The US Senate dress code is changing, to the great dismay of Republican elected officials

It’s a rule that was easy to unravel

The US Senate dress code is changing, to the great dismay of Republican elected officials

It’s a rule that was easy to unravel. And for good reason: it was not written. Democrat Chuck Schumer, leader of the Senate majority, discreetly ordered the Senate sergeant-at-arms to no longer enforce the upper chamber's dress code, the political news site Axios reported on Sunday, September 17. This informal code prescribes the suit and tie for men, dresses and suits with pants for women. It is based on one rule: “dress to impress”, literally, “dress to impress”, meaning: to look serious. “Senators can choose what they wear in the Senate. I will continue to wear a suit,” added Chuck Schumer very seriously in a statement sent to Axios.

For observers of American political life, by making this decision, the leader of the majority of the Senate is paying a favor to an elected official from his camp: John Fetterman. At 54, Mr. Fetterman does not go unnoticed. He is huge – a little over 2 meters – he is bald and bearded. He is best known for his clothing style: he never takes off his sports shorts, hooded sweatshirt and sneakers.

John Fetterman is one of the figures who emerged during the midterm elections in November 2022, when he was elected senator from Pennsylvania. Before entering the Senate, he was mayor (between 2005 to 2019) of Braddock, a small town in the difficult suburbs of Pittsburgh, then lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania from 2019 to 2023. The lieutenant governor presides over the Senate of State and is first in succession to the governor in case of incapacity. On the political spectrum, he mixes populism and progressivism, defending criminal justice reform, the abolition of the death penalty, a federal minimum wage of $15 an hour and the legalization of cannabis.

But this giant is fragile: in May 2022, he suffered a stroke, and a few months later, in February 2023, he was admitted to hospital to treat his depression. He spent several weeks there. Axios recalls that before this hospitalization, Mr. Fetterman wore the suit in the Senate. There is no indication that his outfit is part of the therapy, even if he claims comfort.

Rain of criticism among the Republicans

While Republicans and Democrats in Congress are already struggling to agree on the federal budget, this issue has become yet another hiccup in the Republican culture war. Unsurprisingly, several GOP elected officials choked up after Chuck Schumer's announcement. Even Susan Collins, senator from the State of Maine, a “moderate” however, considered that the measure amounted to “devaluing the institution” and added that nothing prevented her from coming to sit in a bikini. More acerbically, Rick Scott, a Republican senator from Florida, and forty-five of his Republican colleagues wrote a letter to Mr. Schumer expressing their disapproval and asking him to reverse this fashion faux pas.

Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor and Republican presidential candidate, attacked Mr. Fetterman without naming him: “The Senate just got rid of their dress code because there's this guy from Pennsylvania [Fetterman]. who has a lot of problems… He wears sweatshirts, hoodies and shorts. We need to raise our standards in this country, not lower them. » On »

This is not the first time that Fetterman's style has horrified conservatives. In September 2022, during the midterm election campaign, he was attacked by Tucker Carlson, then an ultraconservative Fox News host who criticized the Democratic candidate's "stupid little fake tattoos." John Fetterman responded to these criticisms on NBC News, explaining that these tattoos paid tribute to citizens of his city “who died a violent death (…). They are a reminder of what I am fighting for.”

No proper attire required

The Washington Post was also moved by Mr. Schumer's decision: on Tuesday, in an editorial, the daily considered that "the fact of dressing in a formal manner demonstrates respect for the sacred character of the institution and for the real impact of the policies it implements”. However, as Axios points out, the Senate rules make no mention of a dress code. The New York Times agrees. “Unlike most rules that govern the Senate, there is no official written dress code. » Until now, those who did not respect this "code" could vote by placing one foot in the Upper House while keeping the other in the corridor: reason why some were able to vote in sports, golf or golf outfits. other “unconventional” clothing.

Not all Republicans are totally hostile to a bit of relaxation. Missouri Senator Josh Hawley regularly wears jeans and boots on Mondays when he returns from his state. In 2019, Senator Amy Klobuchar had already obtained from the Senate Rules Committee a relaxation of the dress code so that senators could present themselves with their shoulders uncovered. In the neighboring House, that of Representatives, a Republican and a Democrat launched in the spring an intergroup of elected officials who share a common interest in... sneakers, one of the rare subjects that unites Americans.

Clothing concerns go beyond Congress. Before John Fetterman, Barack Obama had already caused a stir by hosting a press conference at the end of August 2014 during which he discussed the situation in Ukraine, Syria and Iraq while wearing a… beige suit.

And if some in the Senate pretend to wonder about the length of John Fetterman's shorts, the Oval Office of the White House was the site of another stylistic innovation. On May 17, during a meeting on the debt ceiling, congressional leaders appeared before Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in “dress sneakers” and novelty socks.