Where is it still essential to dress semi-formally? We can be more precise when it comes to men. Where is it still required that a fellow wear a suit and tie? More than a few severe workplaces – the courts, the higher ends of finance – demand the old whistle and flute. But your doctor may well not wear a tie, and one or two will risk casual trousers when lancing your boil. In some parts of this island you are still expected to put on a tie when attending a funeral. In others not.
Over in the United States, one is, perhaps surprisingly, more likely to be forced into jacket and tie when dining at an expensive restaurant. Do such places still keep a rack of jackets for those who turn up in shirt sleeves? Answers to the usual address.
Such semi-formality is, however, no longer required in the US Senate. “Senators are able to choose what they wear on the Senate floor,” Chuck Schumer, the majority leader, told CBS News last week. “I will continue to wear a suit.”
Like every disturbance of dust in that country, the decision generated a political falling-out of near-revolutionary fervour. Republicans decided the change had been made to accommodate Senator John Fetterman of Pennsylvania. A 6ft 8in behemoth with shaved head and Stonehenge shoulders, the Democrat regularly dresses – if he’ll forgive me – more like someone who has come to fell your diseased tree than debate legislation on bridge safety. He likes shorts, sweatshirts and sneakers.
The famously temperate Marjorie Taylor Greene, Republican member of the House of Representatives, rapidly “took to X” (as nobody actually says of the app formerly known as Twitter). “The Senate no longer enforcing a dress code for Senators to appease Fetterman is disgraceful,” she wrote. “Dress code is one of society’s standards that set etiquette and respect for our institutions.”
Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida once again spotted an opportunity to do nothing in the way of salvaging his floundering bid for the presidency. “We need to be lifting up our standards in this country, not dumbing down our standards in this country,” he said to the echo of a million foreheads being slapped. The veteran Republican senator Susan Collins joshed (we think) that she would be attending the Senate in a bikini.
There is at least one argument against the alteration as it stands. The Hill newspaper tells us that “staffers and outside visitors need to adhere to the business attire policy”. This hardly seems fair. If Senator Fetterman can dress like a member of Limp Bizkit then the chap serving him coffee should be allowed to do the same. You didn’t see King Charles III dressing any more informally than those “commoners” invited to his coronation. The bloke was wearing an actual crown.
There will be as many people who find casual dress disrespectful as regard the wearing of sneakers as a gesture of democratic solidarity
It is fair, however, to wonder why democratic legislatures still hang on to these conventions on dress. “Conventions” is the word. Most TDs will turn up looking at least as smart as the average solicitor, but there is no formal dress code in Dáil Éireann. Speaking in the wake of the US Senate’s decision, the Independent TD Michael Healy-Rae said his colleagues should show the same level of sartorial respect as they would at a wedding or funeral (as we have seen, not a consistent standard). “I’m not saying you need to be suited and booted, but the least you can do is put on the best of what you have,” he said.
The speaker’s “rules of behaviour” for the UK House of Commons confirm that “there is no exact dress code: usual business dress is suggested as a guide”. The section goes on to state that it is “no longer a requirement for men to wear a tie, but jackets should be worn”.
The counterargument to prevailing mid-level smartness is that politicians should dress like “the people”. Why shouldn’t John Fetterman turn out in the style of a tree surgeon? No doubt he represents the odd arboreal specialist in the Keystone State. Well, there will be as many people who find casual dress disrespectful as regard the wearing of sneakers as a gesture of democratic solidarity. If you turn up to the European Parliament looking like a Hawkwind roadie, you’re making some kind of statement. A consistent dress regulation for men – let’s not start on the abuse female MPs get over their clothes – does at least diminish the possibility of issuing an unspoken sentiment when you’re finished with the morning’s wardrobe. But, yes, there is still something of a class statement to the lounge suit. What we need to do is put them all in unisex uniforms. Decorative kepis. Crisp tunics. Patent-leather boots. Okay, maybe not. That does suggest the costuming in some dystopian fantasy. But it’s a starting point. Right?