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What dress codes reveal about politics and social change

Stanford Law Professor, Richard Thompson Ford, gies us a brief overview of the societal and political significance of dress codes over time.


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The Fetterman Dress Code

Are you bothered by our U.S. Senator dressing like he’s at an Eagles game while doing his job for you in the U.S. Senate?

The Fetterman Dress Code

Are you bothered by our U.S. Senator dressing like he’s at an Eagles game while doing his job for you in the U.S. Senate?

Earlier this week, in partnership with the African American Chamber of Commerce, we did our first live taping of How To Really Run a City, our podcast with Michael Nutter and former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, to kick off the Chamber’s Third Annual Convening of Black Mayors at the African American Museum in Philadelphia. There, at the cocktail reception, amid some stunningly well-dressed men and women, was our U.S. Senator John Fetterman, wearing … sweatshirt, shorts and sneakers.

That’s kinda not cool, I thought. I know working-class dude is Fetterman’s brand, but this just looked disrespectful. The more I thought about it, the more annoyed I got.

Maybe my reaction could also be explained by this context: I’d just seen an interview with author Evan Thomas, whose new book, Road to Surrender: Three Men and the Countdown to the End of World War II, tells the behind-the-scenes story of America’s atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki through the eyes of three protagonists: Henry Stimson, the American Secretary of War; Gen. Carl “Tooey” Spaatz, who supervised the planes that dropped the bombs; and Japanese Foreign Minister Shigenori Togo.

Stimson’s story is the one that stuck with me; there he was, in the Oval Office, pictured with President Harry Truman, both in suits and ties. After bringing Truman the first photos of the devastation wrought by the American bombing — it looked like “the inside of an ashtray” Evans says — Stimson promptly had a minor heart attack, to be followed by a more serious one a month later. He went on, Thomas explains, to live a life of anguish over decisions no one should ever have to make.

But Stimson had walked the president through the calculations — how killing 70,000 Japanese civilians in Hiroshima and another 40,000 in Nagasaki would save a million Japanese lives and likely spare the deaths of hundreds of thousands of American boys. Truman signed off on the ghastly decision, essentially betting that killing over 100,000 people was morally necessary in order to save the lives of multitudes.

Yes, comfy is Fetterman’s brand, but should branding trump all? And does working class necessarily mean schlubby?

Pretty serious men, no? Imagine the moral precariousness. The fear. The gut-wrenching introspection. The allegiance to principle.

Suddenly, the image of Fetterman looking like a frat boy stood in stark contrast. Did you catch the footage of our U.S. Senator appearing before the cameras at a Senate press conference alongside a bevy of his colleagues, including Bernie Sanders? They were calling for President Biden to activate the 14th Amendment, essentially short-circuiting debt ceiling negotiations with the Republicans and kicking off lengthy legal wrangling.

What struck me wasn’t the questionable logic of Fetterman’s policy prescription — do you really want to bet on this Supreme Court to find in your favor? — or the choppy, garbled nature of the Senator’s statement, still showing some effects from his stroke last year. No, here’s what jumped out: Alongside men in suits and ties just off the Senate floor, there stood our hulking Senator, in a Carhartt sweatshirt, shorts and sneakers.

The juxtaposition was visceral: Our Senator didn’t appear to be a serious statesman. It’s not often that I agree with the odious Rep. Lauren Boebert, who tweeted, ”John Fetterman redefined Casual Friday on a Thursday morning. It’s truly unbecoming for someone to show up like that to any job, let alone a job that only 100 people are elected to do. There’s just no excuse for it.”

I don’t know about any job, but at a time when the institutions that built the nation are held in lower esteem than ever, dressing for them like you’re at an Eagles game undermines our common project. And, in this case, it made it easier to dismiss Fetterman’s argument, as exemplified in a tweet by Charlie Kirk, the CEO of the conservative non-profit Turning Point: “Constitutional scholar John Fetterman dressed up today to encourage Joe Biden to weaponize the 14th Amendment and usurp Congress’s constitutional authority to determine federal spending as it relates to the debt ceiling.”

Two men and one woman standing with senator John Fetterman at a Philadelphia event
Left to right: Gary Shepherd, Kenneth Scott, Sen. Fetterman and Regina Hairston at the taping of How to Really Run A City. Photo by Jahlil Pleasant/SharpShooter Visuals LLC.

Now, a few caveats.

