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Congress’s Dress Code May Bar Some Professional Wear, But That’s Not The Point

Sorry, Rep. Martha McSally, you need to put on a sweater. Then change the rules. That’s what a society that respects social conventions and rule of law does: follow them while you negotiate changes.


Let’s start with the obvious: wearing sleeveless dresses and open-toed shoes is not necessarily unprofessional, depending on one’s profession and workplace rules and norms. But blatantly ignoring rules then announcing your transgression is.

Rep. Martha McSally, R-Arizona, stood on the house floor Wednesday in violation of the alleged House dress code.

“Before I yield back, I want to point out, I’m standing here in my professional attire, which happens to be a sleeveless dress and open-toed shoes,” McSally announced to the floor. She threw the statement onto the end of a five-minute speech praising the recipients of the Southern Arizona’s First Responders of Distinction award in her district.

House dress code became an issue after Haley Byrd, a congressional reporter for Independent Journal Review (IJR) was refused entry to the House speaker’s lobby because she was wearing a sleeveless dress. This dress code, although not explicitly stated, has been in place for years, including under other speakers of the House, of both parties. Until recently, however, its enforcement was lax.

While these rules might seem arbitrary, they are still the rules of the House. To openly break them as McSally did is not only pointless, but disrespectful.

Unfortunately, this is typical behavior when people resist dress codes. Instead of petitioning the agency through the proper channels, people will simply wear what they like as “protest.” It’s behavior most often seen in school situations. However, students have minimal say in where they will attend school, nor do they typically have the power to alter dress codes. Childish protests are all they have.

An adult in a work environment, however, does have a choice—either to leave the job with “oppressive” dress codes, to influence the discussion with mature conversation, or to simply suck it up. Although it is unclear if McSally wore the clothes to purposefully break dress code or was simply noting that she had not been asked to change, she still should wear the appropriate and mandated clothing. McSally did not respond to a request for comment.

If she was wearing her outfit in “protest,” she’s in the wrong. Following rules with which one disagrees is simply a part of life. When people lose the self-control and respect for others to follow rules they find disagreeable, society dissolves. As someone in a position of power, McSally also has the means to influence change using the proper protocols rather than simply breaking the rules.

So, McSally, put on a sweater and some closed-toe shoes. Then go and do part of your job—enact change in concert with your peers. Perhaps you will find that showing respect for them and previous representatives’ views on this matter would have helped your case.

UPDATE: Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has announced he will be working with the Sergeant-at-Arms to update the congressional dress code. Ryan noted the dress code was not something he created, before saying it should be modernized.
“Decorum is important, especially for this institution, and a dress code in the chamber and the lobby makes sense,” he said. “But we also don’t need to bar otherwise accepted contemporary business attire.”