with it” but a different standard applied to me. My point is that there will always be people who don’t like other people’s style. Whether you let that govern your life and your self-expression is up to you.

  13. Sarah Says:

    Michael: Being from the Midwest (Illinois) I definitely hear what you and Nicolette are saying. And perhaps I’ve gotten too comfortable in this bubble of acceptance that is the Bay Area. But if I was forced to move back to where I grew up (please no) I wouldn’t alter how I dress. Mom always said I was stubborn.

  14. Winelibrarian Says:

    Loved this 🙂 Well said.

  15. black lesbrarian Says:

    white people can get away with dressing like this. if i did, there would be serious repercussions.

  16. Nicole Says:

    Great post Sarah – I work in a special library & e-learning center for women and I still wear my black ribbon choker at work. I find it to be a great conversation starter with the clients who comment on the choker. It seems to build relationships with the women in contrast of distaste of fashion. Since the clientele is women in distress, caring about what I look like is the least of their worries.

  17. Michael Says:

    Just one of the reasons librarians are not taken seriously which results in inadequate pay and status.

  18. Nicolette Says:

    Michael, my suspicion is that any inadequate pay and status that the profession has stems from
    1) being a historically female-dominated profession and
    2) being a profession that is often paid out of tax dollars or tuition dollars
    If I were wearing sharp navy or black suits and heels day in and day out in my best attempt to be Corporate Cora, I would still be making what I do,

  19. Jillian Parsons Says:

    That was very useful, Sarah! You confirmed how I feel about what I am currently wearing, and what I want to be wearing in my next job. There is no reason why we should look like the generation that went before us.

  20. Janine Says:

    Thanks for this well-written post. I also wrote about this issue a few months ago and have just posted a link to yours on my blog.

  21. Michael Says:

    I would suggest looking at the community leaders in your locale. How does mode of dress compare?

  22. wearing what I want Says:

    […] is one of those times when the blogosphere is talking about how leadership and professional identity dovetail with clothing choices. I love […]

  23. Cecily Says:

    I think that rules of propriety and the lines we’re comfortable crossing definitely line up with region and position, but I agree with blacklesbrarian when she says that many people of colour don’t feel as free to wear what we want. There’s a fair amount of baggage around the concept of respectability associated with that, but there’s also the issue of people (patrons, other library staffers) who automatically assume you’re either not in charge, or simply incompetent because of the colour of your skin. Wearing unusual or non-professional clothing would only add to that perception.

    I’ve only just stepped up to management in the last 6 months, and I’m definitely wrestling with the notion of how to appear more professional while also remaining true myself. I essentially wear the same thing I’ve always worn – a nice top/sweater and slacks or dark jeans, or dresses on occasions where I know I’ll be speaking to the board. The only thing that has really changed since taking this job is that I can now afford to buy much better shoes. 😀

  24. Fireflies_Twinkle Says:

    Love your post. I recently was told I didn’t get a promotion because my hair was too curly on the day of my interview. I tried to explain that my hair is naturally curly. Apparently I don’t have the hair to be upper management.

  25. My Take on Dressing to Lead | Emily's Notebook Says:

    […] our dress, especially for those of us in a leadership position. Yeah, you know. The stuff discussed HERE, HERE, HERE, and a number of other places […]

  26. Mark Says:

    {snip}”Men can get away with dressing more casually and be thought of as ‘cutely sloppy’ but a similarly dressed woman would be looked at as ‘frumpy.’ True? Probably.”

    I used to work at an academic library where men had to wear neckties (even during the dead times, between academic terms) and there was no apparent rule for women’s apparel. I think one woman staffer got tsk-tsk’d for wearing some nice chino shorts once. Anyway, I just rolled with it and now that I’ve moved on to a different library, I have a nice collection of neckties that I never use! 🙂

  27. Lisa Foster Says:

    Interesting topic! It’s one I have been thinking about as I get ready to transition from a practicing lawyer for over 20 years to a librarian. In my current profession I have to wear a suit almost every day, and I know my dress code will be changing as I make this job change I plan to observe the others at my new workplace, and work out a style of dress that fits in but also reflects my own personality. I’m looking forward to having some more flexibility, and wearing comfortable shoes, but I’ll probably err on the side of conservative. Old habits die hard.

