On the one hand, it’s hard to get upset about the U.S. Senate doing away with its dress code when the rest of America has been sliding down the clothes chain for years.
I first noticed it in Hollywood, maybe 20 years ago. I would show up for meetings in a sport coat and slacks, only to be greeted by one executive in an untucked shirt, a higher-ranking executive in jeans, and the boss in a track suit.
About the same time, the tech world was teaching us you can make billions and still spend 20 bucks on your duds. Steve Jobs wore a turtleneck and jeans. Mark Zuckerberg still dresses like he’s going to summer camp.
America has followed suit, so to speak, taking casual wear to a whole lower level. Airplane travel, once the place of ties and high heels, now looks like a backyard barbecue, complete with the fries and burgers that people carry on. Flip-flops are just fine for doctor’s appointments. We wear sweats to restaurants.
And have you seen how people dress for church? Once you wouldn’t think of attending religious services in anything but your finest clothes. No more. I recently went to a funeral where “respecting the dead” apparently meant black sneakers.
COVID-19 sealed the deal. People just stopped caring. When your boss does a Zoom call in her pajama bottoms, it’s over. The next step down from our new “business casual” is “business naked.”
So let’s face it. America has embraced slobbishness.
But the Senate?
What happened to professional etiquette?
Last week, seemingly out of nowhere, Democratic majority leader Chuck Schumer announced that the place often known as “The World’s Greatest Deliberative Body” would no longer have rules on how to cover itself.
Much of this switch seemed to be nudged by the recently elected senator from Pennsylvania, John Fetterman, who, at 6 foot 8, chooses to dress in oversized hoodies and shorts, looking more like a guy waiting to use the bench press than to affect the future of this country.
I have to admit, I first thought Fetterman had some allergy to fabrics, or a skin disease that made a sport coat or long pants extremely uncomfortable. Why else, I asked myself, would he be constantly dressed for a pickup basketball game?
But he suffers no such malady. And it’s not like those clothes are all he can afford. Fetterman was raised in comfort and privilege in a cushy Pennsylvania suburb. His father owned an insurance company. His parents sent him to Harvard. Apparently, he thinks dressing in a high-schooler’s sleeping clothes makes him a working class hero. It doesn’t. It just makes him an actor.
Fetterman laughed when asked about the Senate change, mocking those who saw it as a slippage of respect. But that’s always the defense you get from slobs. There’s something wrong with the people who want standards.
The truth is, the Senate works for us, not themselves. And if you took a vote on the Senate dress code the way we take votes to elect its members, I doubt the majority would say, “Yeah, let’s do the next Supreme Court nomination hearing in tank tops.”
It’s deeper than just clothes
Now, it’s true, the Senate has often been behind the times, particularly when it comes to women. Female senators didn’t even have their own bathroom until 1993, the same year they were permitted to wear pantsuits. Bare shoulders were not permitted until six years ago. That’s ridiculous.
But do you counter that by throwing out the rules altogether? A dress code may not be something most Americans adhere to anymore, but most Americans aren’t U.S. senators. There’s only 100 of those. It’s an austere body. Or supposed to be. How long before that austere body sees a committee chairman wearing a “Make America Great Again” T-shirt? Or a “No Fossil Fuels” hat?
Do we really want our wars, treaties, nominations and impeachments decided by people wearing Lululemon dance pants?
The Senate dress code isn’t about restriction. It’s about respect. Respect for the history, for the institution, and for the people who elected you. It’s about saying this is an important job, in an important place, with an important history. A grown-up job. And if that means sacrificing a little comfort, well, sacrifice is part of the deal, isn’t it?
This is how Alexis de Tocqueville marveled at the Senate in 1835: “Scarcely an individual is to be seen in it who has not had an active and illustrious career: the Senate is composed of eloquent advocates, distinguished generals, wise magistrates, and statesmen of note.”
And now, hoodies.
Call me old-fashioned. That’s appropriate. The Senate IS old-fashioned. And how it composes itself sends a message. We already have subpar behavior by some members; now we’ll get supbar presentation.
But be it dress or debate, our representatives would do well to remember one thing: they are supposed to be serving the public. Not serving burgers.