By Debbie Siegelbaum - 04/19/11 11:37 PM EDT
The prototypical politician has long been portrayed the same way in political cartoons and pop culture, regardless of the year, decade or even century.
“It’s always a little guy in a swallow-tail suit with striped pants and a bowtie,” Senate Historian Don Ritchie said. “It’s the mental image of a senator, [but] nobody has actually worn a costume like that in the Senate since, like, 1953.”
“There used to be a joke that … when a House member got elected to the Senate, the first thing he would do is go to Brooks Brothers and buy a better suit,” Ritchie said.
This wasn’t just an effort to dress to impress; it underscored the need to meet a standard of decorum policed by fellow lawmakers.
“The fact of the matter is senior senators would take junior senators aside and tell them, ‘You’re dressed inappropriately.’ And that happened in the House as well,” Ritchie added.
Dignified dress has always been expected on the House and Senate floors, a tradition that can be traced back to Founding Father Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the first congressional rules manual.
Jefferson required “that people be very formal in their discourse because the issues were going to be very emotional and divisive, and if you could avoid emotional and divisive speech and behavior, you might be able to have some sort of rational discussion and reach common ground,” Ritchie said. That mentality extended to dress as well.
According to House Historian Matt Wasniewski, even the earliest women in Congress were not immune to the pressures to dress the part of a proper politician.
From the election of the first woman to the House — Rep. Jeannette Rankin (R-Mont.) — in 1917 through the next several decades, female politicians wore dark, sedate dresses so as not to stand out.
“A lot of the tactics they adopted to kind of move into positions of influence in the House and Congress generally were to kind of fit in and minimize gender differences,” Wasniewski said.
The historian described how, in the 1940s, former Reps. Mary Norton (D-N.J.) and Frances Bolton (R-Ohio) would sit on the House floor and police fellow female lawmakers.
“If they were wearing a dress that Norton considered too frilly, she would go up and say something to them,” Wasniewski said.
This was part of a very successful strategy for Norton, who chaired four House committees — including the Labor Committee — in her quarter-century-long political career (1925-50).
Though stylistically staid, lawmakers did occasionally make poor fashion choices as they progressed into the 20th century. Egregious examples of the 1960s and ’70s include plaid sport coats and double-knit ties, Ritchie said.
The 1980s, however, were a watershed decade for congressional fashion, with the introduction of cameras on the Senate floor.
“Senators started to be more aware that now they were on camera … certain colors were definitely better,” Senate Curator Diane Skvarla said. “White shirts are not good on camera. Blue is definitely better. Red is sort of a power symbol … so you started seeing some red ties coming in.”
Female lawmakers also wore brighter colors to stand out on television, but their fashion choices evolved much more beyond vivid hues in the 1980s.
Though there was no official rule against women wearing pants, it was frowned upon up until that point, and female lawmakers and staff always wore dresses and skirts during official business.
Wasniewski recalled a story in which former Rep. Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.) — then a member of the House Armed Services Committee — arrived one day in something other than a skirt.
“She said, ‘The day I wore a pantsuit onto the House floor, you’d have thought I’d asked for a land base in China,’ ” Wasniewski joked.
But as the number of female lawmakers and staffers increased in the 1980s, they noticed that in Saturday sessions, men would arrive in casual attire such as sport jackets and slacks.
The female congressional staff “got together with the two women senators at the time — [Sens. Nancy Kassebaum (R-Kan.) and Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.)] — and arranged on the next Saturday session that everyone would wear slacks,” Ritchie said. “And they all did … and of course none of the men could say anything about it.”
The 1990s saw the rise of another congressional fashion trend, albeit one that traces back to an old Southern tradition.
On hot summer days, lawmakers used to wear lightweight pale-blue and white-striped cotton seersucker suits to combat the heat. The style died down after the Capitol was outfitted with air conditioning in the 1950s, but in the late 1990s former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) revived the practice.
He chose a warm day in June to designate as “Seersucker Thursday,” and senators were encouraged to dress in the more casual garb. Lott’s idea has since become an institution and is celebrated by lawmakers each summer.
Though many fashion trends have come and gone in Congress, one thing that likely will remain is formality, said Ritchie. As the rest of the nation transitions to business-casual attire, lawmakers will continue to dress up.
“There’s a sense of decorum” in Congress, he said. “Do you really want a Senate chamber full of people in blue jeans and running shoes?”
One fashion fad that could see a comeback in Congress in the near future is the donning of hats on chamber floors. According to Wasniewski, hats were at one time allowed in the House chamber, their use carried over from the British House of Commons as a symbol of the body’s independence from the king.
But a resolution passed in the 1830s banned them. The rule has been challenged since then.
In the early 1970s, Rep. Bella Abzug (D-N.Y.) wore a trademark brimmed hat, which played prominently in her campaign materials. Once elected, she insisted she would flout House tradition and don it on the floor during her swearing-in.
The House doorkeeper “knew this was coming because she had been talking about it in the press, and he stood in front of the doorway and barred her from entering the chamber,” Wasniewski said. Abzug “kind of stood there and looked at him, took it off, and with a four-letter word, told him to keep it safe.”
Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.) is hoping to succeed where Abzug failed. Well-known for her flamboyant style and sizable hat collection, the freshman member plans to introduce a resolution in the future to allow the contraband head-toppers back on the House floor.
“I think once I really get acclimated to what happens here in Washington, and get some legislation under my belt … then I’ll figure out a solution for the hats,” she said. “I do not intend to give up. I’ve never given up; I’m a fighter.
“I just like to dress up,” she said. “I’ve been dressing up all my life, and I’ll continue.”