  28. Mike Says:

    I have to disagree with the part about men getting away with being sloppy. All the time, I see ladies get away with “cute knit tops,” stretch pants, and sandals while I’m expected to be in slacks and full button-up with tie. Not that I mind looking like a professional, but still… 🙂

  29. Stephanie Beverage Says:

    Interesting topic – leadership and image are complicated, and one person’s style is not that of another. Over the years, I was given advice on what to wear and what not to wear, including the advice of “dressing for your next job”. Since I have always enjoyed clothes, dressing up or dressing professionally was never an issue for me. But I am a stickler for comfort, so I am constantly searching for the perfect work look. 🙂 I do consciously try and dress for the occasion – if presenting to City Council, I am going to dress more formally than I would for working the Library floor or helping out at a Summer Reading event.
    But I agree with you wholeheartedly Sarah, if someone has a problem with the way I dress, that is one them. My clothes don’t speak to my competence at work.

  30. Kat Says:

    I am tired of being judged as an outdated librarian because of my natural style which is long skirts, ‘sensible shoes’, and cardigans. I also like to wear my hair in a bun. I dressed that way long before a became a librarian, and it is only as a librarian that it has become an issue. So now as a library director I dress in a more taliored style. I am lucky that I live in a community that doesn’t expect all women to wear makeup.

  31. Laurie Says:

    Thankfully my library does not have a strict dress code. There’s basically two rules 1. Wear clothes in which one can bend, lift, sit, and stand in without flashing the patrons (aka no Daisy Dukes!), and 2. Make sure it’s clean, unwrinkled, and has no logo on it (besides the library’s) (aka no dirty Chicago Bears jerseys). So all in all it’s pretty easy to be unique and keep within the guidelines. I also believe that one’s community should be taken in when dressing for work. For instance I work in a mainly family friendly/focused, working to middle class community. So many librarians wear nice jeans, button up shirts, polo’s, sweaters, etc. etc. Basically what the community is wearing but a little more “dressy” so that patrons realize you work there. I actually like to wear crazy colored scarves and jewelry because it helps younger patrons feel more comfortable around me & many adults will use it as a conversation starter (not in the weird way thankfully!). I also have one tattoo on my foot which is in full view when I wear my flats or dresses. This too is a great conversation starter and my library does not have issues with librarians having tattoos 🙂

    But what works for one library does not always work for another. I think it mainly has to do with the community/patron base your library serves.

    On another note: if one is really going to judge how someone does their job by the clothing they wear they may be missing out on some awesome service. Never judge a book by its cover! 😀

  32. Elizabeth Says:

    I think the way we dress can often be an indicator of how ego-driven we are. How much do I want to differentiate myself from others and prove my “uniqueness” to you? How much do I want to emphasize how different I am, how special? How just very ME? Dressing to ones ego important so that one can let the world know there is a line between ordinary folks and extra-special ME.

  33. kevin Says:

    I kind of disagree here. I consider being a leader like going to a job interview everyday. I meet new and important people all the time and I need my first impression to be a positive one. If I look sloppy or like I’m wearing a costume then the power brokers I encounter will ignore me. That’s just the facts.

    To the people saying “I wear jeans and a t-shirt everyday, it’s my talent that counts” I ask you to consider what city council thinks of your appearance the next time you complain about not being paid enough for how professional you are.

    The old saying “the clothes make the man,” still has validity.
    I wear Docker, a fitted dress shirt, and a tie everyday, when I go to a big meeting I put on a suit or at least a blazer.

    Remember, there is no better way to make sure no-one takes you seriously than being the worst dress person in the room.

  34. Andrew L. Budny Says:

    Dressing in a professional manner is is always important no matter where you work. I worked in an academic library for five years as an undergraduate student and I was recently hired back last summer as a full time library assistant. We had a very strict dress code in which we were not allowed to wear open toed shoes, no cut off jean shorts for example and that was when I was a student. Now a days I wear mostly wear dress clothes in which I started wearing polo shirts since it getting warmer where I live now. Thus by dressing professionally, I know that I am able to provide my services in a professional manner in which shows that I take my job seriously and that I always put my best foot forward when it comes to providing a professional environment for my patrons.

  35. Glenn Says:

    I am a library director in CT and got called out by Town Manager the other day for my dress. I was wearing a short-sleeved polo shirt (untucked and showing off my half-sleeves of tattoos), black dockers and sandals. After a meeting with my Town Manager, he had the head of HR call me and tell me I looked “less than professional.” We have not dress code. I dressed more or less like I do on any 90 degree day–comfortably. And since the critique was second hand, I don’t even know if it was the untucked shirt, the exposed tattoos, the sandals or a combination of all three that set him off.

    Do I guess? Bag all three and sweat all summer? Or just try and dress up when it is likely I’ll run into the TM (he works on a different campus across town from the library)?

  36. Kelly Says:

    Thanks for posting! Working in a public library that caters to a specific caliber of patrons (wealthy, conservative senior citizens), I have often pondered this issue myself, especially now that I’ve acquired my MLIS and am looking for a professional gig. After reading the discussion, I’ll keep doin’ what I’m doin’.

