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Dressing down the Senate’s dress code

This is an excerpt from Outtakes, a Globe Opinion newsletter from columnist Renée Graham. Sign up to get this in your inbox a day early.
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In less than 18 months, Senator John Fetterman of Pennsylvania survived a near-fatal stroke, has auditory processing issues because of his stroke, and suffered such severe clinical depression that he checked himself into Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for six weeks of inpatient treatment earlier this year.

So if the freshman Democrat wants to wear shorts and a hoodie in his workplace — the US Capitol — let him be. And that’s exactly what Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has done. Last week, he informed the chamber’s sergeant-at-arms that the informal “business attire” dress code should no longer be enforced.

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“Senators are able to choose what they wear on the Senate floor,” Schumer said in a statement. “I will continue to wear a suit.” And Fetterman will continue to wear what I like to call “yard work chic.”

Needless to say, this isn’t sitting well with all of Fetterman’s colleagues on either side of the aisle. In a radio interview, Democratic Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois said, “I think we need to have standards when it comes to what we’re wearing on the floor of the Senate.”

Republican Senator Roger Marshall of Kansas called the change “a sad day in the Senate.” How’s this for a sad day in the Senate? Hours after the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection, he was one of 147 Republicans who voted to overturn the 2020 presidential election results because Donald Trump got crushed by Joe Biden.

Marshall and 45 other Senate Republicans signed a letter to Schumer that claimed eliminating the dress code “disrespects the institution we serve and the American families we represent.” Only unserious people would pretend that they are serving the people by fulminating over sartorial choices. These are arsonists complaining about candlelight.

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Democratic Senator John Fetterman of Pennsylvania waves to members of the media on Capitol Hill.Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press

But here’s the real problem with dress codes: They’re about exclusion, not decorum.

That’s what’s happening to Darryl George, a Black high school student in Texas who was suspended for violating his school’s dress code because of his hairstyle. He and Darresha George, his mother, are now suing Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Ken Paxton, the state’s attorney general, for failing to enforce the CROWN Act, a state law which bans discrimination in schools and workplaces against people with hairstyles “commonly or historically associated with race.”

In 2005, the NBA became the first major sports league to institute a dress code for its players. As hip-hop style, personified by superstar Allen Iverson, became the norm for many Black players, then-commissioner David Stern declared that players would be required to wear “business casual attire” at arenas or sitting on the bench during games. He was policing Black style for the sake of white conformity and comfort.

Not surprisingly, women have been bucking congressional dress codes for as long as they’ve been in both chambers. Men, who can’t resist telling women what to do with their bodies or put on them, objected when women lawmakers started wearing pantsuits 30 years ago. And only since 2017 in the House (and 2019 in the Senate) have women been allowed to wear sleeveless dresses.

Much like the Senate, my childhood church had no official dress code, but everyone knew the score. For me that meant dresses, white patent leather shoes, and some lace doily pinned to my hot-combed hair. Given my usual attire of jeans and T-shirts, did Jesus even recognize me? Even then I knew that fussing over clothes missed the whole point of going to church.

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That’s what makes the Fetterman kerfuffle so absurd. The Senate has far more important issues to tackle than long basketball shorts on one of its members. Besides, you know who isn’t complaining? The constituents who sent Fetterman to the Senate. They must appreciate the hard-scrabble authenticity he’s carried with him from Braddock, the small town where he lives and once served as mayor, to Washington, D.C.

Fetterman has worn suits and looked awkward and uncomfortable. Given the other serious challenges he’s facing, if wearing a hoodie makes him feel better it’s no harm to anyone. If only these Senate Republicans were as concerned with protecting democracy as they are with cloaking their maliciousness with dress codes and phony decorum.


Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her @reneeygraham.