The high-ceilinged offices of the District of Columbia City Council resounded with jokes, puns and a touch of anger yesterday, all concerning the subject of underwear.
The furor was ignited by a strongly worded memo from the Secretary to the Council, John P. Brown Jr., to the 32 members of his staff -- particularly the 23 female workers -- stating that "the braless look. . .(is) inappropriate" during working hours.
Brown's memo to his staff also "strongly discouraged" the wearing of blue jeans, halter tops and leotards, admonished employes to come to work on time and threatened to replace free telephones with coin-operated ones if staff members do not quit using government phones to conduct their private lives.
"I am certain that some of you might be inclined to take execption to your having to adhere to these standards," Brown wrote. However, he added that employes would be "ill advised" to ignore the directive. Brown, who served as executive assistant to council chairman Arrington Dixon before being hired as council secretary earlier this year, declined to comment yesterday on the memo, which he sent out Friday.
Meanwhile, questions of how Brown's directive might be enforced and jokes about the establishment of a "bra patrol" set the tenor of the day. Most council workers said they already adhered to Brown's wardrobe manifesto, and only a few said they were angered by the memo. Most said they were amused.
When a reporter walked into her office, one female council worker demurely pulled the collar of her blouse far enough along her shoulder to reveal an unmistakable bra strap.
"I never would have sent that memo out," said the employe, who asked that her name not be used. "People should look professional, and I don't object to John telling that to people. But he shouldn't have put it down like that. tIf this were a private company he could have sent out that memo with impunity, but he should have know this would turn into a political mess."
The employe added, "At least he should have put in something about men, like no tennis shoes or something."
Another council worker said she was angered by the day-long joking and, in particular, by male workers who inquired if she were wearing a bra. "I just can't believe people are actually asking me that," she said.
Alan Grip, spokesman for Mayor Marion Barry, said the District government does not have an overall dress code.
Dixon's press aide, Carol Richards, attempted to divert the brouhaha by stressing the other points Brown made in the memo, primarily his assertion that, "In spite of the necessity for me to write this memorandum. . . you are an excellent group of men and women."
Brown told staff members in the memo that his intent was "for you to realize the full potential that you have as professionals."
Some council workers predicted that the prohibition against using the council's telephone for non-essential private business would have the most wide-spread impact. "I've seen members of the public kept waiting while people were talking on the phone about who shot J.R.," said one, referring to the attack on J.R. Ewing on the television show "Dallas."
Disclosure of the memo prompted a number of phone calls from the public, council workers said, including one from a woman who said she was too shy to give her name.
"It's unfair," the caller reportedly said. "If the women have to wear bras, the men should have to wear jockstraps."