Women Lawmakers Have Pushed Back Against Senate Dress Codes for Decades
With the continuing chaos on Capitol Hill involving the budget, DOJ investigations and the looming government shutdown, the Senate has received unexpected attention for a relatively mundane reason. Last week, Senate Majority Leader Senator Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) announced a major change to the long-standing informal dress code: “Senators are able to choose what they wear on the Senate floor,” he stated.
Although Schumer is certainly not a fashion rebel—informing reporters that he plans on continuing wearing a suit—the move was seen as no less than a revolution, especially for an establishment known for its adherence to tradition and archaic protocols, not its fashion-forwardness.
While some welcomed the change—most notably Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) who is known for his unique style of hoodies and shorts—others lamented the disregard to tradition and decorum, arguing that the loosening of the dress code is just another step in degrading the institution. Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) even led a group of 46 GOP senators demanding Schumer to reverse the decision.
The Senate might not be the most obvious place to begin a war over styles, but this recent episode is another demonstration to how much fashion has become part of our political discourse in recent years. Clothes matter, and even more so the politics around them.
Yet despite the high emotions on both sides of this debate, the regulation of dress on Capitol Hill is far more elusive than it looks. Unlike many other workplaces and occupations, there is not a formal or rigid dress code that members of Congress must follow.
In fact, in its 230 years history, the only specific dress code to exist was a 1837 House rule that banned hats on the floor. Mandating, “No member is to come into the House with his head covered, nor to remove from one place to another with his hat on, nor is to put on his hat in coming in or removing, until he be set down in his place,” it was enacted as a move to mark American individualism and independence that separated the U.S. republic from the British crown. Yet even this rule was revised in 2019, creating an exception for religious or medical head-covering to accommodate Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.).
If the House does have some rules, set by the speaker who is responsible for setting the dress codes, the Senate doesn’t have such mechanism. It often follows the House in terms of decorum requirements, but these rules are not official and serve more as unwritten custom that is left to the Senate’s sergeant-at-arms—the sole authority to determine the policies—to enforce.
Until the late 20th century, members of both houses were only required to wear “proper attire” while in session, never really defining what “proper” actually entailed. However, just like other corporate workspaces that are male dominated, the suit and tie quickly became the outfit of choice. This is of course not surprising. The suit wields power and tradition. It is masculine and authoritative, and thus fits naturally to a place like the U.S. Congress.
The need to specify decorum rules became more pertinent as politicians and the dealings of Congress came more under public view. Indeed, it was only in 1979, during the 96th Congress, when the House began live televised broadcasting from the floor, that the speaker finally defined the category of “proper” with regards to appearance. For the first time, male members were required to wear suits and ties. The 17 women members serving at the time, however, were completely ignored. Not feeling the need to address, or to control, such a miniscule minority, the dress code for them remained vague, only mandating “appropriate attire.”
As the number of women in Congress increased, so was the need to regulate their appearance. Not surprisingly, many of the rules that were added since the 1970s targeted women’s attire. In the House, women politicians such as Shirley Chisholm (D-N.Y.), Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.) and Susan Molinari (R-N.Y.) have pushed back against convention, sporting bold-color outfits and occasionally even pantsuits. And in 2017, women members of Congress protested House rules that banned sleeveless dresses and open-toe shoes, leading a bipartisan demand for the “right to bare arms.”
Yet if women have been making progress in the House, the Senate proved to be a much more elusive target. It wasn’t until 1992, in an election year the press dubbed as “The Year of the Woman,” that female senators became a significant minority that could no longer be ignored.
By 1993, there were six women in the Senate, negotiating their place in this heavily masculine environment. The new cohort of women was also more willing to push against institutional norms, determined to reclaim their equal space with men. Whereas issues like bathrooms and access to the gym became high on the agenda, so did women’s appearance.