The inconsistently-enforced dress code for the United States Congressmade news last week when several women journalists were banned from the lobby of the Speaker of the House for wearing dresses without sleeves. One woman journalist’s attempt to fashion sleeves out of notebook paper was (appropriately) rejected.
So, what does Etiquetteer have to say about all this? First off, put on a jacket with sleeves over that sleeveless dress and stop complaining! No one cares how you feel or what you want (which Etiquetteer says all the time anyway). Any complaints about summer heat are drowned out by the hum of the air conditioning. It’s also worth noting that women have a lot more leeway than men about what they may and may not wear, e.g . “suit and tie” for men vs. “appropriate attire” for women. Men who forget to wear neckties are offered ties to wear so they can enter. Congress ought to provide appropriate coverups for Sleeveless Women.*
Of course in Situations Like This, it’s expected for Etiquetteer to mourn the passing of the “appropriate attire” of yore, those smart two-piece suits by Hattie Carnegie and Mainbocher, worn with a hat, crisp white gloves and Navy Red or Cherries in the Snow lipstick. And sheer stockings of silk or nylon. It hasn’t escaped Etiquetteer’s attention that over the last ten years or so the wearing of stockings has sharply declined, something that doesn’t seem to be mentioned in the Capitol Hill dress code. In Grandma’s day, ladies without stockings were thought of as slatterns or worse. Then there’s the vulgar custom of the 1920s of rolling stockings down to below the knee. Thank goodness THAT fashion died!
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has taken some heat for creating a gender-based dress code, but that’s not what happened. The Speaker was reminding everyone about the existing dress code that’s been around for 38 years, and appears to have come about thanks to then Speaker Tip O’Neill taking exception to a male Congressman on the floor of Congress without coat and tie.
Probably the most famous coat-and-tie exception in American history was the Scopes Monkey Trial. Due to the excruciating heat, men were allowed to remove their coats and ties. The intense public interest in the case cause the trial to be moved outdoors even, both to accommodate more spectators and possibly for some heat relief. But this was before air conditioning. We shouldn’t have to accommodate that now.
Lastly, it’s probably time for Congress to enforce its dress code consistently, and to publish the “unwritten rules,” though that would be likely to create another firestorm of criticism.
*Restaurants that require jackets and ties for men often provide them for diners who arrive inappropriately dressed.