Life in the Box: Dressing Up, It’s the Law

I’ve noticed the outrage about Missouri’s new dress code for women in the legislature. Specifically, women have to cover their arms. A woman (Republican) presented the rule, and it was passed by the Republican majority. In January of 2023.

The arm-covering aspect of a dress code seems odd, crazy, and I have no context.

Why, specifically, would women have to cover their arms? Who, exactly is offended by short sleeves on women? Is there a religious taboo against arm-showing? Is it okay to leave legs and heads uncovered? Can women go naked except for their arms? How specific is the new rule, and what else is next? Must they soon be told to wear girdles and underwire bras?

After spinning my thoughts a while about this odd headline, I read an article about the Missouri legislator’s intention. She was quoted as saying something along the lines that she merely wanted to clarify an existing dress code, and she wants women legislators to look “professional.” She says she won’t back down, and the Democrats opposing this rule are just wasting time.

Okay. So, I looked at the (prior to this vote) existing dress code in Missouri’s House:

“At all times when the House is seated, proper attire for gentlemen shall be business attire, including coat, tie, dress trousers, and dress shoes or boots. Proper attire for women shall be dresses or skirts or slacks worn with a blazer or sweater and appropriate dress shoes or boots. This rule shall apply to all members and staff on the floor of the House and lower gallery.”

The sleeve length for men is not specified. So, there’s that gender difference. Also, it does not allow men to wear dresses or skirts. Why not? I remember Phil Donahue had a show about men wearing dresses, way back in the 1980s. The style didn’t catch on, but probably because of how uncomfortable it is to wear pantyhose underneath. That’s just my take on it.

And, of course wearing a sweater should be okay for men, too. Mr. Rogers had some nice ones. 

Also, I’m sure the Missouri women are relieved that they don’t have to wear ties. I think men should be allowed to stop wearing them, too. It obviously interferes with the blood flow to their heads, and makes them say (and think) the craziest things. This is not good in law-making.

With further research, I found out that at least half the states in the U.S. have dress codes in their legislatures. They may even have different dress codes for their state House and Senate.

Regarding ties for men, the state of Wyoming says “Bolo ties are acceptable forms of neckwear, but the bolo must be worn tight with the top button of a collared shirt buttoned.” Whew, that was almost comfortable until it got to that top button-buttoned part.

Women in Wyoming’s congress can actually wear sleeveless and knit dresses, but only if a jacket is worn over them. Okay. No specific mention of short-sleeved jackets there. Will there be flaunting of female arms in Wyoming? Or will their lawmakers add it like Missouri did?

As far as flaunting goes, Wyoming rules also state that “Women should be sensitive to skirt lengths and necklines.” Read between those lines, baby!

“Jeans or denim material, including colored denim, is not allowed, and neither are fleece and jersey (sweatshirt material) allowed” in Wyoming. Shoot, ma’am, howz a cowboy or cowgirl gonna present their case to the assembly that way? Gotta wear your goin’ to church clothes? Whoa!

Oh, and Wyoming rules are specific about the boots worn in Congress. “Boots must be polished.” Do they have to be clean and smell good, too? The rule doesn’t say. Oh, guess what? Wyoming just decide to dump all these details in 2022, and adopt New Mexico’s dress code. New Mexico likes bolos, too. You can teach an old legislature new tricks.

Some states allow for exemptions to their dress code.

Oklahoma and North Carolina don’t want members to wear hats, but they do allow for religious head coverings. Alabama makes exceptions for religious dress, too.

Mississippi requires members to follow the dress code, but allows visitors free reign.

Hawaii requires “court attire” every day, but on Fridays “any member may dress in aloha attire.” Nice!

The Iowa Senate is very specific about the exceptions for wearing a coat and tie. All persons shall comply with the dress code, “except for Property Management personnel and press photographers moving through the chamber.” Even more specifically, “moving equipment through the chamber to the back stairway.” Whew. That helps us TV types, who always wear clothes that might get dirty from crawling on floors to plug in wires and electric cords. I may have broken the rules without knowing it in my several times doing reports from the House floor. But they must have given me a break, because I kept to the back of the room.

By the way, in 2021, an Iowa legislator protested that Republicans didn’t require members to wear masks during the Covid outbreak. She intentionally wore jeans in the chamber. She said that wearing jeans didn’t hurt anyone. Not wearing a mask did hurt people. The Republican leaders were not amused nor did they change their stance on masks, but they didn’t kick her out. They just refused to let her speak that day.

Also, there may be some hypocrisy when Iowa Republicans allow members to carry guns, but not wear jeans. Actually, the law is that they can carry guns as long as the guns are hidden, whether or not they have a legal permit for that gun. I’m guessing I’m not the only one finding that potentially hypocritical, or even potentially deadly. I guess appearances are everything. 

I remember back in the 1970s when women wearing pants suits was a huge deal, and there was debate in my high school about whether that was okay or not. Did these women want to be like men? Did the pants suits make them look too much like men?? We’re hopefully over that now, but women my age can get a bit cranky about gender clothes bias being legislated. Some of us have some bad memories about dress codes that really did require us to wear dresses, not pants, and in the days of mini-skirts, have our skirt lengths measured. Too short, and you were sent home!

Anyway, knowing that dressing and looking “professional” is important to the lawmakers of our nation, I guess that’s a good thing. The long- versus short-sleeve debate is pretty much a silly side note, as long as it doesn’t devolve into putting women back into pantyhose and high heels, or taking back their right to vote. Reasonable dress codes encourage respect, and respect is important in our law-making chambers. It makes me wish there were additional ways to ingrain respect into our legislators. Maybe they’d think about respecting the wishes of the people they represent, everyone, not just their major donors. And maybe, just maybe, they would respect the democracy in which they abide.

Nancy Heather Brown is a retired, Emmy Award-winning television producer whose career has included interviewing, writing, narrating and editing for a span of four decades. Today, she enjoys learning new things and reflecting upon the creative process and life issues, both inside and outside the box. Her opinions are her own, and are not necessarily those of this web site.

National Conference of State Legislatures report as of October 2021 (a PDF file.)

Oh, they dumped the Wyoming dress code: March 2022 Casper Star Tribune 

Are Suit Jackets oppressive? Associated Press article March 2021 

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