Dust Off That Suit Coat and Tie
By Jean Godden
One thing the pandemic changed was the way we dress for work. Employees working from home, telecommuting and sometimes holding Zoom sessions, didn't have to follow a dress code.
It's been more common than not to find tech workers or even the family accountant wearing clothing that looks like a weekend trip to the beach. Sweatpants, T-shirts, sneakers and flip-flops have become everyday apparel and not just for changing into after work.
However, this casual weekend attire sadly is about to become a memory. Dress codes are not only returning, but -- come to find out -- in some official settings, they have never gone away.
Take Congress for example: The U. S. House continues to have a dress code enforced on the House floor and in the Speaker's Lobby. Men have to wear jackets and ties; women can't show up in sleeveless tops or open-toed shoes. When queried by phone and email about the dress code, Speaker Pelosi's staff repeatedly refuses to comment.
In the other Washington, change always has been glacial. Way back in 1993, Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski led a pant-suit rebellion in order to alter the -congressional dress code. Her revolt paid off and later that year women were finally allowed to wear trousers on the Senate floor. But, to keep matters official, the women had to top their pants with a jacket.
What's true in D. C. is also true in state legislatures. In more than half the states, lawmakers and their staffs are expected to comply with a dress code. Some dress codes are more explicit than others and, not surprisingly, with many women and minorities now in office, we're hearing objections.
In recent weeks, a sneaker-clad Latino state senator in Rhode Island made news objecting to his chamber's jacket and dress shirt requirement, calling it "a form of white oppression." His objections were echoed by Rhode Island Sen. Sen. Cynthia Mendes who complained that the dress code is even more specific than in the past. She said, "This is colonization language. It has to do with power; it starts when you tell people what to do with their bodies."
Female lawmakers in Montana, too, have been complaining about the rules that dictate skirt lengths and covered necklines. They're calling the restrictions "overly sexist." In far-off New Zealand, a Maori lawmaker doffed his necktie, calling it "a colonial noose," and wore a traditional pendant instead.
After reading about other dress codes, I was curious about Washington's rules. I tried calling legislators' offices to see what I could find out. My first surprise was discovering how difficult it was to reach a live person. Calling both Olympia and home office numbers, I was typically shunted to email or sometimes given an alternative number where I was told to "leave a message." In several cases, I heard: "Mailbox full." Finally I found an aide who (surprise) answered the office phone. She explained that Olympia's dress code is simple, just stating, "Men on the floor are required to dress in jacket tie and women must wear business attire."
Another aide read quoted directly from "the House Personnel Manual, chapter 4, section B: (Decorum and Dress Code): Employees of the House shall act and dress in a manner that is appropriate for their positions and that will reflect on the dignity of the House Chamber, men are required to wear a jacket and tie and women are required to dress at an equally professional level."
Olympia's answer to the dress code contrasts with what a state representative (a Democrat) recently wore on the Iowa House floor. He flaunted the dress code and donned jeans to make his remarks. The point, he said, was to deride Republican leaders who refuse to wear face masks in the chamber but yet, at the same time, ban jeans and other casual clothes.
The truth is that most of us probably could care less about what our legislators wear than what they can accomplish on the peoples' behalf.