You’re the Conservator: The Ideal Lab Coat

Most conservation labs that I have worked in or visited have had an assortment of aprons and lab coats available for staff to use.  Given the nature of our lab here at ISU Library, lab coats are necessary PPE (Personal Protective Equipment).  We wear lab coats to protect ourselves and our clothing from chemical splashes, dirt, mold, red rot, and other nasty substances with which our work requires occasional contact.  The lab coats also protect us from splashes and dripping water during aqueous treatments, spilled glue, and, sometimes, the chilly lab temperature!  Finally, during disaster response or at preservation events, lab coats make our staff easily identifiable.

Wearing lab coats while washing flood-damaged architectural drawings after the 2010 Ames Flood.

Our lab coats have a basic, thigh-length, unisex design that gets the job done, but hardly in style.  The boxy cut presents problems when using the boardshears or double-fan adhesive press, since the loose fabric tends to snag on levers and handles.  The white color hides PVA residue well, but easily stains with mold, dirt, and red rot, so even after washing, the lab coats tend to look a bit dingy.  Also, the cotton twill fabric tends to shrink with repeated washings, so even if sleeves were full-length to begin with, they tend to shorten up over time, which isn’t always desirable.

Wearing a lab coat while getting messy at the bench (2010).

Fortunately for us, Iowa State University’s Apparel, Merchandising, and Design program consistently ranks among the best fashion design and apparel/textile programs nationwide.  We are currently exploring the possibility of working with a student from AESHM to design lab coats which meet the specific needs of the Preservation Department staff.

What would your ideal lab coat look like, if you could design one from scratch?  Please share your ideas in the comments!


  1. I like the 3/4 length sleeves since I roll mine up anyway to be less constricting during treatments. And the wrap-around style is nice, too!

  2. I have a favorite apron that I have worn to shreds made from a lightweight denim. A friend brought it back to me from Japan several years ago. What I love about it is that it doesn’t cut across the neck but has shoulder straps that come down the back and button at the waist. Unfortunately, I can’t find anything like it here in the States. It would be nice to find something similar made from a more substantial fabric and perhaps the addition of a few extra pockets to hide my candy bars.

    1. Tahe, I have a gorgeous leather apron that was a gift from the folks at UIUC. I think it is a welding apron. Like your favorite apron, it doesn’t hang from the neck, but instead has shoulder straps that criss-cross in the back and attach at the waist. It also has a couple of roomy pockets, big enough for candy bars… Good luck on your quest!

      1. It is just like this one.

        I’ve seen leather aprons and I like them, too. I agree with Ross about the heavy denim (or leather) apron being the distinctive work wear of craftspeople. I lean more in that direction myself rather than a lab coat. I feel constricted by the sleeves anyway and have a much greater range of movement in an apron.

  3. Velcro enclosures would be nice – especially at the sleeves to get loose fabric out of the way – like high end out door wear

  4. I strongly prefer a heavy-duty, long denim apron to anything resembling a lab coat. An apron fastens in the back, so there are no buttons or loose tails to get caught in the board shear or glue pot. An apron will fit any body type or size, and it can be worn comfortably over all types of clothing and in any kind of environment. An apron lets me roll up my sleeves to keep them out of the way of work (If I need skin protection on hands or bare forearms, I would use gloves and a heavy-duty work shirt). Good, sturdy denim takes a lot of abuse, resisting cuts and abrasions as well as spilled glue, methylcell, red rot, etc. And it washes out easily. Finally, unlike a white lab coat that implies medicine or laboratory science, a heavy-duty work apron is a classic, distinctive garment for skilled craftspeople that communicates the hands-on nature of book conservation and binding. I say ditch the white lab coats entirely and get your crew some blue denim work aprons with a distinctive logo printed on them.

    1. I’m with you on the joys of the apron, Ross — it is my personal, preferred cover-up as well. We did order a bunch of dark blue denim work aprons a couple of years ago, but in our lab women outnumber men, and we soon realized none of the women were wearing these particular aprons because — not to put too fine a point on it — the size and shape of the bib was all wrong for the female anatomy. I do like the design of the smock-style apron I posted above as a response to Tahe’s comment — it would accommodate the range of body shapes ad sizes we have on staff here.

