Monday, 28 January 2013

Uniformly black

A few weeks ago I saw this link on Twitter. It's to an American site, so from my vantage point on the other side of the Atlantic perhaps I needn't worry too much, but one point leapt out at me - women should always wear make-up to interviews (for library jobs). Really?

I don't really do make-up very much. I do have some reasons for this, but I wonder whether it is something one should be expected to justify (so, having set them out, I have deleted them). Anyway, do women really look so awful in their natural unadorned state that they could be considered unemployable? (and, presumably, it is only women who are being expected to do this).

I haven't got anything against other people using make-up, of course: I just don't think it has anything to do with how they do their job, especially if their workplace is a library and not a night club. I think it's a personal choice and should be left to the individual. I don't think I'm particularly unobservant, but I would have to make an effort to recall which of my colleagues does or does not use it at work.

Another issue which raises its head occasionally is the wearing of uniforms. In libraries, there is no strong history of a particular uniform, so when it does arise it tends to meet quite a bit of opposition. It's something which gets mentioned when privatisation is in the air. Some councils have themselves tried to introduce it in line with uniforms worn by other council staff. (How glad I am that Cardiff did not ever suggest doing this when I worked for them. Their leisure services uniform was bright green and bright red, and being short I would have looked truly ridiculous in that - like one of Santa's elves). Reasons given are usually to do with making staff recognisable as such, promoting the council's "brand", possibly making staff look smart - although a dress code achieves that, and uniforms provided are sometimes made of cheap material which doesn't look great. Interestingly, some of the library assistants at my branch library were in favour of a uniform, to protect their own clothes. Libraries tend not to have many staff and the public usually seem to be work out who they are, however, and name badges are another option to help with identification.

Once you start thinking about the practicalities, it's difficult to see it working well. Some authorities have toyed with an all-year-round uniform (so how does that work in a heatwave or a cold spell? My school tried this, and came unstuck in the first year of the experiment, due to a hot summer). Library work is less physical than it used to be, but there's still quite a lot of carrying things and moving stuff involved, so sometimes you need loose and not too special clothing; at other times you might need something smarter when speaking to groups. Overalls do sometimes get used (and that's not a bad solution - an overall which protects your clothing could also be in the employer's colours, without too much extra expense).

Given that there is no real history of librarians in uniform, what colour is best? If you have access to it, this article suggests that red is a good choice in academic libraries (although perhaps not for us here in Cardiff, where the Principality Building Society with its Emanuel-designed red uniform is based); more usually it seems that many places which go along this route go for black, either an actual uniform or an expectation that staff will wear (and pay for) black clothes.

Black has seeped into many organisations lately. I wear a lot of it myself, but I'm beginning to feel it needs always to have something else with it, to avoid making myself looking as if I am in any one of a number of possible uniforms. Whereas once it was the preserve of priests, lawyers and undertakers, it is now everywhere: restaurant and bar staff, hairdressers, bouncers and security guards, you name it, the staff are in black. Welsh male voice choirs all regularly appear in black shirts these days, looking like massed gangsters or fascists. A lot of elderly people really do not like this much. "Everybody going around looking like mutes at a funeral" was how one lady put it to me. To the older generation, black was exclusively for funerals and mourning, unless you were the glamorous sort and had an Audrey Hepburn LBD for cocktail parties. Either way, not for everyday use (and, not all that suitable for public library staff - unless in mourning for what is being done to their profession in the name of "localism" and the "Big Society").

In spite of all the arguments which could be put forward in favour, I'm still against the idea of library uniforms. I suspect the wish to introduce it has more to do with wanting to see servants looking like servants, and with suppressing individuality, than anything else. If anyone tries to impose a "make-up and black clothes" rule on me, I shall reinvent myself as a Goth.


  1. Thanks for linking to the blog! Posts showing people who respond that candidates should always wear make-up to interviews seem to frequently draw angry comments. Luckily, most respondents said that they didn't care if candidates did or not:

  2. I agree totally but some make -up is a window to the soul e.g poison pink lipstick. Have you ever met anyone who wears it who isn't a psychopath?