    There are ways to express yourself and show fashion flair while still maintaining a level of professionalism.

  37. Jean Says:

    Oh Kat, I hear you! “I am tired of being judged as an outdated librarian because of my natural style which is long skirts, ‘sensible shoes’, and cardigans. I also like to wear my hair in a bun. I dressed that way long before a became a librarian, and it is only as a librarian that it has become an issue. So now as a library director I dress in a more taliored style. I am lucky that I live in a community that doesn’t expect all women to wear makeup”.

    I deeply resent having to conform and if it holds me back career wise, well, so be it. One of the reasons I like public libraries is that they aren’t corporate and your look doesn’t need to be corporate either. A friend of mine in advertising had a massive clothing budget every year because she had to keep up with trends and what a nightmare.

    I think it’s kind of cool and interesting too that the guys who have commented have frustrations with their own dress code. I always assumed men were totally comfortable in their dockers and comfie loafers and even ties. Are ties that uncomfortable? I probably wouldn’t like wearing one either.

  38. Saren Black Says:

    My very small-town public library caters to mostly blue collar folks with a few hotsy-totsies thrown in. When I was a part time employee, I wore ball gowns behind the desk; it helped to break the ice with patrons and made my barely visible tattoos easier to swallow. Now that I’m Reference, I roll a bit more posh, but still excessively me.
    I understand dressing the part is important, but libraries are changing so fast and being accessible to people is way more important that professional-ing them. If people are affraid to talk to you cuz you so sharp, you lose contact with your community.
    Maintaining great service is the big key, clothes be dashed…if you are friendly, helpful and knowledgeable, you have more play. Even if a High Roller comes in and gives you the business, if it’s not on the books there’s nothing to be done. (Sorry to those who do have enforced dress code. ;( ) And if High Roller complains, just make sure that your service and desk manners have paved the way with anyone who has ever come in contact with you.

  39. Alexis Says:

    Sarah – I love that you posted about this!! I wrote something similar, just a day before you:

    *runs off to go link to your post in my comments*

    Thanks for being such a great example of how possible it is to be your own self in libraries 🙂

  40. Remi Castonguay Says:

    Used to be a time when everybody wore a tie at work and everybody looked decent…sort of anyway. Now every other dufus has tatoos and is half naked at work. I disagree with that lack of class completely!

  41. R.Smithey Says:

    Thank you Librarian in Black for initiating this topic! I’ve been a librarian since the early ’90’s and have motorcycled since I was age 5. I commute by motorcycle, and daily have patrons/students who see my jacket ask me about my bike. Approachability is paramount! Not many female motorcyclists in CA these days, sadly,

  42. Jan Says:

    What a brilliant lady! We have a sort of dress code which would include not too short skirts and not too much cleavage. We don’t really want to see a thong showing above the jeans or trousers either but other than that we are fairly okay. I have known punk librarians and wild and colourful ones who would mismatch colours and have wild hair, all knew their job to a tee and the way they looked never held them back.
    I personally like to look “professional” but this includes bright t-shirt tops and bright dresses (and the occasional cardigan!) not stuffy suits and dank colours. I have been known to wear a shorter skirt with lovely eye catching patterned tights. My hair has been bright red, sassy blonde (a very big mistake I may add) and darkest brown. I have a couple of tattoos which peek out from under summer clothes, which customers comment on. I like high heels and patterned tights, fishnets and seams have seen themselves occasionally. What’s wrong with having some fun from your wardrobe?

    More power to the ladies who want to be recognised for their brain power and knowledge of the job they are employed to do in whatever style of dress they want!

  43. Enid X. Sosa Says:

    Wear interview attire. In some cases business casual attire is also appropriate, but it’s better to err on the side of caution. Potential employers are much more impressed with those who overdress than those who are under-dressed.

  44. Kim Says:

    I can understand not wearing open-toed shoes due to the potential risk for injury (like a book falling on your toes or injuries while using a book cart). On the other hand, that’s why they call them accidents- because no one plans or intends for it to happen, it just does.

    As for dress code, I think it depends on where you work and what the mission of the library is. I’ve worked at public libraries where the dress code has been more casual. During the day, I work at a law library where the dress code is more professional; no open-toed shoes, no shorts, skirts have to be a certain length and attire is generally conservative. Since I am working with judges, lawyers, legal advocates, students, faculty members and administrators, professional attire is important. And since we try to encourage the same for our students, we try to set an example ourselves.

    However, there are different ways to express personal style and yet still maintain a level of professionalism. What it all comes down to is one’s personal comfort zone.

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