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During a Republican press conference urging Senate leaders to cancel the chamber’s July Fourth recess to work on debt issues, Sen. Kelly Ayotte struck a can-do attitude.
“We’re ready to roll up our sleeves,” the New Hampshire Republican announced.
One flaw in that pronouncement: Ayotte doesn’t always wear sleeves.
In fact, Ayotte recently sported a light gray business suit on the Senate floor that would have been unremarkable in the chamber’s sea of gray suits were it not for a singular feature. The suit jacket had a cap sleeve, a cut that’s shorter than the average T-shirt, yet not the full monty of a pure sleeveless top.
“Sometimes, rather than rolling up your sleeves to get the job done, it’s just easier to wear short sleeves, especially when it’s 100 degrees outside,” Ayotte spokeswoman Liz Johnson said.
Not that the sight of a woman’s limbs should send anyone into Victorian-era swoons. But the show of arms was remarkable in the notoriously conservative Senate, where sartorial stuffiness has long ruled.
In 2009, first lady Michelle Obama caused waves when she showed up at the Capitol for her husband’s first formal speech to Congress. Though her penchant for arm-revealing clothing had already been well-documented, the flash of shoulder flesh in the halls of Congress proved a bridge too far for some fashion police.
“Up In Arms,” swooned one headline in a story about the first lady’s clothing controversy. Another newspaper dubbed it “Sleevegate.”
But since then, bare arms have quietly made inroads into even the loftiest levels of politics.
Wendy Donahue, a style reporter for the Chicago Tribune, chronicled some of the outrage over the first lady’s bared guns. Now, she says, bare arms shouldn’t cause anyone to bat an eyelash.
“Overall, society is much more casual these days, and women in Congress are just late to the game,” she says. “It’s not like anyone is going to be distracted from their work by the sight of an arm.”
The populist atmosphere in today’s politics practically requires a loosening up of the politician’s traditional severe-suit uniform. For most Americans, khakis, T-shirts and even jeans are everyday workwear. And like the politician touring a factory in shirtsleeves and a hard hat, connecting with voters sometimes dictates a costume change.
“Dressing formally distances elected officials from the electorate,” Donahue says.
Senate Historian Donald Ritchie notes that while there are no official rules governing Senators’ dress, the chamber has always operated under a collective sensibility that dictates appropriate dress.