A Study of Librarian Fashion

6 Oct

Hi, readers! Today’s post is a little different in that it’s also serving as a presentation for an assignment. Isn’t that nifty? It’s hardly work! We were asked to present our findings on either stereotypes of librarians or how learning spaces are formed and used. When I started thinking about all the points my classmates brought up about librarians–how our career choice is often perceived to be synonymous with a circulation clerk, how we’re always thought to be shushing people, or how when we tell people we’re going to grad school to become one, they tell you they didn’t think it was that hard–I couldn’t help but feel that people in my generation (the ones 30 and under right now) are changing what everyone says. I’ve seen several images in the fashion industry and other trends that cater to bookish, highly-educated women and that suggests to me that becoming a librarian is actually trendy right now. I’m sure a lot of my classmates will see this presentation as a flip on what they expected because it shows how librarians and nerdy people in general are coming into the spotlight in a more positive way (though still not in a perfect way).

I searched several ways for images of librarians and for the most part, first, let me say that they’re women. Rarely do my searches turn up any male figures, trendy or not. We all know the librarian profession to be dominated by women but literally the only man I can remember ever pictured in a library was Patrick Dempsey in the movie adaptation of The Time Traveler’s Wife. Such absence of visible male figures in the profession may be one reason why there continues to be so few of them.

From there, I’ll proceed by showing you first what I found from fashion catalogs.


This is taken from a J.Crew catalog and while you can’t be sure if she’s intended to be a librarian or patron, her outfit does send a message about you should look like in a library. Argyle sweaters and wool trousers are associated with a preppy style that implies at least moderate wealth. What I like about this picture is how happy the girl is to be in the reference section. Assuming that this is in an academic library, a more accurate picture might be an exhausted, make-up-less woman crying on the floor between shelves, but this is catalog-land and I like seeing an excited user portrayed no matter how unrealistic.

This picture is even more unclear. It could be a librarian in any kind of library but since I don’t see tags on the spines, I’m going to say that it’s actually meant to be a woman extravagantly dressed in her home library. No matter where she is, it’s clear that the environment is meant to simulate a library outside the home and what’s being said by her dress is that books are a special occasion. Finding one should be like going on a first date or meeting your significant other’s parents in that you should look your best. It’s interesting to me that books are this important in this photograph. They’re almost romantic in a way.

Finally, the above image was taken from Maurice’s website. This has a clearly retro feel to it and the vintage look is definitely pretty common in fashion right now. However, when I started to look for a correlation between images that turned up of libraries in fashion, I noticed that there’s an unusually similar look to the more recent ones. They’re almost always vintage looks with a few of the same characteristics: skirts or dresses (never pants), cardigans/sweaters or blazers, glasses, and smart shoes. To bring the point home, here are some images that I found while searching collections on sites like Polyvore and Pinterest where users can post their inspirations and ideas gather from any number of sources. All of these are user-generated looks.

These images are each very recent and as you can see, there’s a very strong retro aesthetic to the collections. Again and again, I encountered similar depictions of what a librarian should wear and as I continued to wonder why people strongly associate the dress code with a vintage feel, I came up with a couple conclusions. Drawing on the images from catalogs I’d come across, I decided that the reason people give a retro-inspired look to librarians is because there’s something nostalgic about reading books and working in a place that’s full of them. Part of the reason that people cling to their paper books in the wave of e-books is that they have a lingering romance with physical books. It makes perfect sense to me that a career involved in organizing, collecting, and caring for books inspires the same feelings. If books represent something old and beautiful, a librarian’s fashion should carry the beauty of older times.

I have another conclusion that’s a bit more disturbing, though. I think it’s equally likely that people dress librarians in old-style costume because they think the career is outdated. Perhaps when they picture a librarian, they see them in black and white movies or as little old ladies who haven’t jumped on the technology wave. We’ve all had someone ask if librarians are still going to be relevant so I don’t feel surprised by this possibility, however I’d like to see images of librarians catch up to our current capabilities. It’s great that reading and libraries are becoming culturally cool but they need to inspire everyone, not just the women reading magazines. (Read here for another article talking about this: http://blogs.publishersweekly.com/blogs/shelftalker/?p=66)

We’re no longer White women who sit behind desks and do nothing but check books in and out. We’re past gender and race now and we’re still validated by our communities who need information. Yes, we can absolutely be fashionable and trendy but hopefully as new and younger librarians take the career to new places, the images we see of them will more fully represent who we are. I’m inspired to be more vocal about the great amount of diversity in the field of librarianship and to encourage others to do the same. I think it’s especially important for male librarians to be put in the spotlight a little more often to prove that it’s a snazzy, cool, and fun line of work for anyone.

Here is a blog that’s working on doing exactly that: http://librarianwardrobe.tumblr.com/ It shows men and women of all races and in various library settings showing off their outfits. I love their tagline, “Not always buns and sensible shoes…”

Also, if you’re a visual person like me and you’d like to see more of the images I rounded up for this project, visit my Pinterest board made exactly for this: http://pinterest.com/brytani_fraser/librarian-fashion-research-project/


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