Attire and Professional Identity

Office for Emergency Management. Office of War Information. Domestic Operations Branch. Bureau of Special Services, NARA.
Office for Emergency Management. Office of War Information. Domestic Operations Branch. Bureau of Special Services, NARA.

Earlier this week I participated in the SAA Student and New Archives Professionals Roundtable twitter chat on workplace attire.  The chat was co-hosted by Librarian Wardrobe and like most #snaprt chats invited students, new professionals, and seasoned archives staff to engage in meaningful discussion. I don’t really fit in the new professional category but I always find these discussions interesting and filled with thought provoking discussions.  This particular chat posed a lot of questions around the challenges of attire and professional culture, accepted norms in the archival field  and how appearance can impact professional identity, job prospects, and career choices.

For me it made me think a lot about the way in which I present myself and how that has changed over time based on experience, changing roles, and age.  In the first job I worked in after grad school most of the people I was supervising were either very close to my age or much older.  I remember feeling the need to dress up slightly to set myself apart and at times make myself appear older. When I started working at a post-secondary institution my clothing choices often reflected a desire to not be mistaken as a student.  Having worked at the same place for over five years now, I no longer feel that need — it’s a small enough institution that staff know who I am and on the off chance a visitor thinks I’m a student I’m going to take that as a compliment.  Granted, my change in perspective might also be influenced by becoming a mother and the fact that I’m approaching a milestone birthday.

Many years ago I worked with a colleague who was very close in age to me.  For the sake of discussion lets call that colleague Billy.  I vividly remember conversations with others where comments were made about Billy’s age and identifying a need for more experience and professional growth.  In most cases people didn’t seem to realize how close we were in age. We had taken different career paths and I had a bit more job experience at that point, but I was definitely still a new professional.  Looking back I often wonder if those conversations were influenced by attire, personality, work experience, or how Billy and I presented ourselves.  But I don’t remember Billy dressing unprofessionally or in clothing that wasn’t suitable to our workplace – so did that really play a factor? Or maybe I just look older? And people assumed a difference in age because of that.

I share this experience because for me it highlights the importance of realizing that attire is just one of many factors which make up a professional identity. People are always going to make assumptions particularly in hiring and new workplace situations.  Attire can impact those assumptions and often shapes first impressions (even if it shouldn’t) but there are often a lot of other variables at play as well.

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