Thursday, May 25, 2023

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Washington’s casual crisis

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Washington is in the midst of yet another crisis—a fashion crisis. There’s apparently some trouble with the debt ceiling, too …

A wave of conservative publications and politicians this week trained their ire at Pennsylvania Democrat John Fetterman for the crime of wearing a hoodie and gym shorts in the august halls of the US Senate. (As the New York Post headline put it: “Fetterman ripped over Senate hoodies, gym shorts: ‘Unprofessional and an insult’”; Washington Examiner: “John Fetterman is an embarrassing slob.”) Soon, the lanky senator (whose preference for Carhartt redefined “workplace casual” even before he went to Washington) was the subject of a full-blown pile-on. Here’s the video of Fetterman scandalizing his better-dressed Senate colleagues at a debt-ceiling press conference that caused the snit.

Democrats aren’t taking Hoodiegate lying down. Fetterman’s defenders point out he’s recovering from a stroke and only recently returned from medical leave. He should be able to wear what he wants!

Huffy attacks about a senator’s outfit violating decorum are a longstanding government tradition. It’s just that they’re usually directed at women. When she was first elected in 2000, Hillary Clinton caused an uproar by wearing a pantsuit on the Senate floor. Then Majority Leader Trent Lott, Republican of Mississippi, favored a lipstick-and-skirt dress code and expected women to cover their blouses with jackets. Sartorial standards were enforced by “bench ladies” stationed off the floor. “They’re technically party secretaries,” says Joshua Huder, a senior fellow at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University. “They block you from entering the Senate floor if you’re violating the dress code.”

Back in the day, Clinton’s insistence on sticking with her pantsuits drew snide remarks from the likes of radio host Rush Limbaugh. But it unexpectedly won her the admiration of Republican women who quietly savored the blow she struck against the Senate patriarchy. “She was a groundbreaker in the Senate,” says Jade West, who was a Republican Senate staffer at the time. “Really took everybody by surprise.”

The dress code eased a bit after that, and a bit more after Lott was driven out of his position for praising a segregationist. Washington’s war on women’s fashion periodically reaches a détente, though it never quite goes away. Recent offenders include former first lady Melania Trump (that jacket), Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (that dress) and Senator Kyrsten Sinema (rap sheet too long to list, but it includes a sleeveless denim top and a purple wig).

If one were forced to put a positive spin on the silly contretemps over Fetterman’s hoodie, it might be that it was directed at a man—a sign of progress, however stupid. Just this week, in fact, a bipartisan group of high-powered lawmakers came in for withering criticism by menswear influencer Derek Guy for disgracing the Oval Office with their hideous “dress sneakers.”

The offending “dress sneakers” in the Oval Office. Photographer: Yuri Gripas/Abaca

Guy, better known to Twitter users as @dieworkwear, roasted House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for donning “the footwear version of leather business backpacks or orphaned suit jackets worn with jeans”—dress shoes with sneaker soles. (If you must wear sneakers, he recommends classics such as Adidas Sambas or Stan Smiths—and you can read more about them here.) After the New York Times weighed in with a think piece, Guy relented a bit, at least on McConnell, who recently suffered a serious fall.

The controversy, of course, won’t die. Because Washington is Washington, and someone is always defending questionable behavior, the Congressional Sneaker Caucus leapt into the fray to uphold Americans’ God-given right to ugly footwear. On Wednesday, it released a corny statement defending the bipartisan “freedom to wear dress sneakers in the Oval Office” and insisting “sneakers and statesmanship are compatible.”

Covid-19 seems to have changed members of Congress in the same way it changed the rest of America: More than anything else, we crave comfort. What hasn’t changed is how quickly we devolve into furious partisan attacks. Democrats irked by criticism of Fetterman point out that Republicans routinely violate the Senate dress code. Former Senator Richard Burr often dressed like an insouciant prep schooler in shorts and a blazer, voting from just outside the doorway to avoid running afoul of the bench ladies. Somebody apparently slipped oppo research to Joy Behar of The View, who dunked on Senator Ted Cruz the other day for wearing sweaty gym clothes.

All these years later, Clinton’s old Senate staffers still chafe at the hypocrisy of Republicans’ attacks. “First it was Hillary and pants. Now it’s Fetterman and loose-fitting clothing,” says Philippe Reines, who fought in the fashion trenches when Lott still reigned. “It remains a double standard, which despite their own wearing shorts, seersucker and baseball uniforms, is the only standard Republicans believe in.”Joshua Green, Bloomberg Businessweek