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The No-Sleeves Congressional Dress Code May Be Dumb, But It’s No ‘Handmaids Tale’

handmaid's tale

We need to talk about sleeve-gate. 


A female reporter was kicked out of the House Speaker’s lobby in the U.S. Capitol on Thursday because she was wearing a sleeveless dress, CBS News reports.

Forced to improvise, she ripped out pages from her notebook and stuffed them into her dress’s shoulder openings to create sleeves, witnesses said. An officer who’s tasked with enforcing rules in the Speaker’s lobby said her creative concoction still was not acceptable.

Now folks are comparing this incident to Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” — a show based on a dystopian novel of the same name, which pro-abortion advocates have recently embraced as a symbol to vilify Republicans. Newsweek published an article entitled, “‘Handmaids’ in the House? Dress Code Requires (Most) Women To Cover Their Shoulders,” and included this gem in their writeup of the incident.

“What’s next? A white bonnet and red robe uniform à la The Handmaid’s Tale?” Vogue’s Patricia Garcia wondered aloud. Check out the photo that ran alongside her piece.

handmaid's tale

Ugh. Come on! Yes, arbitrarily asking some women to cover their arms and banning open toed-shoes in the hot summer months is unfair when these rules are often ignored. But comparing a dress code requiring female staffers, reporters, and congresswomen to wear sleeves to women being raped and forced to bear children for the Republic of Gilead is insane.

Even the clothing requirement is not similar, as cap sleeves are not the same as full-length robes and headcoverings. The anti-rule lobby’s logic would allow for people to walk buck-naked onto the floor of Congress, since it implies that any rules about dress whatsoever are related to repressive totalitarianism. Excuse me, but lots of us think there’s plenty of reasonable middle ground between “no sleeves” and “red burkas.”

The media also forgot to mention that these rules have been in place for years. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) didn’t arbitrarily decide to suddenly wield sandal-rejecting authority over women because Republicans are in power now. Even so, CBS’s story implied the dress code was an arbitrary rule that Ryan was imposing to be a jerk to female reporters.

Jezebel’s “The Slot” has more. 

CBS reports that the House’s dress code is largely a matter of interpretation left, in this case, to the whim of House Speaker Paul Ryan. The only written rule simply states that women should wear ‘appropriate attire,’ and leaves the interpretation of that phrase, as well as its enforcement, to the Speaker of the House. According to Ryan, that means that women—reporters, lawmakers and staff alike—should cover their toes and well as their shoulders. Open-toed shoes, like sleeveless dresses and blouses, are both now banned in the Speaker’s lobby. Those rules do not apply to the Senate.

CBS updated their story to include a statement from Ryan’s spokeswoman, AshLee Strong, who pointed out after the initial story was published that the dress code has been in place for many years and under many other speakers — including Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — a tidbit that was largely excluded from much of the outrage.

We should also talk about the fact that men are subject to dress code standards, too! There’s an emergency tie rack just outside of the speaker’s chamber for men who forgot to dress up.

The rules require both men and women to dress professionally and with decorum appropriate to a national institution. It’s true these rules aren’t always evenly applied — both Michelle Obama and Ivanka Trump have gotten away with sleeveless dresses while in the House Chamber and the House Gallery, respectively.

It’s reasonable to complain about the arbitrary nature of the rule, but it’s irrational to immediately jump to “Handmaid’s Tale,” because these two things really are nothing alike. Rules for dress are commonplace and have good social reasons behind them, such as increasing respectful behavior and attention to business, which is why many schools and workplaces have similar requirements. Someone should probably tell members of the media that irrational comparisons to dystopian fiction to make Republicans seem evil over a rule that’s been in place under Democratic leadership will just make everyonemistrust them more than they already do.