Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced early last week that the Senate’s traditional dress code will no longer be enforced. Though an unwritten policy, the dress code enforces professional business attire — suits and ties for men and dresses and pantsuits for women. Pennsylvania Sen. John Fetterman has become the face of the dress code change as he often dons casual clothing, gym shorts and sweatshirts while voting on legislation from the Senate doorway. However, as public trust in government wavers, Congress in particular, the new dress code raises concerns about how it will affect the Senate’s image of formality and respectability.
This isn’t the first modification to the dress code the Senate has seen. As a more diverse body of individuals have taken up government positions, more inclusive and equitable adjustments to the formal dress code have been implemented. In the 1990s, the Senate allowed women to wear pants rather than skirts or dresses. Additionally, in 2019, “sleeveless dresses” for women were permitted on the Senate floor. The dress code has also been changed for religious reasons on Capitol Hill. When the first Muslim congress member took office in 2019, a new measure was voted upon to allow “religious headwear” in the House — repealing a previous ban on hats and other headgear. Since the traditional dress code was written with the exclusive existence of male politicians, it can alienate and discriminate against minority groups. Flexibility with the dress code rules is necessary in terms of inclusivity and equitability for all members.
However, adjusting the Senate dress code rules is different than loosening them. Though the new change comes after the pandemic when many U.S. businesses allowed more casual attire in the workplace, lowering the standard of dress actually increases gender inequity. In the Senate, professional business attire — homogenous suits and ties — was a neutral form of clothing fashioned for male politicians. Yet, women’s appearance is vastly different from men’s since every fashion choice impacts how others view and treat them.
Democratic U.S. representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez received much attention for her bold red lipstick in a 2018 debate against former U.S. representative Joe Crowley. How women present themselves matters as it affects their personal autonomy and power. Seeing Senator Susan Collins wearing a T-shirt and yoga pants will not be viewed or treated the same way as Senator Fetterman sporting a hoodie and baggy jeans. Lowering the standard of dress only exacerbates gender disparity of appearance in politics and creates yet another window to target female legislators’ autonomy.
Additionally, the new dress code would only apply to senators. The staffers — a younger, more diverse group of color who are paid less — will still be required to wear business attire on the Senate floor. This exacerbates class segregation by allowing senators privileges not extended to the workers that make their jobs possible, which surely is not something a democratic government should be practicing.
With the frustration over how long Congress took to agree on a federal budget and the near government shutdown, image is more important than ever. Lower standards of dress jeopardize the institution as a whole by rendering it frivolous. Like many professions, uniforms are a social marker of training, status, community and code of conduct. Clothing has the power to not only represent the identity of a person, but also the reputation of an organization. The Senate’s so-to-speak “uniforms” are business attire as they allow an identifiable and respectable image for all members.
While it was a wise decision to reverse the relaxed dress code, the resolution still does not “specify what women have to wear on the Senate floor.” Therefore, flexibility towards the dress code in the future to promote inclusivity and equity is important — especially in one of America’s most powerful institutions.