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Senate dress code spat continues: Avoid a shutdown and I’ll wear a suit, Fetterman says

Pennsylvania Democrat takes it up a notch

As senators picked their camps — comfort or decorum — Sen. John Fetterman weighed in. Above, Fetterman is seen at the Capitol on Wednesday.
As senators picked their camps — comfort or decorum — Sen. John Fetterman weighed in. Above, Fetterman is seen at the Capitol on Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Sen. John Fetterman had a modest proposal on Wednesday, as partisan squabbling over the Senate dress code continued to escalate. “If those jagoffs in the House stop trying to shut our government down, and fully support Ukraine, then I will save democracy by wearing a suit on the Senate floor next week,” the Pennsylvania Democrat said in a statement.

Two weeks before a looming government shutdown and while a lone senator held promotions in the upper ranks of the military hostage, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer provided a weary nation some much-needed relief by relaxing some of the chamber’s unwritten rules.

Did he announce plans to end holds on military promotions? Or gut the norms that allow a single senator’s objection to unanimous consent to derail the legislative schedule?

No, Schumer did something else. He got rid of the Senate floor’s dress code.

Do dress codes assist in the codifying of laws? Can the clean lines of a well-tailored suit point the way to logical compromises? Senators weighed in this week, quickly dividing into partisan camps.

“I don’t like it,” said Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, as she headed to the first votes of the week on Monday. “I think we’ve got to maintain a level of decorum.”

“Well you know me, I’m one of the most formal senators here, so I was put off by it,” joked her fellow Republican, Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina. “We need to focus on producing results, not what we wear.” 

Sen. Rick Scott of Florida and most of his fellow Republicans banded together Tuesday to send a letter to the majority leader expressing their “supreme disappointment and resolute disapproval.” Describing the Senate floor as a “place of honor and tradition” where life-and-death decisions are made, they argued that abandoning the dress code “disrespects the institution we serve.”  

“We understand the seriousness our positions require,” reads the letter.

According to an unsigned Senate Historical Office memo dated this year, the chamber never actually formalized its norms around business wear. “Senate attire has been determined by tradition and custom rather than formal dress codes or rules,” it reads. “Dress requirements have never appeared in the Senate’s Rules for the Regulation of the Senate Wing or the Senate Manual, for example, and dress requirements on the Senate floor have been largely self-enforced.”

When Axios first broke the news over the weekend that senators could now “choose what they wear” on the floor, attention focused on Fetterman, the Democrat whose hoodie-and-shorts look generates more media coverage than his pro-labor policies. Fetterman wore a suit while presiding over the Pennsylvania State Senate as the commonwealth’s lieutenant governor and when he first came to Congress, but in the months after he was treated for clinical depression, he has stuck to his infamously informal look more often.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, trailing in his bid for the Republican presidential nomination, this week used the dress code as an opening to attack Fetterman rather than the man beating him in the polls. “The U.S. Senate just eliminated its dress code because you got this guy from Pennsylvania — who’s got a lot of problems … he wears, like, sweatshirts and hoodies and shorts. … We need to be lifting up our standards in this country, not dumbing down,” he said at a Monday event.

“I dress like he campaigns,” Fetterman retorted on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. 

Asked about the dress code changes on Monday, Fetterman said he’d likely keep to his casual look but wouldn’t rush to flaunt it on the floor. “I think we should all want to be more comfortable, and now we have that option. And if people prefer to wear a suit, then that’s great,” he said. 

But he couldn’t resist fanning the flames with his statement Wednesday, which included one of his signature insults — “jagoff,” a word he has used in the past to describe former President Donald Trump. 

For Fetterman and his communications team, trolling his critics is nothing new. And Fetterman is hardly the only senator to occasionally eschew a coat and tie. More often than not, on fly-in days like Monday, senators show up for the first votes of the week in whatever they wore on the plane: cargo shorts, cowboy boots, T-shirts, rain jackets and sneakers are all normal fashion fare. Even the older, stuffier sorts show up in polo shirts and khakis, voting from the cloakroom just off the Senate floor to abide by the now dispatched unwritten rules and stay on the right side of Sergeant-at-Arms officials, who are charged with enforcing the chamber’s policies.

A look at the history of clothing codes provides a reminder that fusty types have always complained about kids these days dressing like slobs. When double-breasted frock coats and cravats gave way to something closer to today’s business attire around the fin de siecle, critics decried the death of decorum. “An observer described a senator with a white vest, low collar, and a black sack coat as ‘positively irreverent and undignified,’” the Historical Office memo notes.

In more recent years, women fought for the right to bare arms on the Senate floor, which followed a 1993 campaign, led by Barbara Mikulski and Carol Moseley Braun, to wear pantsuits. That was also around the time Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell began to go bolo with his ties on the chamber floor and the Senate started a summertime tradition of sporting seersucker.

Before Fetterman arrived in Washington, Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s outré couture kept tongues wagging, leading to debates on the appropriateness of her fashion choices, which led to more debates on the appropriateness of debating her fashion choices.

“Fashion has always changed, and one trend that’s a lot older than one might imagine is the trend toward things getting more casual,” said Richard Thompson Ford, a Stanford Law professor and author of “Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History.”

Ever wonder why a business suit jacket sometimes gets called a “sports coat”? Those were originally leisure clothes — what the well-to-do would wear while hunting or rowing. “At some point, people started wearing that casual clothing or sports clothing into town, and that evolved into a new form of more formal attire,” said Ford. 

More recently, pinstripes and power ties have given way to Patagonia vests, in a trend driven by Silicon Valley and accelerated by the time spent working from home in pajamas during the pandemic lockdown, he said.

In Silicon Valley, wearing a hoodie to work reflected a culture there that “values youth, innovation, thinking outside the box, focusing only on what’s important and not the superficial,” said Ford. “Showing up in a suit makes you look out of date, like an old fuddy-duddy, like someone who’s hung up on appearances when they ought to be focused on substance.”

But “it’s not the case that anything goes,” Ford added.  

So it is in politics. Clothes still make the politician, Ford said, reflecting how they want to be seen by voters. 

Dressing down for political gain is as old as the nation itself. The gentry filled their breeches when some populist American pols started wearing pantaloons in solidarity with the French sans-culottes. “Thomas Jefferson popularized that kind of long trouser in the United States, clearly as a signal,” said Ford. “There’s a symbol of solidarity with the French and the French revolutionaries, but also, a symbol of how we’re a different kind of nation, and we have a different kind of government and a different set of political ideals than the old regime.”

Fetterman’s penchant for Dickies and Doc Martens is no different. “That working-man persona is a huge part of his appeal,” said Ford.

Sinema similarly has used her “very flamboyant, very feminine outfits” to brand herself as an independent, long before she changed her party affiliation, Ford said. “Part of that is a way of saying… ‘I’m my own person. I’m not hung up on what people inside the Beltway think.’”

Schumer’s office did not return a request for comment.

Mary Ellen McIntire, Paul V. Fontelo and Justin Papp contributed to this report.

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