Responses to the Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer’s new relaxation of Senate dress codes have so far fallen along partisan lines: Republicans have been deploring it as a lapse in decorum and order. “Most if not all Republican senators think we ought to dress up to go to work,” Mitch McConnell said. Mitt Romney called it “a terrible choice,” and from the House, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene pronounced the change “disgraceful.”
Democrats have tended to dismiss these complaints, insisting that matters of dress are mere distractions in light of the grave matters facing the Senate: On X (formerly Twitter), the Democratic senator Tina Smith wondered how anyone could complain about a dress code when “House Republicans are about to drive the federal government off a cliff.” Senator John Fetterman, famous for sporting shorts and hoodies (and for whose benefit many believe the rules were changed), expressed a similar sentiment in an interview with MSNBC: “Aren’t there more important things we should be talking about rather than if I dress like a slob?”
Well, yes and no.
The fact is that how we dress in various settings is inextricable from serious political issues. How we dress telegraphs intricate messages to those around us, as well as to ourselves — messages we receive and interpret constantly, consciously or not. There is no such thing as “total freedom” of dress, only different registers of meaning, which are entirely context dependent. Just as words make sense only relationally — in sentences and paragraphs — garments have meaning only in relation to other garments. A tuxedo’d guest at a wedding is unexceptional, nearly invisible. A tuxedo’d guest at a picnic is a spectacle.
To begin with, this new “code-free code” poses special challenges for women, since business attire is actually a standard created for men. The simple dark suit with pants, jacket and collared shirt was launched in the late 19th century as attire for a new class of (male) office workers, and patterned after the sober, unadorned garb of clergymen. The suit turns a man into a compact, easily readable visual unit over which the eye skims quickly, uninterrupted by embellishments or intricacies of silhouette. Suits, therefore, homogenize men’s bodies, making variations of weight, even height, less noticeable, focusing attention on the face. Men’s suits say “we are heads, not bodies.”
Business attire does some of this for women, but can never offer the same degree of carefree simplicity. Women are still the adorned, visible, bodily sex whose physicality gets staged by clothes. Accordingly, women’s fashion — including even business attire — requires a near-infinity of daily micro-decisions from head to toe: dress or pants? Low or high neckline? Flats or heels? (If heels, how high?) What kind of jewelry? How much makeup? What is my hair “saying”? Harder still, these decisions all carry a perpetual risk of tipping us somehow into “inappropriateness” — of exposing too much or too little, of trying too hard or not enough, of missing that sweet spot between alluring and dowdy, while, of course, presenting the usual challenges concerning age and body type.
Casual wear just makes it all harder. John Fetterman in a hoodie and shorts or Ted Cruz in a polo shirt might read as athletic or relaxed, conjuring the basketball court or golf course — places associated with youthful male prowess or preppy privilege. Would we think the same of Susan Collins dressed similarly? Leisure wear for women risks depriving them of gravitas, making them look “off duty,” and hence outside the space of authority. (Senator Collins acknowledged as much when she joked about wearing a bikini to work.) Would women in the Senate in sweatshirts, yoga pants or tennis skirts be taken seriously? To put it another way, women’s dignity and authority remain, alas, more socially precarious than men’s — harder to construct sartorially and far easier to lose. Taking away the dress code might exacerbate this inequity. What’s more, formal business attire offers some of the most gender-neutral fashion options, thereby enhancing sartorial equity for nonbinary individuals.
And what about the inequity within the Senate workplace as a whole? The new freedom of dress applies to senators only, not to anyone else who works there. This could lead to a new kind of visual class stratification, wherein a group of older (median age of 65.3), mostly white (88 percent), mostly male people (75 percent) in various states of leisure wear is being served by a cadre of younger, less well paid, more ethnically diverse interns and staff members all in formal business wear. In such a context, the business attire of nonsenators might start looking disturbingly like waiters’ uniforms at a country club. Hardly a liberating or egalitarian message. Context is everything.
Finally, dress codes are a marker of social, national, professional or philosophical commonality. They bespeak shared ideals or training, membership in a group. This is why sports teams and the military wear uniforms. Why medical professionals wear white coats. Business attire may not be a uniform, exactly, but it serves a similar function. It’s true that in recent years, offices have loosened their dress codes, embracing all kinds of workplace attire. But the Senate is more than just a “workplace.” It represents the highest level of our country’s government, whose actions are watched by and hold consequences for the entire world. Such an august body needs to look the part. A sea of 100 adults all dressed in some kind of instantly recognizable, respectful manner — a suit and tie, a skirt and jacket — creates a unified visual entity. A group in which individuals have agreed to subsume their differences into an overarching, sartorial whole.
But as we all know, the Senate has never been more divided. In a body so riven, one of the last symbolic markers of accord is a dress code. Can such a code eliminate the profound differences beneath the surface? Of course not. But it does remind senators and everyone around them (including the general public) of the still-noble goal of consensus. A sum greater than its parts.