Library fashion slideshow

Click on the photograph above to see examples of clothing worn by librarians, 1940s–1990s.

Library fashion

What do you think of when you picture a librarian? An American text, The images of librarians in cinema 1917-1999, is packed with references to glasses, bun hair styles and middle-aged women constantly claiming, ‘I’m only 38’.

In New Zealand, the ubiquitous smock has defined the perception of librarians. Images from the 1940s show Wellington Public Library staff covered up even in their tea breaks. Hints of fabric patterns peck out from the monotone uniform. At Christchurch City Libraries, smocks were buttoned to the neck and worn with a belt.

You don't look like one

'When you tell people that you are a librarian the best reaction that you can hope for is that you don't look like a librarian. I often wonder what a brain surgeon would feel like if this was the constant reaction they received when confessing their occupation.'

Peter Durey, the 1982 New Zealand Library Association President.

The wearing of smocks in libraries continued through the 1980s as they protected clothing when undertaking the less than glamorous roles of checking and dusting library shelves. Not all staff shared an enthusiasm for wearing smocks and most of these were relegated to workroom cupboards.

However an e-mail promoting a fashion seminar at the 2007 LIANZA conference referring to librarians as having a very conservative and dated image met with immediate criticism. Reactions such as ‘pompous twaddle’ from librarians unimpressed about the notion of requiring a fashion makeover flooded the NZ-Libs listserv. The media picked up on the e-mail debate with print headlines such as 'Bookworms’ backs up' and an item on TV3’s Campbell Live show. In response Christchurch City Libraries posted a series of smock images on flickr and have extended this into an online feature, 'Smocked off'.

Other library fashion accoutrements include plastic sleeves offering even greater protection to clothing. Male staff at the Parliamentary Library used to maintain a self-described ‘hideous tie collection’ for wearing when based at the front desk. Some public libraries have adopted corporate uniforms which ranged from pink skirts in the 1980s to more recent promotional tops with council logos. During the 1990s, North Shore Libraries staff wore council t-shirts with the message “simply the best” emblazoned across the front (presumably the marketing person was a Tina Turner fan). In 2009 Christchurch City Libraries staff have been issued with t-shirts to wear in celebration of the library’s 150th anniversary.

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