Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer sent some lawmakers into an uproar this past week when he told members that he was relaxing the Senate floor’s informal dress code, which previously required men to wear a suit and tie, and women to wear pantsuits or dresses. Now, senators have leeway to wear more casual clothing, including a T-shirt and jeans, or in at least one senator’s case, their trademark hoodie.
Much of the pushback has come from the usual staunch defenders of the Senate’s many traditions, like Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), who said this week the change “degrades” the institution. Senate Republicans, many of whom wrote Schumer a letter claiming that the change “disrespects the institution we serve and the American families we represent,” have also used it to levy partisan attacks. And the Washington Post editorial board weighed in, too, noting that dressing formally helps convey “respect for the sanctity of the institution and for the real-world impact of the policies it advances.”
Predictably, some of the conversation has devolved into attacking progressive Sen. John Fetterman (D-PA), who is known for sporting his hoodie and gym shorts around the Hill. Such comments have included Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) slamming his clothing choices as “disrespectful,” conservative Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene claiming the “disgraceful” change was made to appease him, and Fox News’ Laura Ingraham arguing that the change is emblematic of Democratic ineffectiveness.
Many of these statements have compelled Democrats to respond by saying that Republicans have more important things to worry about — like keeping the government open — than the type of clothing Fetterman wears to work.
That there was backlash to the change, and that Fetterman is at the center of it, is also unsurprising given how wedded to traditions members of Congress, especially the Senate, continue to be. Fetterman himself has represented a departure from the usual profile of a senator, with his clothing choices, openness about his mental health, theatrical trolling of Republicans in the Senate hallways, and his use of colloquial vernacular to connect to his constituents.
Overall, the Senate is an institution that deeply rejects change. A prime example of this is moderate members’ preservation of tools like the filibuster, which has stymied the passage of key bills on voting rights, criminal justice reform, and immigration. The urge to hold on to the Senate dress code, even as Republicans have ignored other norms on Supreme Court justices, for instance, is an example of some lawmakers’ efforts to continue to cling to superficial norms.
“Senators are watching the world become less formal, less refined, less respectful of tradition, and from the laws they pass to the bean soup they serve in the dining room, they’re just trying to keep what they can control the same,” Abra Belke, creator of the Capitol Hill Style fashion blog, told Vox.
Why there’s been a dress code backlash
Congressional dress codes, and dress codes overall, have long been a point of contention because of the message they send. Often, dress codes, especially in schools, are sexist, and used to police girls’ fashions by putting the onus on them from distracting their male peers. For example, middle schools and high schools have forced girls to change their clothing or conform to certain requirements because they argue that it affects male students’ behavior. Additionally, such dress codes can be used to discriminate against LGBTQ and gender-nonconforming individuals who may wish to wear clothing that’s different from what these policies prescribe.
Congress ran up against the sexism dress codes can impose in July 2017, when then-House Speaker Paul Ryan faced backlash due to the strict dress code in the House Speaker’s Lobby that led to a female reporter being barred from entering because she wore a sleeveless dress. At the time, women weren’t allowed to enter the area unless they had sleeves and were wearing closed-toed shoes, a policy that was called out as sexist since modern business apparel often included such items. Following pressure to change this policy, Ryan amended it so that the rules allowed for more contemporary business clothing.
At question in the Senate is what constitutes contemporary business clothing. And the answer for many senators appears to be, The same clothing we’ve worn for the last century.
“The Senate is a place of honor and tradition,” as Senate Republicans put it in their letter. “The world watches us on that floor and we must protect the sanctity of that place at all costs.”
“Basically, the outrage comes down to the fact that the Senate stubbornly clings to the old ways because, like most institutions run by septuagenarians and octogenarians, they believe that how things have always been is how they should continue to be,” Belke said.
That the Senate’s existing rules and norms should be the default is a mindset that’s apparent in how the chamber works. The blue slip rule, for instance, allows senators to reject judicial nominees from their home states that they dislike. The rule isn’t written into the Constitution — it’s a courtesy — but there has been bipartisan resistance to changing it, despite the fact that Republican lawmakers, as well as Democrats, have routinely used it to stymie presidential administrations they don’t like. Republican efforts to block judges in Wisconsin and Mississippi are among those that have frustrated Democrats in recent years.
The resistance to the dress code change also ignores the importance of clothing as a means of expression and as a matter of practicality.
In the past, dozens of House Democratic women have worn “suffragette” white to events like the 2020 State of the Union address to emphasize their support for women’s rights and commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment. Fetterman favors hoodies and blue-collar standards in part to emphasize his ties to Pennsylvania’s working-class communities. Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan refuses to wear a suit jacket to show constituents he’s “fired up” and because he doesn’t want “some jacket slowing you down.” Young lawmakers, including Gen Z House Member Maxwell Frost, have told the New York Times how they use fashion like casual bomber jackets and Doc Martens to showcase their authentic selves.
Recently, top Senate and House leaders were called out by observers following a meeting in the Oval Office during which multiple leaders, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, were spotted wearing dress sneakers. Such footwear, while criticized by some style commentators, is vital for places like Congress, where often elderly lawmakers are on their feet all day walking to votes and different hearings.
Needing to wear comfortable shoes for health, or even practical reasons, might be beside the point for those with dress code worries, though. The median age of the Senate is 65, and they come from a generation that was raised to believe clothing was worn as a sign of respect and “that you traded your comfort in for the appropriate uniform,” Belke says.
The GOP’s concern about the dress code has been particularly ironic, however, given how Republicans have long ignored Senate norms when it benefits their party. Though one of the party’s leaders, Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), said Schumer’s decision is “another indication he doesn’t respect the Senate as an institution,” neither he nor his fellow Republicans said the same about changes made to advance Trump-era judges, McConnell’s decision to block Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland from consideration, or even the Republican Party’s use of the Senate to undermine American democracy by voting against certifying the 2020 election after the January 6 insurrection.
Much like the furor over the sneakers, the uproar about the dress code change and decorum is founded more upon an imagined ideal of Congress than the reality of what the Senate actually is, and what it takes for the chamber to be productive.