A new Goldman State Podcast drops every Friday!

Nov 20, 2023

The U.S. Senate Dress Code Almost Changed. Why Not the U.S. Senate Itself?

“Casualty Friday” is now a daily occurrence

By Ed Goldman

When the current, inarguably disastrous session of Congress began, Chuck Schumer—the U.S. Senate majority leader who seems constitutionally incapable of training his eyeglasses to rise above his nostrils—was suspending the dress code for his fellow electeds in the alleged Upper House.

Schumer’s edict meant politicians could not only commit but also wear flip-flops at work. Of note was that aides and pages would still need to dress as though they’re about to embark on a Mormon mission or go to work as repairpersons for IBM.

Edgy Cartoon


Didn’t Prince Pince-Nez, as I call Chuck—whose every utterance makes him sound like a rabbi struggling to be patient with us idiots—realize that the senators’ current uniform of dark suits, white shirts, bland neckties and American-flag lapel pins was just about the only thing that gives this gang of hooligans gravitas? 

They certainly don’t exhibit it in the laws they choose to ignore (anti-gun legislation, anyone?), their childish behavior (actually booing the President? Shouldn’t that count as elder abuse?) or unfamiliarity with grammar (far too many examples to cite, I’m afraid)?

As CBS News reported, “In the House, men are supposed to wear suits and ties and women aren’t supposed to wear sleeveless attire, sneakers or open-toed shoes—but there doesn’t seem to be a formal record of these rules. Still, they have been enforced.

“In 2017,” the report continues, “a woman reporter tried to enter the House Speaker’s lobby, located outside the chamber, but her sleeveless dress was deemed ‘inappropriate.’ She improvised shoulder coverings using paper from her notebook, witnesses said.” 

I’m sure that looked quite natural. It reminds me of that parody of “Gone With the Wind” on the old Carol Burnett Show in which she goes Scarlett O’Hara one step better by not just turning her curtains into a fine dress to fool Rhett Butler into thinking she’s still wealthy but accidentally leaves in the curtain rods. As she descends the staircase, the studio audience goes berserk with laughter for many minutes. (So does Burnett’s co-star, Harvey Korman, playing Rhett.)

While I’ve always understood dress codes—Schumer’s attempt seems to have evanesced—those very two words beg us to defy them. “Clothing Rules” might be a more direct descriptor, though sheer hell for anyone with a lisp to say aloud.

“Dress” is a word like apparel, garb and ensemble: needlessly formal, open to interpretation. “Code” is another term for a law—as in building code, tax code or any arcane language used by spies and computer programmers. 

Centuries ago I was being interviewed for a public relations job at Hewlett-Packard’s Palo Alto HQ. The VP of marketing and PR took me into the Great Room housing about 30 cubicles (he, of course, had an office with four walls and a door). As we walked into the cavernous workplace he stopped dramatically and removed his suit jacket. “If you come to work here,” he said proudly, “the first thing you do when you walk in is take off your coat.” He then stepped away a moment and hung it up on a hook in his office, as if to demonstrate how one disposes of one’s outerwear in civilized society.

He was trying to show me what a fun place H-P would be to work. Filled with the unearned snarkiness of a man in his early 30s, I asked, “What if I’m cold that day? Can I just leave my jacket on?” 

The man eyed me with a look one usually reserves for viewing fiery car accidents or capital executions. “No, no, no,” he managed to say. I think he was fighting the urge to scream what the acronym for WTF stands for. “My point is that we’re not like IBM. We’re a casual, creative environment.”

But it was clear to me that not wearing a coat was akin to wearing a uniform. I was still processing that when, a day later, he offered me the job I was going for, with one caveat: Would I shave off my beard? “Dave Packard hates beards,” he said.

Every part of me wanted to reply, “Then tell him not to grow one.” But this man was a very kind guy, obviously nearing retirement, and had probably already met his quota years ago for dealing with whipper-snappers. I gratefully declined the job.

A few days later, I shaved off my beard for a few months. No idea why. But I grew it back when someone suggested, “Without it, people can see you smirk.” Wish I’d known Chuck Schumer back then. He’d have defended me.

Looking for a Great Gift?

Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).