The end of the dress code? What it means that the Senate is relaxing clothing rules

U.S. senators no longer have to dress to impress.

Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Monday that staff for the chamber’s sergeant-at-arms will no longer be tasked with enforcing a dress code on the Senate floor.

With Congress debating a possible government shutdown and whether there should be age limits for lawmakers, the Senate's dress code change comes to mostly accommodate Pennsylvania Sen. John Fetterman, who unapologetically wears his trademark hoodies and shorts as does his duties. Fetterman often votes from doorways or sticks his head inside the chambers to avoid getting into trouble for his more casual wear.

"There has been an informal dress code that was enforced," Schumer said in a statement Monday, without mentioning Fetterman by name. "Senators are able to choose what they wear on the Senate floor. I will continue to wear a suit."

In response, Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine joked to reporters she planned to "wear a bikini" Tuesday. "I think there is a certain dignity that we should be maintaining in the Senate, and to do away with the dress code, to me, debases the institution," Collins said.

Alabama GOP Sen. Tommy Tuberville, a former head football coach at Auburn University, said Monday it bothered him "big time." He joked that he'd sport a "coaching outfit" during his next Senate floor appearance. "You got people walking around in shorts, that don’t fly with me," Tuberville said.

But some etiquette experts said the lowering of the bar in terms of dress code in the Senate shouldn't be surprising given how much casual attire has taken hold in many U.S. workplaces, especially since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and with more people working from home.

Richard Thompson Ford, a Stanford University law professor in California and author of the book, "Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History," said the nation will have to see how the new Senate dress code plays out.

"It’s simply acknowledged that the norms of professional dress have changed," Ford said in an email to USA TODAY.

'I dress like a slob'

Some kind of dress code will likely always exist in public places, Ford said.

"People judge each other by their appearance and attire," Ford said. "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."

For his part, Fetterman, the first-term senator who returned to work this spring following treatment for clinical depression, said in an interview on MSNBC Monday, "Aren’t there more important things we should be talking about rather than if I dress like a slob?"

That didn't stop Florida Gov. and Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis from taking a shot at the Senate's dress code and Fetterman.

"I think it's disrespectful to the body," DeSantis told a reporter. "And I think the fact that the Senate changed the rules to accommodate that I think speaks very poorly to how they consider that... Look, we need to be lifting up our standards in this country, not dumbing down our standards in this country."

In response to DeSantis's comments, Fetterman took to X, formerly Twitter, with a mocking response. "I dress like he campaigns," Fetterman said.

Dress codes and politics go hand in hand, professor says

Late Tuesday, Republican Florida Sen. Rick Scott and 45 of his GOP colleagues wrote a letter to Schumer expressing "our supreme disappointment and resolute disapproval of your recent decision to abandon the Senate’s longstanding dress code for members, and urge you to immediately reverse this misguided action."

The letter added that "allowing casual clothing on the Senate floor disrespects the institution we serve and the American families we represent."

The episode shows how dress codes and politics have often shared a relationship dating back to the late Middle Ages, said Ford, the Stanford professor.

"At least from then forward, politics and clothing have always been linked," Ford told KGO-TV Monday. "Clothing has been a mode of statecraft, it’s been a way to make a political statement, to make a statement about who you support, and who you oppose, that’s always been true, and I think it’s just as true today."

Ford told the TV station that Fetterman and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, known for wearing at times bright and bold sleeveless dresses, push some boundaries.

"Typically, we all decide by our reactions, to people we encounter, but more specifically, people who are in positions of power and authority," Ford said. "When an elected official in Congress like Sinema and Fetterman says, ‘I don’t want to wear the conventional dress code,’ what they say carries some weight, and over time, they’re able to shift those expectations in a new direction."

Ford added that Fetterman and Sinema "build a persona, kind of a personal brand if you will, in large part, rejecting some of the conventional norms of Washington and the Beltway, and that carries through their clothing, and for them, it’s a real asset, it’s a source of strength to resist the conventional dress code."

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: The end of dress code? Why the Senate is relaxing its rules