US Senate to drop dress code with some calling move 'disrespectful'

John Fetterman - US Senate to drop dress code with some calling move 'disrespectful'
John Fetterman is one senator known for his causal sartorial style, much to some annoyance - Shutterstock /Shawn Thew

The US Senate’s leader has relaxed the chamber’s dress standards after one of his Democratic colleagues was criticised for wearing a hoodie.

Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader, directed the sergeant-at-arms to no longer enforce a longstanding custom that senators wear business attire on the Senate floor.

The move has triggered debate from past and current members of Congress, with one calling it an “awful” decision and another branding it “disgraceful”.

It will allow John Fetterman, a progressive senator known for his penchant for tracksuits, to appear in casual clothing.

When he took office in January, the 6ft 8, 54-year-old Pennsylvania senator reluctantly followed tradition and wore suits in the Capitol.

But since returning to work following treatment for depression, his staff gained assurances from officials that Mr Fetterman could wear his trademark hoodies, so long as he did not walk on the Senate floor.

Chuck Schumer
Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer wants colleagues to be able to choose what they wear on the Senate floor - AP/J. Scott Applewhite

The change of rules comes as Congress attempts to avoid a government shutdown in a fortnight.

It is a major test for Kevin McCarthy, the Republican House speaker, who must unite his divided party over spending legislation to avert the crisis.

Mr McCarthy’s most conservative colleagues want him to agree to limit fiscal 2024 spending to $1.47 trillion – which is $120 billion below the level he agreed with Mr Biden in May.

US support for the Ukraine war is a key point of contention among Republicans.

Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is due to meet with Mr McCarthy and other congressional leaders from both political parties during a visit to Washington to muster support for continued funding this week.

Mr Zelensky will also be hosted by Joe Biden on Thursday at the White House.

Unwritten sartorial rules

Historically, the Senate has required anyone on the chamber floor to wear business attire, including a jacket and tie for men.

A similar dress code is in place in the House of Representatives, covering both the chamber and the speaker’s lobby.

The unwritten rules also prevented women from baring their arms or wearing dresses without a sweater or jacket, until they were relaxed in 2017 following a social media-fuelled campaign.

Similar accommodations were made in the Senate following a petition by its female members.

The Senate’s informal dress code is enforced by the sergeant-at-arms but because it is not a formal, written policy, some discretion is applied.

For instance, senators have long been able to circumvent the chamber’s sartorial customs when called upon unexpectedly by voting from the edge of the chamber with one foot still in the cloakroom.

Mr Fetterman has taken liberal use of the workaround, voting from the doorway of the Democratic cloakroom or the side entrance before ducking out.

However, since returning from his six-week hospitalisation, Mr Fetterman has taken to staying on after voting for meetings with his Democratic colleagues in his hoodie.

It led conservative commentators to accuse Mr Fetterman of being “disrespectful”.

John Fetterman
John Fetterman has been accused of being disrespectful with his choice of attire - Shutterstock /Michael Brochstein

‘The Senate chamber is not your home or gym’

Mr Fetterman is not the only senator to vote in casual clothing. Ted Cruz, a Republican representing Texas, sometimes attends in gym clothes.

Others have been spotted in golf attire, denim vests, shoes without socks and colourful wigs.

From Monday, Senators will be able to wear whatever they like, after the Democratic majority leader wrote to the sergeant-at-arms instructing them to stop enforcing the custom.

Mr Schumer told the website Axios that he would continue to wear a suit, but said his colleagues will be “able to choose what they wear on the Senate floor”.

The new rule only applies to senators, not their staff.

Justin Amash, a former Republican-turned Independent congressman, said: “The Senate chamber isn’t your home, a gym, or an outdoor park.

“If you can’t dress professionally for work on the floor of the Senate of the United States, then do us all a favour and get a different job.”

Marjorie Taylor Greene, the hard-right congresswoman for Georgia, said: “The Senate no longer enforcing a dress code for Senators to appease Fetterman is disgraceful.

“Dress code is one of society’s standards that set etiquette and respect for our institutions”.