Hardly a dandy: thoughts on #librarianstyle

Hardly a dandy: thoughts on #librarianstyle

The great Kim Tairi has been leading a discussion about librarians’ fashion choices - you can see some of it on social media under the hashtag #librarianstyle.

For me, it boils down to something Moata Tamaira said at the LIANZA conference’s #librarianstyle event, quoted by a number of Twitter users:

@kittisdreaming  - twitter post from  @lianzacon  

@kittisdreaming - twitter post from @lianzacon 

I’m hardly the biggest dandy in the cultural sector, in Australasia or anywhere else, but Moata’s comment did make me think. I want to be someone whose appearance challenges and disarms preconceptions of a “fancy English consultant with a PhD.” 

I want to be someone who, as far as possible, is dressed ready to help out in the loading dock as well as the boardroom. As Stella Duffy says about the Fun Palaces movement which I sometimes work on, Fun Palaces are not just about engagement theory and strategy, they are – very deliberately – about true engagement and full participation, across the board, from the grassroots up. Sometimes this means putting up and taking down marquees, in the rain.

On top of all this, I want to be someone whose clothes reflect my personal taste and choices as well as personal standards.

Combats for Kindy

I worked in early childhood settings for a while after I finished university. I mentored asylum seeking kids and foster kids; I taught kindergarten and year one - what the Americans call “first grade”.

I’m over six feet tall. Almost the first thing my mentor told me as I trained to teach kindy was, “Kneel down. Don’t loom.” So I spent a year kneeling, making sure I was at a five-year-old’s eye level.I wore through the knee in a pair of jeans before the year was out.

I switched to combat trousers and hiking gear. They wore harder than denim. There was one other teacher who dressed like me in the school where we trained. When the inspectors came to visit, our head told us to smarten up, go to work suited and booted, despite the paint and the marker pens and all the messy play that filled our classrooms with delight.

“Once the inspectors go, we can switch back to practical clothes and the things that really matter,” she said. She was a great head teacher. Jeans were workwear that became middle class fashion. Modern hiking gear is harder wearing andmore practical. While I think the “tech dude uniform” of combats and workshirt is pretty uninspiring, I think wearing some smart hard-wearing pants that you can pair with a good shirt and jacket means you are equally capable of delivering a presentation to colleagues & stakeholders, or heading down to the storehouse to help with the unloading of some resources.

After all, you shift and pack a lot of boxes - books, scientific instruments, toys, art materials,components for marquees and gazebos and pop-up installations - when you work with knowledge institutions.

Suited, Booted, Mohawked

I don’t just dress for the warehouse though. I like a smart suit, too, and wore them to teach literary theory when I did my doctorate at the University of London. But another time, in the same role, I had a brightly coloured mohawk. I was still a good teacher to my undergraduates, irrespective of those fashion choices.


Getting the mohawk and going full Kajagoogoo was an eye opener for me, as I’m otherwise apretty bland looking generic white guy. Suddenly, with a shaved head and a blue or purple crest, I struggled to get a table in a restaurant, or a room in a hotel. People swore at me in the street, unprovoked. But I also found kindness. Wearing such a provocative hairstyle also revealed those people who cherished your sense of individual style and willingness to buck the norm. And in any case, I could shave off the mohawk and escape anytime I wanted. Like dressing in drag, it was a minor transgression which was easy for me to rescind. A big part of my “Swiss army uniform” lately, with the combat trousers and the shirts, has been a grey tweed jacket. I originally bought it for my quickchange routine at VALA 2014.

During that keynote, I took off my fancy clothes and traded them for a workman’s fluorescent gear, to make a point about the sort of communities we choose to serve.

But the grey tweed has a deeper meaning. Christopher Laverty captures it in his excellent blog Clothes on Film.

I was thinking of Christopher, too, when I watched the Charlize Theron action movie Atomic Blonde. The fabulous late-80s pastiche of its costumes was perfect for the movie’s exaggerated comic-book version of Berlin before the fall of the Wall, soundtracked by delirious retro cuts like Siouxsie and the Banshees - Cities in Dust (God, that track sounded good on a massive cinema sound system).

Atomic Blonde (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack): Siouxsie And The Banshees - Cities In Dust

I chatted with Christopher online about Atomic Blonde, and when I saw that the theme for this year’s LIANZA conference dinner in Aotearoa New Zealand was “James Bond”, I knew I’d skip thetux-and-ballgown vibe for something a little more contemporary.

I went as Charlize in Atomic Blonde - with the help of dynamic librarian duo Turbitt and Duck.

We got the seal of approval from #librarianstyle instigator Kim Tairi too.

There will always be a tension in the style choices of knowledge professionals, especially thoseworking in public-facing institutions. Should staff wear uniforms? Do they make it easier to identify staff on the floor of the library, museum, or university?

Which ranks become exempt from uniform and what does that do for an “us and them” mentality?

(On some Australian mining sites, all staff - including office-based roles like media & comms - have to wear fluorescent workwear, to avoid the us-and-them hierarchy).

Does sartorial expression ever become self-indulgent, distracting, or damaging to your professional role?

These questions might play out differently depending on whether you identify as a man or a woman - with this patriarchal world placing more demanding expectations and standards on women in the workplace.

#librarianstyle is not just about being a peacock. All fashion choices are valid - even ruthlessly pragmatic ones. The important thing is to respect them as choices, and to respect the professionalism of the staff who make those choices. Of course, if you can beat the hell out of a bunch of East German thugs while wearing vintage Dior and heels, that’s pretty good too.

A work in progress

A work in progress

The penguin in the room

The penguin in the room