  5. We could go back to the 1930s “Hoover apron” look… 😉
    Seriously, I’d like more of an A-line silhouette — with a back belt that cinches up (like a man’s formal vest) and raglan sleeves instead of the linebacker look you get from those “unisex” lab coats they sell at the university bookstore.

    1. I had to Google image “Hoover apron” to see what you’re describing, Suzanne — very cool! I’m a sucker for 1930s styles, but we’d still have to come up with something our male staff and students would be comfortable in as well.

      1. I like the apron you linked to above. We have a circa 1900 apron pattern here [not accessioned, only for reference] that looks very much like that… maybe I’ll test a prototype!

  6. I’m 100% an apron person, myself. But as for color, maybe that kind of teal that’s in the background of the first photo? What can I say, I like teal!

    Pockets are a must, but I like my pockets down low or at the waist, rather than up high on the chest…then things don’t fall out of them when you lean over to look at something.

    They do make wrap lab coats (cut similar to a wrap dress), which are more one-size-fits-all than the standard kind of coat. No buttons to lose, either.

  7. I have a lab coat, hardly ever wear it unless I am a) really cold, or b) VIP’s are on the way and I am dressed badly, or c) I have something fuzzy on that seems to be getting on everything. I also hate the sleeves. I prefer denim aprons, but make my own because I want/need that wider bib to keep everything covered, and I like lots of pockets for tools, ipod, etc. I can’t wear those wrap around aprons because those styles just don’t work with “endowed” women.

    I’ve bought several styles of coats and aprons for the lab and have found that everyone just ends up bringing their own in because they want to wear something they are really comfortable in. I don’t think there is a one-type-fits-all. I love the idea of working with student designers, but you may need to have a couple styles or options.

    1. Lab coat culture is strong here, perhaps because we are a science and technology school? In any case, my preference for the apron puts me in the distinct minority in our lab — everyone else wears lab coats regularly (and yes, we all don them for VIP visits, too). I also hear from Danielle Fraser at NALIS that her staff pretty much live in their lab coats. I totally agree that finding a single design that works for a range of body types is a challenge, but I am hoping this chance to work one-on-one with a designer will result in some good options. I had no idea when I wrote this blog post that I would be tapping into such an intense divide between the apron advocates and the lab coat advocates!

      1. Melissa, in designing the perfect lab coat, adjustable snaps, buttons, Velcro (as suggested before), or elastic would be good things to consider for a range of body types. Patch pockets are better than side slit pockets which can catch on handles and corners. You could even consider the addition of flaps or zippers on the pockets to keep things from falling out or falling in! Choice of fabric is good, one that doesn’t attract lint which can be transferred to the objects or paste pots, and that can be easily washed and non-absorbent (maybe?) to resist staining or getting the wearer wet. Although the idea of the addition of microfiber cloth patches to wipe your hands on would be cool, too. One could go nuts creating an elaborately designed lab coat! I’m excited to see what y’all come up with. Keep us posted!

  8. Oh where can I start! I love love love my wrap around, velcro-sleeved lab coats from – smaller and tailorable with ties to the conservators’ shape. But I do need more waterproof options at times. While I mentioned the rubberised apron I wear alone or over lab coat when pouring solvents and at the sink, it is awfully heavy and hangs on the neck if wearing for a length of time – very tiring on the cervical bones and trapezius. SAAM/NPG had custom-designed denim aprons by Mizrahi for their visible lab, but I think they sold out the extra run in the shop and never remade them. I would seriously look at and point your student to this journal for great tips on the apron the wonderful theatrical arts designer and professor La Bricoleuse made for herself and includes the crossback design. It’s been picked up since for historical fiction and in academia! I think her hip closures make a lot of sense, especially if you consider my problem with the heavy weight of neoprene splash protection – if the weight were borne and distributed on the hips or across the shoulders instead of the neck, conservators of either sex would be a lot more comfortable in it. Meanwhile, I’m thinking I will just add x-back straps to my rubber aprons this weekend at the home sewing machine, or with hand-set rivets! Also, I definitely second Beth’s point B! There is something to be said for the lab coat when it comes to unexpected guests or photo ops, when you want to convey your more serious tone. Much as the uniform, its a great equalizer.

