In 1856, a South Carolina representative nearly beat to death an abolitionist Massachusetts senator in a disagreement over slavery. Based on illustrations of the time, they were both wearing coats and ties.
The first legislative body I was assigned to cover, as a college student, was a county commission in central Missouri. It had no formal dress code, but the men always wore suits and the women dresses. My editors instructed me to dress like a grown-up to be treated like a grown-up, and wear a dress shirt and tie out of respect for the democratic process.
I followed that advice at a later job when assigned to cover my next legislative body, the Nebraska Unicameral, where the understood dress for members, staff and reporters was what might now be called “business attire.”
There was, however, a rebel to that stricture. Ernest Chambers, a senator from Omaha, stood out not just because he was the lone Black face in a sea of 48 white ones, but because he always wore jeans and a T-shirt or short-sleeved sweatshirt over well-muscled biceps.
When he arrived for his first session, a small-town senator from the state’s northeast edge was so incensed by Chambers’ attire that he suggested the legislature adopt a formal dress code, a long-time friend and colleague, Don Walton of the Lincoln Journal Star recalled. Chambers suggested it might need to be amended to require all senators to wear deodorant. “And nothing further happened,” Walton said.
Chambers’ casual attire also went over well with average working stiffs – and this being Nebraska, they were mostly white – even if the senator’s stances on some issues were controversial. He went on to be the longest-serving member of that body.
At the other end of the sartorial spectrum, Eastern Washington’s long-time congressman, Tom Foley, was hardly seen without a well-tailored suit, crisp white shirt and perfectly knotted tied. It was his standard attire in both Washingtons, whether in an office or on the campaign trail in a district that included farmers and timber workers.
There was a story – possibly apocryphal – that when an aide suggested he dress down a bit to go campaigning in wheat country, Foley said no. People expected to see the person they send to Washington, D.C., to be dressed like a congressman, he said.
Despite their differences on the question of what to wear on the job, Chambers and Foley were two of the most effective legislators I ever saw. Which might suggest that, at least when it comes to elected officials, the’ axiom of clothes making the man (or woman) isn’t really true.
For the next month, Congress could try an experiment. If any member of Congress – is more comfortable in sweatpants and a hoodie, jeans and T-shirt, a ball gown or a muumuu, they can wear it.
Put on whatever they are comfortable working in. And get to work.