The Senate's nixed dress code isn't short of mixed reactions

Conservatives are taking issue with the axing of a longstanding Senate tradition

Sen. John Fetterman (D-Penn.)
Sen. John Fetterman (D-Penn.) is at the center of a dress code controversy
(Image credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

There are a lot of tense happenings in the U.S. Capitol building right now. The threat of a government shutdown is looming, some House Republicans are pushing to impeach President Biden and new polling shows 72% of Americans disapprove of Congress, a near-record high. 

However, the current debate among both congressional leaders seems focused not on any of these issues, but on something more minute: the axing of the U.S. Senate's dress code.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) recently "directed the Senate's Sergeant at Arms to no longer enforce the chamber's informal dress code for its members," Axios first reported. This means that senators will be able to enter Congress' upper chamber without the traditional business attire typically worn by politicians. 

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This report was immediately followed by backlash, mostly from the conservative side of the aisle. Many Republicans appeared angry that the dress code, which had been longstanding in the Senate, was being done away with, though some Democrats chimed in with arguments of their own.

What are the details of the dress code change?

Some argued the change was simply implemented to allow for a fresh look in the upper chamber. However, it appears that the decision to relax senatorial clothing requirements was implemented mostly for Sen. John Fetterman (D-Penn.)

Fetterman has become nationally known for wearing shorts and hoodies while in the Capitol, shunning the full suit donned by most senators. Due to this dress code violation, Fetterman "often votes from doorways or sticks his head inside the chambers to avoid getting into trouble for his more casual wear," USA Today reported.

Schumer didn't mention Fetterman by name when making the announcement. But the change is clearly directed at him, given that Fetterman "unapologetically [wears] shorts as he goes about his duties," The Associated Press noted, rarely seen in professional wear except for his official Senate portrait

But while the change was clearly made so that Fetterman could step onto the Senate floor, he is "hardly the only senator to occasionally eschew a coat and tie," Roll Call reported. On Mondays, senators often "show up for the first votes of the week in ...cargo shorts, cowboy boots, T-shirts, rain jackets and sneakers," the outlet added. 

What was the reaction to the change?

Many conservative politicians reacted in anger to the change, saying it lowered Senate standards. 

"The Senate no longer enforcing a dress code for senators to appease Fetterman is disgraceful," Rep. Majorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter. She called a dress code "one of society’s standards that set etiquette and respect for our institutions." 

Others, such as Sen. Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.), claimed Fetterman was being disrespectful with his dressing. "There’s a side of me that’s super excited about it because I hate wearing a tie, and I’d rather be in blue jeans and a pair of boots and a white T-shirt," Mullin told Fox Business. "But the fact is, that you do dress for the job. And we need to be respectful of the position we hold." 

Many Democrats countered that Republicans should be worried about more pressing matters than dress codes. This includes Fetterman himself, who hit back at a number of conservatives who called out his clothes. In a response to Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), Fetterman noted there were "t-minus 16 days" until a government shutdown, adding, "Instead of crying about how I dress, how about you get your shit together and do your job, bud?"

Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.) concurred, replying to Greene, "Seriously? You’re bitching about Senate dress code when House Republicans are about to drive the federal government off a cliff? Again? Talk about disgraceful."

What will happen next?

Dress code changes have occurred before, and "there is precedent for tweaking the rules of what elected officials can wear on the Hill," The Washington Post reported. This notably occurred in 2017 when the rules were changed to allow women to wear sleeveless tops and open-toed shoes. 

The full scale of the new dress code remains to be seen. However, Richard Thompson Ford, a Stanford law professor, told USA Today that the new rules "simply acknowledged that the norms of professional dress have changed." 

"People judge each other by their appearance and attire," Ford added. "But written dress codes are certainly under attack. It might be a swing of a pendulum. But no doubt the trend is away from formal rules." 

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