The United State Senate leadership’s decision this week to no longer enforce a dress code has elicited a wide range of reaction – everything from disgust to indifference, and plenty of debate in between.
In a statement, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer noted:
“There has been an informal dress code that was enforced. Senators are able to choose what they wear on the Senate floor. I will continue to wear a suit.”
It’s likely that many senators will do likewise. Old habits die hard, and many probably can’t even imagine dressing down in a city or setting so steeped in tradition and decorum.
But not everybody.
In recent months, Senator John Fetterman (D-Pa.) has made headlines walking the halls of Congress in baggy shorts and Carhartt sweatshirts. Senator Ted Cruz (D-Tx.) was photographed last year leaving the Senate chamber after a vote wearing workout clothes. Other senators, like Kyrsten Sinema (I-Az.), have been known to push the boundaries of tradition and wear colorful, eccentric and off beat outfits.
Debates over dress code may have heightened in recent years, but as the saying goes, “Everything old is new again.”
While not exactly a traditional matter of fashion, President George Washington, who was a red head, powdered his hair white. His next four successors, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe, all wore wigs. Fast forward to the Carter Administration in the late 1970s, and some aides were either tieless or bedraggled while working in the West Wing. The former Georgia governor tired of the mavericks and reportedly ordered staffers to “cinch up or ship out.”
At the time, one anonymous Carter aide told The New York Times, “No one really had to tell us to dress more formally. It just seemed an obvious form of job insurance.” It seems not everyone was interested.
Of course, there’s nothing in the Constitution about an official Washington dress code, and styles have changed over the years. It might surprise some that sleeveless dresses and open toed shoes for women weren’t allowed on the House floor until 2017. At the time, it became a joke that Speaker Paul Ryan “gave women the right to bare arms (and toes).
The late Senator Max Cleland (D-Ga.), who lost three limbs in combat during the Vietnam War, reportedly took an hour-and-half to get dressed every day. Yes, it was a lot of effort. It would have been quicker to wear less formal attire. But he wanted to look his best and represent his state and country with dignity.
Some may argue that our clothes are superficial, and it’s only the snob that gets caught up in such materialistic matters. But at the heart of the debate is really the heart of it all: what is motivating the change, and why are people pushing for more casual dress?
How we dress can communicate many things – especially our level of respect for those we encounter. Neat and well-tailored clothing are a sign of good manners.
The late ABC Radio newsman Paul Harvey began dressing more informally in the late 1970s, ditching his trademark coat and tie. Afterall, he reasoned, he wasn’t being seen by his audience. A few days into the experiment, his longtime engineer, Bob Benninghoff, who also worked for Dr. Billy Graham, said to him, “You know, Paul, you’re beginning to sound as casual as you look.”
He put the tie and coat back on.
Many of us wonder and even worry that America’s casualness in the halls of power may translate into crassness and carelessness elsewhere.
Photo from Shutterstock.