In the absence of a formal dress code, what would it take to get John Fetterman, the notoriously “casual dresser” in Congress, to put on long pants?
Over the past decade and perhaps more, the question of dress codes has become one of political correctness and even of individual rights and “personal freedom”, the catch-all buzzword for anyone who wants to flout a rule. Frequently the issue becomes inflammatory.
This issue, like so many others, can perhaps be attributed to the spread of social media and the narcissistic obsession with the “ME” school of thought that believes we, as individuals, have the right to set societal standards to please ourselves and disregard any that don’t.
Just the other day I witnessed a man allowing his dog to defecate on a plot of lawn that sported three signs warning, “No dogs on grass.” When a passerby pointed the signs out to him, he let loose with a stream of filthy invective sprinkled liberally with f*** this and f*** that, ending with the advice to “Mind your f****** business”.
The arbitrary decision to flout any existing dress codes seems to have spread to the workplace, schools and social settings, creating a great deal of confusion as administrators try to please everyone—or at least avoid lawsuits. Why is that?
One theory holds that people are no longer willing to wear what someone else tells them to wear because they value comfort above tradition and custom. Another is that dress codes can be seen as discriminatory or oppressive, especially when they target certain groups based on gender, race, religion or culture. For example, some dress codes may forbid women from wearing pants, men from wearing earrings, or students from wearing hijabs.
The dress code of Congress has been a subject of debate and controversy for many years. While there is no official written rule, there is an unwritten custom that requires members to dress in formal business attire when on the floor of the House or the Senate. This includes a coat, tie, and slacks for men, and a suit, dress, or skirt and blouse for women.
However, this September Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced that he would stop enforcing this custom, allowing members to wear whatever they felt comfortable in. Already at the outset this decision was met with mixed reactions from both parties and the public.
Why did Schumer allow this in the first place?
One of the most outspoken critics of the formal dress code was Democratic Sen. John Fetterman of Pennsylvania, who often wore casual clothes such as jeans, T-shirts, and sneakers. He argued that the dress code was elitist, outdated, and irrelevant to the work of Congress. He also said that he wanted to represent his constituents, many of whom were working-class people who could not afford expensive suits. Fetterman’s style contrasted sharply with that of his colleagues, especially those from his own party, who tended to dress more conservatively. The question of Fetterman’s sartorial habits remained moot, essentially following a code of “let’s ignore it and the problem may go away by itself.”
But when Fetterman suffered a stroke last year, during his campaigning for Congress and remained hospitalized for almost a year, the sympathy quotient for him went sky high. When he was able to return to Congress no one had the temerity to tell him to buy a suit and follow the dress code—which, it is important to emphasize, has always been an unwritten rule.
Yet some senators continued to feel that wearing ratty shorts and sweatshirts to an official sitting of Congress, as Fetterman routinely did, was disrespectful to the institution and the traditions of Congress. They also worried that it would undermine the authority and credibility of the Senate in the eyes of the public and the world. They argued that dressing professionally was a sign of respect for oneself and one’s colleagues, and that it reflected the seriousness and dignity of the legislative branch. They also pointed out that many other countries had formal dress codes for their parliaments, and that the US should not lag behind.
In response to these concerns, a bipartisan bill was introduced by Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah to formalize the dress code for the Senate floor. The bill requires that members abide by a real dress code – rather than an unwritten custom – when on the Senate floor, that included a coat, tie, and slacks for men. The bill passed by unanimous consent a few days ago, effectively reinstating an unwritten custom, but formalizing it as a formal dress code. That bill is now law.
Schumer praised the bill as a compromise that respected both sides of the debate, and Fetterman agreed to comply with it when presiding over the Senate floor.
In short, it took a bipartisan bill to instill some common sense into those who represent the American people in the most formal institutions of this land and a tradition was upheld–and to get Fetterman to put on long pants.