The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Is sleeveless appropriate for Capitol Hill? The problem is no one knows what ‘appropriate’ means.

Journalists — some sleeved, some not — wait to talk to lawmakers at the U.S. Capitol in late June. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

It’s surprising that in 2017 there are still places in Washington where the powers-that-be feel it’s wise and worthwhile to play fashion police. But up on Capitol Hill, the fashion savants in the House still deem sleeveless dresses, sneakers and open-toe shoes verboten.

A recent story from CBS News has a reporter explaining that she was stopped from entering the Speaker’s Lobby, where journalists often buttonhole members of Congress for interviews, because her shoulders were bare. Men are not exempt from the fashion watchdogs, either. They are expected to wear jackets and ties.

From Are sleeveless dresses “appropriate attire”? Congress doesn’t think so

The policy is nothing new, according to some Hill veterans, though enforcement has sometimes been inconsistent. These traditions apply to lawmakers and their staff, as well as journalists — but apparently not to first ladies or first daughters.

These fashion requirements, enforced by security guards, are specific enough that they stir rumblings of sexism but vague enough that they cannot possibly account for the myriad permutations of modern fashion. After all, there’s a significant difference in tone between a tailored sheath worn with peep-toe pumps and a sundress paired with gladiator sandals. And what, for example, makes a sneaker a sneaker? Is it the rubber sole, the laces, a Swoosh, the Air Max technology? The modern “sneaker” comes in everything from gold metallic leather to gray wool tweed. Some have wedge heels. Some slide on. Plenty of them look a heck of a lot better than a pair of salt-stained leather loafers that could use a cobbler’s attention — shoes that would not be forbidden in the House but probably ought to be if you care about aesthetics.

The crux of the House fashion rules, however, is not really about naked shoulders or tie-less men in shirtsleeves. A statement from House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) decrees that “members should wear appropriate business attire during all sittings of the House, however brief their appearance on the floor may be.” The goal is to show “mutual and institutional respect.” (Ah respect! So elusive these days.)

From 2015: Michelle Obama wore a suit to the State of the Union: Why that’s unusual

But what exactly is appropriate? Fifty years, 30 years, 15 years ago, most folks could probably agree on the definition of “appropriate.” There were actual sections in department stores called “career dressing.” People bought “work clothes” and changed out of them when they got home at the end of the day. In the age before leggings as pants, flip-flips as shoes and backpacks as an acceptable professional carry-all, everyone was on the same page sartorially. Mostly.

Polo shirts and khakis were just the right thing for three U.S. heroes to wear in Paris

And then along came casual Friday, Silicon Valley, telecommuting, the gig economy. Business attire as a mutually agreed-upon aesthetic began to disintegrate. The fashion industry declared there were no rules. Moguls began dressing like 12-year-old boys. Women embraced the comfort and ease of leggings. Individuality bloomed. People began wearing pajamas on the street. With designer slippers. And we accepted this as normal.

It’s not that people have forgotten what’s appropriate. They know. They simply choose to ignore it. They refuse to be appropriate. And they feel entitled to their refusal. They see it as a sign of freedom, liberation and personal identity. Hipness. When someone announces that an event is business attire, people know exactly what that means — suit and tie, modest dress, nice trousers — but they still spend significant time fretting about how they might get around what they know to be correct.

Why is it that when people receive an invitation that says black tie, they ask whether they have to wear a tuxedo? That’s the definition of black tie. What they are really asking is, “How can I get out of dressing appropriately?” Adults know what they are supposed to do. They simply choose not to do it.

The culture has lost another bit of common ground. So wrongheaded people attempt to mandate propriety. And perfectly good fashion takes a hit.