I like John Fetterman and dig his Everyman vibe. We need more working-class folks in the millionaires club that is the U.S. Senate. I also applaud him for being at work at all. Last August, I had a significantly more minor stroke than him, and yet I still find myself napping when the folks at The Citizen think I’m hard at work on something.

But there is something performative about Fetterman’s dressing down, no? Yes, comfy is Fetterman’s brand, but should branding trump all? And does working-class necessarily mean schlubby? Last year, I was taken by Ralph Lauren’s teaming up with historically Black colleges Morehouse and Spelman on a cool collection that captured Black collegiate style from the 1920s to 1950s. It was casual, yes, but sharp and sophisticated. Stylish but respectful. This was fashion as a celebration of institutional influence, not a nose-thumbing directed at a club that would dare have you as its member.

Last week, there was a lot of pearl-clutching in the media because Rep. Hakeem Jefferies and Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy both wore comfortable dress sneakers in the Oval Office. Get over it. That doesn’t say to their constituents “our work here doesn’t matter to us” and it doesn’t provide an opening for their rivals to dismiss them as not serious. They’re just wearing comfortable shoes, y’all.

But Fetterman’s style — and the dude was named to the New York Times’ most stylish list last year — is an affront not just to the institution of the Senate, but to you and me. I want my U.S. Senator looking like one. Remember when it was popular to praise George W. Bush by saying he was someone you wanted to have a beer with? That always seemed oddly narcissistic. Sorry, but I want a president — and, for that matter, a U.S. Senator—who has more important stuff on his or her mind than having a beer with me.

Is sartorial seriousness a thing of the past?

Granted, the times they are a-changin,’ and Truman and Stimson’s sartorial seriousness might seem out of place to new, more diverse, generations. In fact, some legislatures have been roiling in ongoing dress code debates. In Rhode Island, Sen. Cynthia Mendes questioned a new dress code that was instituted after more women and people of color were voted into office than ever before.

“This is colonization language,” Mendes said. “The need to remind everyone who is in power. It has always started with what you tell them to do with their bodies, That’s not lost on me.”

Well, okay. But isn’t there some common ground to be found around an issue as universal as appropriate attire? Don’t we pretty much all agree that we dress differently for a funeral than for a backyard cookout? Dressing for a funeral is not about us. It’s not about our “brand.” It’s about showing respect to someone else.

“Constitutional scholar John Fetterman dressed up today to encourage Joe Biden to weaponize the 14th Amendment and usurp Congress’s constitutional authority to determine federal spending as it relates to the debt ceiling.” — Charlie Kirk

The Senate requires members to wear a jacket and tie, so when Fetterman is in dress-down mode, he casts votes from the doorway of the Democratic cloakroom or the side entrance to the Senate floor. Are you okay with your elected representative in the United States Senate hiding out off the storied floor in order to do his job for you? Seems like a slap in the face to his constituents — and also to the institution of the Senate itself.

The floor of the United States Senate — the place our Senator avoids because of the inconvenience of tying a necktie — has saved the Republic time and again throughout our history. It’s where, in 1950, Margaret Chase Smith rose to speak up for free speech and begin the process of taking down a demagogue.

Like Fetterman, she was, in the parlance of the times, a freshman Senator. But she was so angered by the rise of McCarthyism — and by the silence of senior Senators — that the Maine Senator rose to speak out on the character assassinations and lies being told by her powerful senior colleague, Senator Joe McCarthy.

“Mr. President,” she began, “the United States Senate has long enjoyed worldwide respect as the greatest deliberative body … But recently that deliberative character has … been debased to … a forum of hate and character assassination … Freedom of speech is not what it used to be in America. It has been so abused by some that it is not exercised by others.”

She called out the “Four Horsemen of Calumny — Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry, and Smear” and essentially pleaded with her Republican colleagues not to let McCarthy continue ruining lives by leveling baseless charges of Communist affiliation against everyday citizens. Smith even introduced into the record a “Declaration of Conscience,” co-signed by six Republican colleagues.

McCarthy and his minions would punish her for years in the Senate, but Smith started a wave that, four years later, led to the censuring of McCarthy for conduct contrary to senatorial traditions. It was, finally, the end of McCarthyism.

That’s what Margaret Chase Smith did on the floor of the United States Senate, the floor our Senator avoids because he’s wearing a hoodie. I bet the co-signers of Smith’s Declaration of Conscience, as well as her constituents, wouldn’t have taken her quite so seriously had she been wearing sweats.


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