A Rhode Island state senator objects to his chamber’s jacket-and-dress-shirt edict. Montana lawmakers complain about skirt length rules. And an Iowa state representative questions a ban on casual clothes. Some legislatures are confronting longstanding dress codes.
Last November, voters elected more women, people of color, and young folks to offices. Many of these newbies see the dress codes of their statehouses as racist, sexist—or just plain outdated.
Jonathon Acosta is a 31-year-old state senator from Rhode Island. He purposefully donned a collarless Caribbean shirt for a dress discussion in his state legislature.
“These rules make it OK for us to judge people based on the way they dress or how they look, and I just feel that’s super problematic,” says Acosta. “I assure you that what I wear does not influence the quality of the work I produce.”
Fashion writer Vanessa Friedman says there’s more to the debate than quality of work. She recognizes that younger people generally dress for comfort or self-expression. But as people age, she believes they “should aim for another target”—dressing instead for whom they hope to become.
Dress codes also play an important role in preserving accepted conventions, says Rhonda Garelick. She is a dean at the Parsons School of Design. “We dress differently for a funeral [than] . . . a barbecue,” she says, emphasizing that attire can convey “respect or formality” as well as casualness.
Many people believe as styles change, dress codes should too.
This spring, the Rhode Island Senate approved a slightly revised dress code. It requires Senate members and staff to dress in “proper and appropriate attire, such as blouses, dress slacks, and collared shirts with accompanying jacket.”
Senator Louis DiPalma chairs the committee that examined RI’s code. “It’s not about judging how anyone looks,” he says. “A dress code and decorum are about respecting an institution that is 200-plus years old.”
Senator Cynthia Mendes questioned the timing of the new rules: after the election of more women and people of color. “[They] need to remind everyone who is in power,” she suggests, referring to the lawmakers long established in their roles.
Senator Gordon Rogers supported the attire rules but admitted it was difficult to trade in his beloved Chippewa boots for dress shoes. “It’s not about [alienating] anybody,” the businessman and farmer says. “Sometimes you have to force respect.”
Discussions about dress can make some folks hot under the collar. But as Molly St. Louis of Inc. magazine says, “Like it or not, your clothes and presentation communicate volumes about you as a person.”