Wearing what you want is a privilege, not a right — and lately, people have been abusing it.
Last week, guards barred a reporter from entering the Speaker’s Lobby, a room outside the House of Representatives chamber where reporters grab short interviews with politicians. She wasn’t armed or anything — just bare-armed. Sleeveless dresses are against the Speaker’s Lobby dress code.
The incident caused a firestorm, with news outlets hysterically comparing the House’s so-called “sexist” rules to those of the dystopian TV series “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
The outcry is beyond ridiculous — and misguided. Congressional rules are far from draconian. The Speaker’s Lobby is the only room on Capitol Hill that requires reporters to suit up so formally. As for the sexism claim, men are held to a high sartorial standard there, too: They’re required to wear jackets and ties, which are arguably more stifling than dresses with sleeves.
Plus, who knows if Congress would have bothered enforcing this rule if reporters stuck to professional sheath dresses (as Michelle Obama routinely did)? Instead, journalists have been waltzing into the Speaker’s Lobby wearing breezy summer dresses and Birkenstocks — not exactly proper business attire. Can you really blame the House for trying to uphold a sense of decorum?
This Congress kerfuffle is just the latest case of people refusing to dress with a modicum of respect for their surroundings. Back in March, United Airlines got flak for stopping two teens wearing stretch pants from boarding a flight. Dubbed “Leggings-gate,” the airline was derided for sexism — despite the fact that the two ejected passengers were flying for free on an employee’s family pass, which entails a strict dress code for both men and women.
Then, in April, the posh department store Harvey Nichols incited similar ire for its “snooty” attitude toward author Joanne Harris, who tried to shop there in a hoodie. But in the end it was Harris who came across as a snob — would she have deigned to change out of her gym clothes for a meeting with a publisher or lunch with a friend? Why should a retail employee at a fancy shop be afforded any less respect?
And that’s the heart of the issue: respect.
Dressing like a slob is the height of entitlement. It’s an arrogant power move employed by Silicon Valley whiz kids like Mark Zuckerberg in an effort to intimidate men and women in suits.
Flouting a dress code says: “I’m too important to adhere to the rules and dress like everybody else, and you are not worth the few seconds it would take me to put on a shirt with buttons” — or, in the House’s case, throw a cardigan on over a sleeveless blouse.
These types of dress codes aren’t “Handmaid’s Tale”-like sumptuary laws, which use dress as a way of signifying class and power. These workplace uniforms not only establish the sense of formality and respect that workplace environments should have — they also level the playing field, if only superficially. In theory, no one is exempt from having to wear a jacket or sleeves. Not even the president!
If politicians have to sweat it out all day in sleeves and closed-toed shoes, it doesn’t seem too much to ask female reporters to carry a cardigan and a pair of ballet flats in their bag for when they have to enter the Speaker’s Lobby. It’s probably the easiest thing their job requires of them.