I am not what anyone would call adventurous when it comes to wardrobe. It makes my choices simple when planning what to wear to work. Pre-pandemic, the uniformity of the khakis and an Oxford button down made life easy. During the pandemic, I adopted a new uniform: every day was a casual Friday. Now that we are going back into the office, the dress code has been reactivated. And, like so many things right now, it makes me wonder why.

Let’s start with the idea of a dress code. I’ve been thinking a lot about employer control and a dress code is part of that. We studied school dress codes in Constitutional law and then, pretty unquestioningly, went out into the working world and complied with whatever dress codes our employers required us to meet. I bought my first suit in law school and a colleague lost his earring. Such is conformity.

I think it’s fair to say that people who present themselves as men have dress codes easier. Thrown on a shirt with a collar and no logo (unless it’s a prestige one like Izod once was?) and some cotton trousers and you’re good to go. It doesn’t even matter if you have shoes that are shined, or that can even carry a shine.

Add a cardigan for whimsy, or a tie for a power look, but it’s optional. I left a sports coat hanging on my door – in case – but it rarely came out. I don’t know how people who have to comply with a woman’s dress code do it. Our corporate dress code has things like “city dress shorts” which I have never been able to define and “dress sandals” in our business casual category.

Another thing I don’t feel confident speaking to is that dress codes are about conforming to perceptions of masculine and feminine dress. My guess is that adherence to a code but for a non-conforming gender would probably be seen as not adhering to the code. That’s a problem.

In our organization, we can’t wear things that are “too revealing” or that have logos. We operate in a world where revealing bare skin seems to always be taboo but revealing tightness showing musculature less so and some things have acceptable logo, like a Kate Spade bag or a red-bottomed shoe, while others don’t. I always thought it was funny that leather seems more acceptable as professional wear (on the feet, at least) but who can really tell what footwear is made of any more?

Even though I haven’t spent much time in law firms, the professional dress code of the legal world permeates other types of law libraries. The thinking seems to be that, if you are meeting with a lawyer who is wearing a suit, you should be wearing something equivalent.

For anyone who doesn’t know anything about fashion, like me, the Wikipedia pages are a hoot. Business wear is a subset of informal wear (or undress) in the Western dress code. It seems that, for all us hoi polloi, professional dress is in the eye of the beholder.

I think this quote from the Wikipedia page on informal wear is helpful though: “It is a traditional dress code that aims to indicate respect to the situation and not draw attention.” In the case of law libraries and providing legal information, then, the situation involves aspects of law library service delivery. And the idea is to not draw attention.

Asynchronous Workers

A dress code needs to fit the situation, then, that the staff will find themselves in. As our staff work asynchronously – whether in a library space or without – their situation should impact the dress code they follow. In my mind, for these staff, the dress code should be out of sight, out of mind. If no-one can see the person, then what does it matter what they are wearing so long as they are getting the work done.

How does adhering to a dress code impact the work of a cataloger who is working in the back office, often in solitary quiet? For the work to be done well, shouldn’t the concern be that they feel comfortable rather than worry about how they look? Similarly, as I’m sitting here in my home office uniform of jeans, t-shirt, and a hoodie, no-one knows or needs to know what I look like every minute of the day.

I was talking with some colleagues, though, and one of their organizations has mandated the dress code even for their asynchronous – “remote” – workers. Why? Because, if they receive a video call, they need to look professional.

Here’s the thing about remote workers. In the recent past, we had things called telephones. It seems archaic now but it allowed people to talk to each other even though they couldn’t see each other. Now that we have the ability to make a video call, we should remember this ancient technology.

Staff should be able to opt out of video on any call. If they can communicate and get the work done without video as well as with, then it shouldn’t be required. And if they do not need to be on video, why would we care what they are wearing?

Synchronous Workers

At this point, I think people who are working asynchronously should be able to work without a dress code. The synchronous workers will have a harder time detaching themselves from the conformity of the dress code. This may be particularly acute in the legal profession for jobs that require face-to-face interactions like reference support.

I still remember being surprised when I arrived in Canada and found that lawyers dress up for court. Called gowning, they have special robing rooms in courthouses in order to change – like locker rooms. There may be separate rooms for barristers and lady barristers. Gowning was suspended for virtual hearings during the pandemic but is still expected otherwise. It seems clear, though, that, if it can be temporarily suspended, gowning probably isn’t required for competent legal services.

Courthouse law libraries have, of course, taken notice. Lawyers who need spare tabs for their collars can often find a loaner pair at a reference desk. But I’ve often thought about how a gowned lawyer is visually distinguishable in court from a self-represented litigant and wonder if the robed judge experiences any bias because of that.

And it isn’t like businesses, even in the legal sphere, haven’t considered that maybe dress codes aren’t always necessary. Hence casual Friday. In our organization, we pay a weekly fee to be able to partake in casual Fridays. The money is collected for charity but it’s always been a bit strange to have to pay to wear certain clothes.

I realize that a code that defines examples of professional or business or appropriate attire helps people to know what’s allowed and what isn’t. And I also understand that some people in our field like to wear a bow tie and a suit, for prestige or caste status or to feel good about themselves.

Why can’t trust our staff to make those choices on their own. If we were to throw out the dress code, then, how many staff would dress dramatically differently? And if they did, how would it impact our service delivery? For example, I have some clothes I keep for gardening or painting in. I wouldn’t wear them to work because I don’t want to look sloppy, as much as because they may not be allowed.

Face-to-face service may need to take into account the comfort level of the people we provide service to. I know some people in law libraries dress to fit in with lawyers, who are perceived to see law librarians as inferior and so some of us dress up to look more lawyerly. That’s less our clients’ comfort so much as our own. And I don’t discount the reality that some law librarians working with governance boards may need to dress like their board members in order to be taken seriously, despite their subject matter expertise.

For better or worse, this isn’t something I can impact at the moment except on the front line. A corporate dress code is a corporate policy and we don’t currently have any dress code issues. Even if we did, they would be subject to my interpretation as the line manager, which allows for me to absorb ambiguities.

But I think dress codes need a rethink. We should do it for our staff. And we should do it so that we can create an environment people will want to join and stay at.