By Jean Godden
One thing the pandemic has changed is the way we dress for work. Employees working from home, telecommuting, and sometimes hosting Zoom sessions, did not have to follow a dress code.
It was more common than finding technicians or even the family accountant wearing clothes that looked like a weekend at the beach. Sweatpants, T-shirts, sneakers and flip flops have become everyday clothes and not just for changing after work.
However, this casual weekend outfit is sadly about to become a memory. Dress codes aren’t just coming back, but – come find out – in some official contexts, they’ve never gone.
Take the example of Congress: the United States House continues to enforce a dress code in the House and in the President’s Lobby. Men must wear jackets and ties; women cannot show up with sleeveless tops or open toe shoes. When asked by phone and email about the dress code, President Pelosi’s staff repeatedly declined to comment.
In the other Washington, change has always been freezing. In 1993, Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski led a pants-pants rebellion to change the conflicting dress code. Her revolt paid off and later that year women were finally allowed to wear pants in the Senate. But, to keep things official, women had to on their pants with a jacket.
What is true in DC is also true in state legislatures. In more than half of the states, lawmakers and their staff are expected to adhere to a dress code. Some dress codes are more explicit than others and, unsurprisingly, with many women and minorities in power, we hear objections.
In recent weeks, a sneaker-clad Latino state senator from Rhode Island has made news by opposing the requirement for his bedroom jacket and shirt, calling it “a form of white oppression” . His objections were echoed by Rhode Island Senator Cynthia Mendes, who complained that the dress code is even more precise than in the past. She said, “This is the language of colonization. It has to do with power; it starts when you tell people what to do with their bodies.”
Women lawmakers in Montana have also complained about the rules that dictate the length of skirts and covered necklines. They call the restrictions “too sexist”. In distant New Zealand, a Maori lawmaker took off his tie, calling it a “colonial noose,” and wore a traditional pendant instead.
After reading other dress codes, I was curious about the Washington rules. I tried calling the lawmakers’ offices to see what I could find. My first surprise was to find out how difficult it was to reach a living person. When calling both Olympia and home office numbers, I was usually directed to an email or sometimes given an alternate number where I was told to “leave a message”. In several cases, I have heard: “Mailbox full”. Finally, I found an assistant who (surprise) answered the office phone. She explained that Olympia’s dress code is straightforward, stating simply: “Men on the ground are required to wear a jacket tie and women are required to wear business attire.”
Another assistant read directly “The Household Staff Manual, Chapter 4, Section B: (Decorum and Dress Code): Household workers should act and dress in a manner that is appropriate for their job and that reflects the dignity of the House of the House, men are required to wear a jacket and tie and women are required to dress to an equally professional standard. “
Olympia’s response to the dress code contrasts with what one state official (a Democrat) recently wore on the floor of Iowa House. He flaunted the dress code and pulled on jeans to make his remarks. The point, he said, was to make fun of Republican leaders who refuse to wear face masks in the bedroom but, at the same time, ban jeans and other casual clothing.
The truth is, most of us probably care less about what our legislators wear than what they can accomplish on behalf of the people.
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