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The Senate's dress code just got more relaxed. Some insist on staying buttoned up

Sen. John Fetterman (D-PA) arrives at the Russell Senate Office Building last Wednesday. The Senate's unwritten dress code will no longer be enforced as of this week.
Nathan Howard
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Getty Images
Sen. John Fetterman (D-PA) arrives at the Russell Senate Office Building last Wednesday. The Senate's unwritten dress code will no longer be enforced as of this week.

There's a lot for lawmakers to be stressed about these days, from the looming threat of a government shutdown to debates over additional funding for Ukraine. But one of the most divisive issues on Capitol Hill suddenly seems to be what senators can wear to work.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer directed the Senate's sergeant-at-arms to stop enforcing its unwritten dress code — only for its 100 members — starting this week.

"Senators are able to choose what they wear on the Senate floor," he told Axios, which first reported the news. "I will continue to wear a suit."

That's prompted criticism from many Republicans, who say decorum is at stake. Several senators from both sides of the aisle have ditched their ties in recent days, while others vow they will not. And critics within and beyondCapitol Hill say the focus on fashion is overshadowing far more pressing issues.

The dress codes and norms of Congress have evolved over the years. For example, women weren't allowed to wear pants on the Senate floor until 1993. That was the same year the first women's restroom was built off the Senate floor.

In 2017, after protests by female lawmakers, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., modified the rules to allow women to wear sleeveless dresses and open-toed shoes, and the Senate followed suit in 2019. That same year, as the first two Muslim congressional representatives took office, the House voted to permit religious headwear on the floor for the first time.

Senators have traditionally stuck to business casual clothing, meaning coats and ties for men and dresses and suits for women. Lawmakers coming from a flight or a workout have gotten around the informal rules by voting from the edge of the Senate floor, with one foot in the cloakroom, Axios notes.

Some have stood out for their unconventional fashion choices, like the "dangerous creature" tee Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz., wore while presiding over the Senate or Pennsylvania Democratic Sen. John Fetterman's penchant for gym shorts and hoodies.

In fact, the New York Times reports, the rules appear to have been changed primarily to accommodate Fetterman, who traded suits for basketball shorts when he returned to the Senate in May after being hospitalized for clinical depression.

Fetterman told the newspaper on Tuesday that he figured people would come around.

"The Republicans think I'm going to burst through the doors and start break dancing on the floor in shorts," he said. "I don't think it's going to be a big issue."

Spoiler alert: Not exactly.

Many Republicans are slamming the change

Scores of senators, many of them Republicans, have railed against the relaxed dress code in recent days.

On Wednesday, 46 GOP senators sent a letter to Schumer demanding he reverse the change for the sake of decorum.

"The world watches us on that floor and we must protect the sanctity of that place at all costs," they wrote. "Allowing casual clothing on the Senate floor disrespects the institution we serve and the American families we represent."

Some of the best-dressed lawmakers haven't always shown respect for the institution, with the Times pointing out that Rep. Jeff Van Drew, R-N.J., wears a pocket square most days but voted to overturn the 2020 election results.

Notably, the signatories of the letter include all but one of the eight Republican senators who voted to overturn the presidential election results. The exception is Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., who embraced the change by wearing his travel outfit of jeans and boots to work on Monday evening, according to the AP.

Other senators have spoken out on social media and in the halls of Congress, with some blaming Fetterman directly.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., told The Hill that he had personally told Fetterman he believed the dress code changes are "wrong" and that not wearing a suit and tie on the Senate floor "degrades" the chamber.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., tweeted that "the Senate no longer enforcing a dress code for Senators to appease Fetterman is disgraceful." Greene, a fan of sleeveless tops, regularly benefits from changes the House made to its dress code just years ago, as some have pointed out.

Fetterman, known for his brash use of social media, retorted in kind.

"Thankfully, the nation's lower chamber lives by a higher code of conduct: displaying ding-a-ling pics in public hearings," read one of his tweets on the matter, referring to a July hearing in which Greene displayed blown-up naked photographs of Hunter Biden engaging in sex acts.

Some Democrats have defended Fetterman, including Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev. She said "there's a lot of offenders," like "all the men who wear cowboy boots and gym shoes on the floor" and former Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., who routinely went sockless.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, joked to reporters that she planned to wear a bikini onto the Senate floor, while Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, reassured his X (formerly known as Twitter) followers that he would not be wearing a speedo to work.

It's not clear how much the dress code will actually change.

As Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell put it, he can't imagine many Republicans will be wearing jeans to the Senate floor anytime soon. And as the Hill reported, most male senators wore coats and ties to their weekly caucus lunches on Tuesday, except for Fetterman.

Senators and staff pose for a photo at the U.S. Capitol on Seersucker Thursday, an annual tradition, in June.
Alex Wong / Getty Images
/
Getty Images
Senators and staff pose for a photo at the U.S. Capitol on Seersucker Thursday, an annual tradition, in June.

The dress code discourse is a distraction, some say

Several lawmakers are calling out the fact that this has become an issue at all, especially given the Senate's high-stakes to-do list.

Fetterman told CNN there are "much more important kinds of issues we should be addressing, instead of like, how if I dress like a bum." He tweeted Wednesday that he would be willing to suit up under certain conditions.

Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., responded to Greene's comments on X, suggesting the lack of dress code wasn't the real disgrace.

"Seriously? You're bitching about Senate dress code when House Republicans are about to drive the Federal Government off a cliff? Again?" Smith wrote, referring to the end-of-September deadline for averting a government shutdown.

Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., tweeted that Republicans fixating on the Senate dress code two weeks before a potential shutdown are "wildly out of touch."

"Millions of American workers are about to go without pay because the House GOP can't do their jobs and this is where the focus is?" he wrote. "America needs you to do better than this."

Menswear writer Derek Guy, who edits the Put This On blog, told Morning Edition there's really one main area where dress does matter in politics.

"It's not that voters vote based on whether a politician's well-dressed," he said. "It's that, sometimes, if you wear something very unusual, it ends up being a talking point."

He points to when Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., wore heeled, zippered boots on the presidential campaign trail in 2016, causing a minor controversy. Guy says it sparked a week's worth of discourse, meaning a week's worth of not talking to voters about the issues that affect them.

"You don't want your dress to be the focus of attention," Guy adds. "You want what you're talking about to be the focus of attention."

The change doesn't apply to staffers

One of the few Democrats critical of the change is Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, who took issue with the fact that it doesn't apply to Senate staffers who work in the chamber.

"If we are allowed to dress casually, they should be allowed to dress casually," he told the Times. "To me, it's a dignity of work issue."

Nonprofit director Beverly Hart, who spent five years working her way up from unpaid intern to senior legislative assistant, says that "more than probably any other place in the U.S., [Capitol Hill] has just this really archaic, very serious way of dressing."

She told Morning Edition she remembers being with staff who were kicked off the House floor for wearing a sweater or button-down shirt. She also spoke of the time that one of her coworkers had to run back to his office to borrow someone else's suit jacket.

Hart says off the floor, trends in how members and their staff dress seem to fall largely along gender and generational divides, with older and Republican lawmakers tending to dress more conservatively. She and her colleagues used to play a game where they would guess which party people belonged to based on their outfits.

"It was pretty obvious ... if you're an intern dressed really conservatively or wearing pantyhose or high heels, probably a Republican," she said. "If you're dressed more casually or in all black or sneakers or loafers, probably a Democrat."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman
Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.