Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s decision to drop the Senate dress code is being assailed from Republican quarters — and by at least one Democrat — with critics invoking the hoary old charge of disrespect for the decorum and dignity of Congress. Schumer, they say, is trashing time-honored tradition to accommodate the scruffy freshman from Pennsylvania, John Fetterman, who favors the hoodie-and-shorts look over the regulation suit-and-tie uniform of the (male) lawmaker.
To skirt the dress code, Fetterman has been voting from doorways, which, if anything, has drawn more attention to his unfussy — not to say unflattering — frippery. He can now take his seat in the distinguished chambers with his formally clad colleagues, where those who take offense at his exposed legs are less likely to see them. (His hoodie will remain conspicuous, but hey, you can’t have it all.)
But many on Capitol Hill see (or choose to see) this as a matter of principle. Senators and representatives, they say, ought to dress in a certain way to honor the haloed institutions in which they ply their trade. Speaking with Bloomberg, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who has himself been known to occasionally turn up for afternoon votes in workout gear, said that “behind closed doors, lots of people have a pretty energized opinion on this topic.”
You will not have missed the irony inherent in the fact that many of the worthies who claim Fetterman’s duds dishonor Congress are currently threatening to shut it down — and the rest of government with it. As if to pile farce upon foolishness, the senator in shorts is now offering to put on a suit if the Republicans back away from the brink.
A symptom of the unseriousness of our political culture, this argument over appropriate attire misses the point entirely. The notion that a suit and tie honors the haloed halls in which our leaders serve is in itself flawed. They serve us, and it behooves them to look like us. (1)
And they used to. The suit-and-tie rule is a relic of a time when that was the ensemble of the American everyman and de rigueur for all formal settings and occasions. White-collar Americans wore it at work; blue-collar Americans wore it to church and to weddings. That our leaders — most of them, regrettably, men — dressed like the people who voted them into office may have provided a certain reassurance.
But we dress differently now. Relatively few of us don a jacket and tie for work or worship, and not many would do so for a wedding. More and more people, men and women alike, feel comfortable going to the office in shorts — and sandals. Even Wall Street is growing more and more casual. Why shouldn’t our senators and representatives do likewise?
It’s unlikely that we would think less of them: Some of the most respected figures in the modern public square, from the late Steve Jobs to Elon Musk, dress as they please. Obviously, Pennsylvanians who sent Fetterman to the Senate hold him in high esteem.
On the flip side, some of the most reviled politicians of our time, like ___ and ___ (I’ll leave you to fill in these blanks according to your leanings) conform doggedly to the old code. If we’re being completely honest, we’d like to see them in clown costumes.
Happily, we are long past the age when a tie and jacket might have entitled the wearer to a degree of automatic respect. Our leaders, in all walks of life, have to work harder — by actions rather than words, and much less by appearance — for our approbation. And if they don’t earn it, they will not long serve in those haloed institutions.
Let Fetterman, Cruz and their colleagues wear what they want. We’ll let them know when they have worn out their welcome.
(1) Full disclosure: I have not worn a tie in a couple of decades. On very formal occasions, I will take advantage of my Indian heritage to wear a “bundgala” jacket, erroneously referred to as a Nehru jacket in the West. And I have only once come to work at Bloomberg in shorts and will not be repeating that experiment.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering culture. Previously, he covered foreign affairs.
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