On Thursday morning, CBS’s Rebecca Shabad reported that Washington, D.C.’s heat wave had reignited debate over the House of Representatives’ dress code, which forbids women from wearing open-toed shoes and sleeveless dresses and mandates that men wear a suit jacket with a tie, even in sweltering humidity. By Thursday evening, Paul Ryan was being accused of turning the House floor into The Handmaid’s Tale.
You think I’m exaggerating. I’m not.
“‘Handmaids’ in the House?” read the title of a Newsweek story. “Dress Code Requires (Most) Women to Cover Their Shoulders.”
“Congress’s Dress Code Is Sexist and Just Plain F***ed Up” read another by Esquire. “What is this, Gilead?”
Yes, Paul Ryan is literally enforcing a theocratic, patriarchal dictatorship within the walls of the House.
Except if you make it past the headline of the original, well-reported CBS story, you will see that he is . . . not.
As the story details, both men and women are subject to the summer-incompatible dress code, which is enforced on the House floor and in the Speaker’s lobby and has been around in some form for centuries. While the vague code is subject to the speaker’s interpretation, Ryan’s specifications do not deviate from those of the speakers immediately before him.
Until Michelle Obama wore a sleeveless dress to her husband’s first joint address to Congress in 2009, exposed shoulders were strictly forbidden on the House floor. After this “Sleevegate,” senators slowly began introducing cap-sleeved, then sleeveless, attire. In the House, Republican representative Michele Bachmann began to regularly don sleeveless dresses.
Today, female legislators wear sleeveless dresses “without admonishment,” The Hill reports, though male and female reporters are frequently reprimanded for their attire. On Twitter, multiple journalists have recounted being given warnings for open-toed shoes or even being offered “ties of shame.” Evidently, the rules have evolved primarily for the benefit of the president’s family members — Ivanka Trump exposed her shoulders at her father’s joint address — and for representatives, who have been reminded to dress appropriately by both former speaker John Boehner and current speaker Ryan.
If anything, the capricious enforcement of the rule is biased against reporters, and . . . well, men. In 95-degree heat with 90 percent humidity, a shirt, suit jacket, long pants, and a tie is indisputably more uncomfortable than a knee-length dress with sleeves. Representative Jim Mattox began protesting this requirement 38 years ago, back when Tip O’Neill, a Democrat, was speaker of the House.
The last documented instance of a speaker enforcing the dress code for a representative was in 2012, when Representative Bobby Rush was escorted from the House floor for wearing a hoodie to commemorate the life of Trayvon Martin. Otherwise, representatives have found ways to skirt actual punishment. For instance, in 2011, Barney Frank borrowed a suit jacket from a staffer to drape over his shoulders because he had come from surgery and was wearing a cast.
Congressional dress codes go back for centuries. While they have evolved — women began wearing pants after Representative Charlotte Reid donned them on the House floor in 1969 — a few specifications have stuck. Hats have been forbidden for the last 150 years and likely will not return.
Despite the longevity of the dress code, even in its current format, Paul Ryan emerged as the villain of the clickbait narrative. Even the New York Times published a headline declaring that Ryan “implements new ‘no sleeveless’ dress code for women.” (A correction was subsequently issued noting that the dress code was not in fact new.) The story demonstrated the transmutation of fiction into fact in record speed. Reporting is under assault, not just by GIFs, but by bloggers keen to steal and spin actual journalists’ reporting to create literal fake news.
Female and male reporters both have legitimate grievances with the enforcement of the dress code, but to pretend that this is at all centered around sexism is sheer, intellectual dishonesty.