The United States Congress was plunged into chaos on Tuesday after Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy was ousted by his own Republican colleagues in a vote to remove him. The vote came after McCarthy struck an agreement with the Democrats to temporarily avert a government shutdown. Meanwhile, in the corridors of the Senate, the conversation has already been taking an unforeseen turn for quite some time. The Pennsylvania senator, Democrat John Fetterman, returned to his seat at the end of April, after taking leave due to depression, wearing his signature hoodie and basketball shorts. That was enough to trigger the current reform of the dress code that the institution has been debating, and a wider discussion on the message that forcing public representatives to wear a suit and tie in plenary sessions sends, or does not send, to the public. According to Majority Leader of the Senate, Democrat Chuck Schumer, legislators can wear “whatever they want.”
But people’s freedom to wear what they want proved, once again, an intolerable idea for Republicans: 46 out of the 49 GOP senators demanded the return of the previous regulation. They said that casual clothing “disrespects the institution they serve and the American families they represent.” “It’s not hard to dress like a grown-up,” tweeted Florida Senator Rick Scott. Susan Collins, from Maine, joked about the possibility of wearing a bikini.
The U.S. upper house is known for its attachment to tradition. Women were only allowed to wear pants in 1993; sleeveless dresses and peep toe shoes in 2017. When tradition fails, senatorial clothing is marked more by implicit norms than by defined rules: until 2019, wearing religious clothing was not allowed, and the rule was changed only after the appointment of the first Muslim female senators.
Patrycia Centeno, journalist and specialist in non-verbal communication, remembers that the movements in the United States have occurred in other countries. “As new groups manage to occupy spaces of power that they did not have before, they change the esthetics of the space, and this allows for much richer expressions,” she says. It was foreseeable, she continues, that the debate unleashed by Fetterman would end up affecting the entire rigid male code.
Centeno believes that the Senate is right in defending freedom of expression (and clothing), but it is wrong in the mechanism it has chosen. “In a democracy, plurality of clothing should be encouraged because it is a fundamental aspect of personal expression, but the way it was done interrupted the debate,” she explains. However, Centeno wonders if, in the delicate period that geopolitics in general is going through, Fetterman’s clothing should not be, at best, a secondary issue.
Derek Guy, more famous as men’s fashion critic @dieworkwear on Twitter, thinks Fetterman should wear a suit. It is the only way to settle the controversy and free the Senate to focus on more urgent issues. “We are approaching a possible government shutdown [the twenty-second in 50 years], an event with terrible consequences, and we are arguing about what a person should wear. In this situation, the clothes do not matter.” Guy describes the Republican furor as “Victorian,” and highlights that wearing a suit has never been a guarantee of the “respectability” that the conservative party claims for itself. He believes that subjecting anyone’s clothing to a value judgment is something classist and very problematic. “There are horrible people who wear suits every day and good people who don’t even have one. Respect for the Senate goes far beyond the clothes you wear.”
What is Fetterman doing in the meantime? The senator does not want to be the center of attention. He states that no one has asked him, that he has not asked to change any regulations, and argues that the Republican media storm is a strategy not to discuss forms of respectability among public representatives, but to divert the voter’s attention from much more urgent matters. The politician seemingly least interested in fashion impeccably summed up the situation with a statement of intent: “If they stop trying to block our government and start fully supporting Ukraine, then I will save democracy and go to my seat in a suit.”
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