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Perspective: Is sleeveless appropriate for Capitol Hill? The problem is no one knows what ‘appropriate’ means

By Robin Givhan

WASHINGTON — It’s surprising that in 2017 there are still places in Washington where the powers-that-be feel it’s wise and worthwhile to play fashion police. But up on Capitol Hill, the fashion savants in the House still deem sleeveless dresses, sneakers and open-toe shoes verboten.

A recent story from CBS News has a reporter explaining that she was stopped from entering the Speaker’s Lobby, where journalists often buttonhole members of Congress for interviews, because her shoulders were bare. Men are not exempt from fashion watchdogs, either. They are expected to wear jackets and ties.

The policy is nothing new, though enforcement has sometimes been inconsistent. (On Thursday, Speaker Paul Ryan said that modernizing the decades-old dress code is under discussion.) These traditions apply to lawmakers and their staff, as well as journalists — but apparently not to first ladies or first daughters.

These fashion requirements, enforced by security guards, are specific enough that they stir rumblings of sexism but vague enough that they cannot possibly account for the permutations of modern fashion. There’s a significant difference in tone between a tailored sheath worn with peep-toe pumps and a sundress paired with gladiator sandals.

And what makes a sneaker a sneaker? Is it the rubber sole, the laces, a Swoosh, the Air Max technology? The modern “sneaker” comes in everything from gold metallic leather to gray wool tweed. Plenty of them look a heck of a lot better than a pair of salt-stained leather loafers that could use a cobbler’s attention — shoes that would not be forbidden in the House but probably ought to be if you care about aesthetics.

The crux of the House fashion rules, however, are not really about naked shoulders or tie-less men in shirt sleeves. A statement from the House speaker decrees that “members should wear appropriate business attire during all sittings of the House.” The goal is to show “mutual and institutional respect.” (Ah respect! So elusive these days.)

But what exactly is appropriate? Fifty years, 30 years, 15 years ago, most folks could probably agree on the definition of “appropriate.” There were actual sections in department stores called “career dressing.” People bought “work clothes” and changed out of them when they got home at the end of the day. In the age before leggings as pants, flip-flips as shoes and backpacks as an acceptable professional carry-all, everyone was on the same page sartorially. Mostly.

And then along came casual Friday, Silicon Valley, telecommuting, the gig economy. Business attire as a mutually agreed upon aesthetic began to disintegrate. The fashion industry declared there were no rules. Moguls began dressing like 12-year-old boys. Women embraced the comfort and ease of leggings. Individuality bloomed. People began wearing pajamas on the street. With designer slippers. And we accepted this as normal.

It’s not that people have forgotten what’s appropriate. They know. They simply choose to ignore it. They refuse to be appropriate. And they feel entitled to their refusal. They see it as a sign of freedom, liberation and personal identity. Hipness. When someone announces that an event is business attire, people know exactly what that means — suit and tie, modest dress, nice trousers - but they still spend significant time fretting about how they might get around what they know to be correct.

Why is it that when people receive an invitation that says black tie, they ask whether they have to wear a tuxedo? That’s the definition of black tie. What they are really asking is, “How can I get out of dressing appropriately?” Adults know what they are supposed to do. They simply choose not to do it.

The culture has lost another bit of common ground. So wrongheaded people attempt to mandate propriety. And perfectly good fashion takes a hit.

© 2017 Washington Post

Perspective: Is sleeveless appropriate for Capitol Hill? The problem is no one knows what ‘appropriate’ means 07/13/17 [Last modified: Monday, July 17, 2017 3:51pm]
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