  9. Have you seen the lab coats made by the Inherent Vice Squad? I bought one from them a couple of years ago at AIC, and I love it. It’s a wrap-around style that ties in the back, long sleeves that keep me warm in the lab, and velcro at the wrists to keep sleeves out of the way. And big pockets, too!

  10. Maybe this makes me a crazy coat lady, but I have different aprons that I wear for different purposes. There’s the PVA/color apron that is a total mess; the “clean” apron I wear mostly to avoid getting fuzzy paper bits stuck to my nice black pants; and the wrap around smock for when I want fuller protection in the case of mold or other icky things.

    For aprons, I am always wishing the top panel was wider to cover all things, or that it didn’t move around so much, so usually I prefer bottom only aprons, or I wind up folding over the top panel. If you go with aprons, make sure the neck and waist strings are separate so you can wear them half style – the Ikea ones I’ve bought are all one piece, which is annoying. I am intrigued by the shoulder straps instead of neck straps mentioned above – hopefully it would scoot less!

    I will always vote for an art smock over a lab coat. The sleeves on lab coats are too long and drag on your object, the buttons are a pain so you leave it open half the time, and they require a more precise fit for each person. Wrap around smocks cover more, tend to be a little less bulky, have front pockets which hold stuff better than side pockets, and are much easier to pass along generic sizes to new workers. The Inherent Vice Squad ones Andrea mentioned look beautiful!

    This is definitely an interesting project. Please keep us updated!

  11. I bought a Japanese gardeners apron at Mejii in London years ago.
    Its denim; ties at back; loose elastic at wrist; big pockets in front; knee length.
    Its perfect!!!!!

  12. I made my lab coat using a cotton print fabric. It’s a wrap around style with wide-ish sleeves that end at the elbow. I like the ease of movement of a lighter fabric and love the wrap style.

  13. What a fabulous wealth of information and ideas you all are! I am taking very useful notes. Thanks, too, to those of you who have included links.

  14. On the days when the air conditioning keeps us very cool, you would find just about everyone donning their labcoats whether they are working with something messy or not. The are the unisex typical white labcoats you described – ours have metal snaps on the front and sleeves. We also had to consider bugetary constraints and these were the most economical.

    I like them for their professional look – once when we were out to a site visit (consultation) someone asked if we were from a CSI unit or something. *smile* I think they help us to be taken seriously.

    However, many are becoming very dingy looking after several washes. And the sizes small to extra-extra-large don’t always lead to the perfect fit for each individual.

    If I could dream a little and not be limited by a budget – I would retain new/crisp rarely-used labcoats for official laboraory business (tours, site visits etc.). Then we could have a more durable alternative for the everyday business of conservation – however, not an apron (sleeves are often necessary part of the PPE). I do like the kimono style coats – I remember using one as a book conservation volunteer at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. But I wonder how comfortable a guy would be in one of those?

  15. I’ll add my two cents here. I have never liked aprons nor labcoats. I normally feel I can work better and faster with normal clothes, and have done so all of my career. I think this is especially important when doing difficult practical treatments where a second fussing with your loose sleeves could ruin it all. If I HAD to wear something I think I would opt for a chef type coat with a mandarin collar, and a half apron (waist down) that you could take on & off. Chef clothes are comfortable while made to be moved around in, actively, without getting in the way. They can also look much more attractive than your average lab coats. This is a male point of view, by the way, if that makes any difference. Females I’ve worked with have very much liked the 2 strap aprons that others have commented on, which are also attractive. Best of luck.

  16. Over time, I’ve had to wear nicer and nicer clothes to work. Over that same time, I have drifted farther and farther away from wearing a lab coat or apron during treatment. I never wear one at all anymore! Not for red rot, toning, washing, glue, or solvents. I’ll admit I don’t really know how this works – there’s just some kind of zen to working clean.

    That said, I *would* prefer an apron to a coat, but I anticipate that the appearance of the apron would be interpreted as unprofessional.

    Perhaps I just realized how I learned to work clean.

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