DC lawmakers protest for the right to 'bare arms,' help spark debate about dress codes at work

Democratic female members of the House of Representatives talk before U.S. President Donald Trump addresses the U.S. Congress.
Jonathan Ernst | Reuters
Democratic female members of the House of Representatives talk before U.S. President Donald Trump addresses the U.S. Congress.

Congress is a formal place governed by rules and customs that stretch back, in some cases, hundreds of years. Like other workplaces across the U.S., it also has a dress code to match.

That, at last, may be changing, thanks in parts to the efforts of lawmakers who, on Friday, demonstrated for their right to "bare arms."

The Hill reports that female legislators participated in a #SleevelessFriday in support of modernizing the House of Representatives dress code. The rule, which has been in effect for years, requires that women's shoulders and toes must be covered, and that men wear suits and ties.

The issue came to a head earlier this month after reporter Haley Byrd was ejected from the Speaker's lobby outside the House chamber for wearing a sleeveless dress. Byrd attempted to fashion makeshift sleeves out of paper but the guards were unimpressed.

Other women who have had to pass through or enter into the lobby have had similar experiences.

In June, House Speaker Paul Ryan defended the maintenance of standards. "Members should wear appropriate business attire," he said at the time.

What counts as "appropriate business attire," however, changes all the time, especially in a world where some of the richest and most successful business leaders wear T-shirts and sneakers. Even banks such as JPMorgan Chase & Co have begun to relax their dress codes, and Goldman Sachs may be next to do so.

On Capitol Hill, a bi-partisan array of women have been making their objections known, CNN reported last week.

On Wednesday, Rep. Martha McSally, an Arizona Republican, made reference to the strict dress code in the Speaker's Lobby at the end of remarks on the House floor about first responders in her state.

"Before I yield back, I want to point out I'm standing here in my professional attire, which happens to be a sleeveless dress and open-toed shoes," McSally said on the House floor.

Not everyone agrees that the code needs to change. An op-ed in the New York Post sniffs that "dressing like a slob is the height of entitlement," and argues that "flouting a dress code says: 'I'm too important to adhere to the rules and dress like everybody else, and you are not worth the few seconds it would take me to put on a shirt with buttons' — or, in the House's case, throw a cardigan on over a sleeveless blouse."

Still, in a tacit acknowledgement that he has more important battles to fight, Ryan made clear that the complaints have registered. He promised last week that the code will be "updated."

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