There is the old saying, “dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” A joke could then be made that Democratic Senator John Fetterman of Pennsylvania, who was elected last year, is seeking a job as a high school gym coach or perhaps a beach bum – as he typically dons his signature gym shorts and hoodie, rather than a suit.
Throughout much of the history of the United States Senate – and arguably even the very United States – a dress code wasn’t actually required. There was a time when most citizens wouldn’t give a second thought to dressing up as part of daily life. Suits and dresses were the norm – not the exception.
In fact, the idea of “casual wear” was hardly even a thing until recent decades. There were simply times when no man (or woman) of any class would dare go out in public without making some effort to look presentable. Even laborers, farmhands, factory workers, and others in the working class would have finer clothes to wear when not on the job. For all classes, a suit was not reserved just for weddings and funerals.
The times have certainly changed, but the change came slowly.
No Hats On the Floor!
Lawmakers have always been seen as rather formally dressed, yet a formal dress code was rarely required. It was simply accepted that elected officials would dress their best.
Even in the United States Capitol Building, the first dress code known to exist was an 1837 House rule that banned hats on the floor. Today, most members of Congress probably don’t even have much in the way of formal headdress – at best a few might have baseball hats, while a Cowboy hat can be expected to be in the closet of those from certain states. President Dwight Eisenhower is also noted to be the last president to wear a hat at his inauguration.
For the record, the rule on hats was only revised in 2018, to create an exception for religious head-covering – which accommodated Rep. Ihan Omar (D-Minn.).
Male senators are still expected to wear suits and ties.
The Women Trailblazers
Fetterman, who had agreed to wear a suit earlier this month to “save democracy” during the debate over the funding bill, could also be seen as a bit of a rebel for his choice of attire, but he’s hardly a trailblazer.
Senators Carol Moseley Braun (D-Illinois) and Barbara Mikulski (D-Maryland) were noted to be the first to wear trousers in the Senate chamber, and that created a minor firestorm, even as the Senate didn’t have a specific dress code that banned pantsuits for women – it was just accepted that women would wear dresses or skirts.
More recently, Senator Kyrsten Sinema (I-Arizona) has also been the subject of ridicule for her eclectic, even eccentric choice of clothing that has included rainbow sneakers, fluffy vests, and at one time a purple wig. She infamously wore a denim vest in October 2021 that some on social media compared to clothing more appropriate for the rodeo rather than the Senate floor.
Taking Casual Friday to the Extreme
There is still a difference between making a statement, and simply showing up looking like a slob, even if Fetterman’s choice of attire would not be that out of the ordinary with some businesses where dress codes have been greatly relaxed.
It has become common in the past 25 years for many younger workers, especially in creative fields, to even wear shorts and T-shirts to work. This was already true prior to the pandemic, despite the best efforts by Men’s Warehouse, which attempted to ride the fashion wave inspired by TV’s Mad Men in the early 2000s, to get men to don suits again. By the time the show ended, the brief suit craze was over, and a lot of workers will now admit that they’re not all that concerned about the way they look despite what the Men’s Warehouse ads proclaimed.
Allowing Fetterman to Dress Down?
Earlier this month, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) tossed out the chamber’s current dress code – something that was never actually enshrined into rule but rather was understood and accepted – to make an exception for Fetterman and called for the Senate’s Sergeant at Arm to stop enforcing it.
However, Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia has indicated that he will introduce a resolution that would see the dress code reinstated.
Moreover, a group of 46 GOP senators – led by Rick Scott of Florida – also demanded that Schumer bring back the expectation of style decorum. In a letter to the Majority Leader, they argued that the rules’ relaxation disrespects and undermines the institution of the Senate. Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) even joked with reporters that she could now “wear a bikini” on the Senate floor.
It also isn’t just lawmakers that have an issue with how Fetterman dresses.
The editorial board of The Washington Post offered an op-ed last week that suggested a casual dress code doesn’t suit the Senate. Americans also remain split on the issue, with some arguing the institution is one that deserves respect, while others argue that the focus should be on the business of legislating not debating how lawmakers should be dressed. There are numerous issues that require the attention of lawmakers, and this seems little more than a distraction.
As a future concern, it is also unclear if a compromise could ever be reached.
The Pennsylvania senator has certainly taken his attire to the extreme – and maybe he could make an effort as well. Perhaps slacks with a polo-style shirt could be the middle ground, at least for daily wear on the Senate floor, while the more rigid part of the unofficial dress code could be reserved for voting.
Yet, like everything in Washington, finding a compromise is not likely to be quick or easy.
Author Experience and Expertise
A Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer. He has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,200 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, politics, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes and Clearance Jobs. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.
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