Politics

38 years ago, there was an uproar about the House dress code, too

One of longtime speaker Tip O’Neill’s lesser known pet peeves, apparently, was proper dress.

Salem State College/File 1987

One of longtime speaker Tip O’Neill’s lesser known pet peeves, apparently, was proper dress.

WASHINGTON — Temperatures rising in Washington. A president who is not so sure-footed on the international stage. And an uproar about the dress code in the US House of Representatives.

Not this week.

Advertisement

It was a different sweltering July, one 38 years ago, where Jimmy Carter’s energy crisis increased the heat, quite literally, in the House chamber.

While Washington has been atwitter this week over accusations that House Speaker Paul Ryan was behind a “new” dress code banning sleeveless dresses, the policy actually has its roots in a set of rules around attire set in place by one of his predecessors: Tip O’Neill.

Get Political Happy Hour in your inbox:
Your afternoon shot of politics, sent straight from the desk of Joshua Miller.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

The longtime speaker was known for many things. One of his lesser known pet peeves, apparently, was proper dress.

Then-House Speaker Tip O’Neill was aghast that Representative Jim Mattox, a Democrat from Dallas, showed up on the House floor without coat and tie.

Mattox rose from his seat to speak, but O’Neill refused to recognize him.

Advertisement

“Over many years and during some uncomfortable seasons, members have respected an unwritten standard,” he said, according to a Dallas Times Herald story with the headline “Tieless Texan bucks code.” “Historically, a coat and tie has always been required for male members and appropriate attire for female members.”

O’Neill recognized that it was hot in the House because of air conditioning restrictions. Fans would come soon, he said. And besides, in the days before air conditioning, congressmen endured muggy Washington while wearing swallow-tail coats.

Mattox persisted, and O’Neill resisted.

“The chair is not recognizing the gentleman. The chair has asked the gentleman to leave the chamber,” O’Neill said. “The gentleman from Texas is embarrassing the chair. Maybe he does not feel he is embarrassing himself.”

Representative Morris Udall, an Arizona Democrat, tried to offer a compromise, with a motion to allow members to shed their coats from June 1 through Labor Day, as long as they wore “suitable, dignified, tasteful, and appropriate clothes.”

The motion failed, 303-to-105.

To make his point clear, O’Neill oversaw the passage of a resolution requiring members to wear “proper attire as determined by the speaker.”

All politics is local, Tip once said, and in his case some of the locals criticized his politics.

“I watched with astonishment and regret House Speaker O’Neill’s encounter on the House floor with Rep. Mattox about his attire,” Robert D. Buzza of Topsfield wrote to the Globe. “My reaction stems not from the pomposity of the situation, but from O’Neill’s poor political judgement. . . . At a time when we should all be ‘rolling up our sleeves’ and modifying our styles of living, he rebukes a colleague for doing just that.”

Priscilla B. Bellairs of Haverhill agreed.

“If Congress had any dignity at all, it would have suffered mortification at the spectacle of an elected official denied his right to speak on the basis of his attire,” she wrote. “But since every man on the floor of the House did not immediately rise up, remove his coat, tie, and continue removing clothing until the Speaker left the floor in shame, I supposed that I finally come around to Speaker O’Neill’s position: the men of the House had better be required to keep on their coats and ties because these are the only shreds of dignity they have left.”

The Globe ran a column offering another solution, one that would still work today: Move Congress from Washington to the milder climate of Boston.

“There would be no debates about jackets and ties in Boston; the question would not arise,” John N. Cole wrote in the column. “Proper attire in this city is habitual.”

Matt Viser can be reached at matt.viser@globe.com.
Loading comments...
Real journalists. Real journalism. Subscribe to The Boston Globe today.