On wearing suits

I had a hard time getting dressed this morning.  Not because I don’t have appropriate clothes, or enough of them — I was, in fact, listening to an NCPR story on the local thrift store and thinking it was time for a closet purge — but because I was debating on whether or not I should wear a suit today.  I finally accepted that the right answer to that, as Director of Libraries, is going to be “yes” 99% of the time.  There’s actually a moment of luxury there — the business suit is a uniform. You put it on, and you go, and it’s easy, and appropriate, and always works.

But on mornings when I put on black pinstriped trousers and a white pintucked sleeveless shell, I look at myself in my full-length mirror and have an instinct to dress it down, not up.  My hand reaches for the apple green bolero cardigan instead of the gray tailored jacket.  My foot slides toward brightly colored mary jane flats rather than equally brightly colored leather pumps.  My eyes drift to the funky dangly earrings instead of my pearls.

Why?  It doesn’t make sense.  When I walked out the door today I had chosen the black and white base, the gray jacket, celery leather heels, and my double-stranded faux black pearl necklace. I looked in the mirror, straightened everything just so, and thought, “Good.”  So why do I resist?

One reason is that on some level it seems foolish to “dress up” for a day full of meetings with librarians in my office, followed by writing work at my desk.  I mean, do I need 2″ heels to process statistics for ACRL or discuss facilities issues?

Another reason is that it’s spring in academia. The faculty and the students both are starting to bugger off into summer, mentally and physically, and I feel out of place.  The students studying out in the public spaces today are in yoga pants, hoodies, jeans, and flipflops. The faculty are in whatever their personal uniforms are for teaching — but with a few exceptions, those are rarely suits.

A third reason is that I used to be the woman over there on the right, and I still miss it. I have enough of my father in me to think that there’s something satisfying in being the uber-competent woman in jeans and bare feet (but enough of my mother to know that there’s something more satisfying in having great shoes). I liked the complexity of casual dress and success. It fit with my personality, and made me feel like I was settled in place in a way that meant something to me, that suited me, that mattered. (also, okay, so, um, I understand why you’re all “OMG BLONDE” at me these days. I had forgotten how dark I had gone in 2009.)

And, finally, we are a profession that does not do well with the stand-out presence.  I’ve taken a lot of passive-aggressive flack in librarian discussions over the years because I am, in addition to being mouthy, determined, driven, and successful, a girl.  A girly girl. I like painting my nails, choosing eyeliner, and buying shoes. I prefer and seek out stylish clothes, and I smile pretty for cameras. Regularly. I buy in to the trappings of our feminine cultural crap, to some personally-defined extent, and as such, there are women who seem to think I’m a gender traitor.  Fine, whatever. I prefer to think that I’m proving that a stereotypically feminine woman can succeed in roles gendered male, but if my position of privilege (in that I fit our culture’s stereotype of “pretty girl”) means that you can’t categorize me that way, I can’t help that.  But when that is added to librarianship’s issues with stand-out presences, well. I put on a suit, heels, and makeup, and I stand out. At times when I’m feeling tired, or worn out, or otherwise vulnerable, that feels hard to do.  It’s not always fun being the one who stands up and provides an easy target.

Additionally, my professional identity is rooted in my tribe, and this picture of FirePitCon at Computers in Libraries 2011 is what it looks like when my tribe gathers. Being the woman in a suit in that crowd feels wrong.  When you see a woman in a skirt suit at a conference, many librarians assume she’s a vendor. Or, I suppose, a Director.

And I guess that’s the challenge I battle every morning.  My identity, professionally, is shifting.  My personal identity isn’t keeping up.


  1. For the record: ties suck. I wear them because it’s expected of my patrons and my staff. I can’t wear a suit coat because it gets caught in everything when I work at circ or trying to work on computers under desks. When the heat is broken coats are bad.

    Conversely, I don’t want to be taken as unprofessional from city council, library board members, etc. by wearing jeans and a nice shirt all the time.

    A library “uniform” says something about how we want to present ourselves and represent our library.

    There is a happy medium between being yourself and being professional- I don’t wear stripe ties. Small concession, probably, but it also allows some personality to show through.

    The key is finding something that works- and ditching the suit coat when it’s hot. 🙂


  2. I wish my boss would take a cue from you.

    While I recognize suits can be uncomfortable and overly formal, the position of a director should display an air of formality, even in a library.

    My boss (library director of a small academic lib) wears cargo capri pants with business-casual (and frequently casual-casual) short-sleeved tops and Adidas sandals. And half the time, it looks like she didn’t brush her hair. I make 10k less than her, have less experience and have been out of grad school for just a year, yet I wear dress pants and boring work shoes every day (except the occasional jean-day). Most days I wear a collared button-up, or a plain top with a jacket/cardigan. Stereotypical librarian, maybe. But at least I don’t look like I’ve just come from cleaning my garage.

    She looks sloppy and sloppiness does not demand respect, nor does it reflect well on the professionalism of the library. Kudos to you for acknowledging the professional image you need to present as director.


  3. The thing that I guess I know deep down is that while I can be the Director, respected and effective, in jeans and a button-up shirt, it is easier to be the Director, respected and effective, in a suit, because of the cultural implications and associations of business wear.

    Whether I like it or not. 🙂


  4. My question would be — does it have to be a SUIT? Not questioning the thought that you need to be dressed up a bit, but why always a suit? Why always the duller colors? Bright colors aren’t unprofessional. Maybe you do want to wear the black pants and coat, but how about a vivid red shirt? A touch of color can brighten your day and bring a bit of individuality to the standard business attire.


  5. People who like wearing colors should wear colors. People who like wearing black should wear black. No one ever said you had to kill personal style in order to dress professionally, but by the same token, that means that personal style is just that: personal. I want to tell other people how to define their style even less than I wanted to put on a suit yesterday! (I personally happen to wear a lot of black, accented with jewel tones and bright pink.)

    And, yes, the point of the whole post is that it *does* have to be a suit. Suits have a language about them, of perception and role, that other professional gear doesn’t. I can wear a dress and heels, and I am a well-dressed professional woman. But a suit conveys something different, and I use that language to meet my needs, as befits my role.


  6. This post resonates with me. I am a senior library manager in a large metropolitan library in New Zealand (I report to our equivilent of Library Director). I am male. I wear suits pretty much everyday, with only possibly “casual Friday” allowing me to not wear a suit and only when I have no meetings. I am however, still very smartly dressed on those days. I don’t wear what I would call traditional suits, but rather damn nice suits which have a bit of spark. I especially love 3 peice suits.

    I do find it easy to be able to get up in the morning and know I am wearing a suit. It is one less thing to have to consider, it is really just ‘which one”. Also, I find it lends more credibility when you are sitting around a table with other people from the wider organisation. As you say it is a perception thing.

    We as a profession do tend to almost look down on dressing up as some kind of cop out. Like you are joining “them”. The reality is, if we wish to be taken seriously. If we want our voice to be heard, we have to look the part of the senior manager or professional, as well as be capable of it. In many ways this is as much about leadership capability as any other skills. Advocacy starts, when people are listening.

    It was interesting when I started wearing suits to work. I am pretty much the only male member of staff who wears a suit on a daily basis. Libraries (especially public ones) have a tendancy to dress down due to their community aspect. Much of my working career in Libraries when I was in junior positions has seen me wearing jeans and t-shirts to work most days, and I will confess I do miss this a bit. Yet the pleasure I get from looking good and sharp more than makes up for it.


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