Of the many ways that Congress has evolved in the past 50 years, one of the most obvious is in fashion.
Historically, community standards have always prevailed in the Capitol complex, even when no written rules have existed. But those standards have tended to bend and buckle with changes in society.
Women today in the House and Senate have come a long way from their counterparts in the early 20th century. In the 1920s, Sen. Rebecca Felton (D-Ga.) became the first woman to be seated in the Senate. During her tenure, which lasted for only a day, she dressed in a black floor-length dress. According to Associate Senate Historian Don Ritchie, the dress was appropriate for the time, and it suited Felton’s old-fashioned demeanor.
In the 1930s, Ritchie added, the Senate’s first elected woman, Hattie Caraway (D-Ark.), “was not particularly fashionable.”
Dressing with a little more individualism was Sen. Margaret Chase Smith (R-Maine), who served in Congress from 1949 to 1973. She was known for wearing a fresh rose in her lapel, donning a pearl necklace and for generally dressing in a carefully put-together manner, Ritchie said.
Another woman true to her individuality was Rep. Bella Abzug (D-N.Y.), who was defiantly fashion-forward. Abzug’s trademark was to always wear a hat. Abzug tried — but failed — to break down barriers against wearing her hat on the House floor.
Abzug’s contemporary, Rep. Millicent Fenwick (R-N.J.), was notable for coming across like “an aristocrat of the kind Katharine Hepburn used to play in movies like The Philadelphia Story,” wrote former Gov. Tom Kean (R-N.J.) in the foreword to a recent Fenwick biography. In addition to her finely tailored clothes, Fenwick was famous for regularly pulling out an unusual accessory: a pipe.
It was in their era, the 1970s, that the question of introducing pants into the wardrobes of Congressional women began to emerge.
In 1970 (as Roll Call noted in 1995 on the occasion of its 40th anniversary) rumors “mushroomed the number of daring doers from tens to hundreds, but a tour of Congressional halls on any weekday turns up few bell-bottoms with tops to match. One AA, a swinger himself, admitted to having trouble with too-short skirts and theatrical dress in his office, and has laid down the law. Asking not to be identified, he singled out interns as the biggest problem. ‘Their skirts are so short that when they bend over all work stops in the office,’ he diplomatically stated.”
The one longstanding rule for women Members — not wearing pants — was broken in 1990, when then-Rep. Susan Molinari (R-N.Y.) crossed over into fashion pioneerhood.
The Senate took longer to adapt. For decades, if a woman had to deliver a message on the floor and she was in pants, she would have to change into a more presentable skirt or dress to be permitted on the floor.
Ritchie noted that by the early 1990s, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and then-Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R-Kan.) were among the first women Members in the Senate to wear slacks. “After that, women could dress as they pleased,” Ritchie said.
In 1993 the official rule was amended by then-Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Martha Pope to allow women to wear pants on the floor so long as they also wore a jacket.
But progress, such as it was, did not follow a straight line. In 1995, Roll Call reported on Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), who had a hard time with one woman applying for a job in his office.
“After the Congressman informed her during the interview that she would have to wear a dress or skirt at all times, she told the office she would need more money to purchase a new wardrobe. While Mica’s office did offer her a higher salary, she decided to turn down the post because of the dress requirements.”
Also that year, Roll Call reported that then-Rep. Kika de la Garza (D-Texas) “wanted women to look more like women,” according to the Congressman’s administrative assistant, Bernice McGuire. The Texas Congressman’s office dress code stated that women must wear skirts or dresses and men must wear suit jackets and ties.
In 2003, Mica once again made Roll Call headlines with his views on fashion. After watching staffers for other Members come to work in jeans while their bosses were away, he was inspired to write a “Dear Colleague” letter asking “other Members to enforce minimum standards for attire in their offices.”
“Even on weekdays when the House is not in session, citizens from all over the nation visit the United States Capitol and our offices, and it is disappointing that professional congressional staff sometimes act with such disregard of even basic dress standards,” Mica wrote.
Today in the House, Members dictate the standards for the staffers in their individual offices, while other Hill employees have to adhere to the human resources department.
Men and ‘The Rayburn Rule’
While women Members and staffers had the pants rule, men adhered to “The Rayburn Rule.” The rule, according to Ritchie, dealt specifically with newly elected Members.
In the book, “Reporting from Washington: The History of the Washington Press Corps,” Ritchie wrote: “House members joked about colleagues who got elected to the Senate: ‘Right away they get all cleaned up in a Brooks Brothers suit and start combing their hair more neatly because they are going to be on TV.’”
The men had come a long way from the 18th-century trends of powdered wigs, long-frocked broadcloth coats and knee breeches. But some male Members had a style all their own, albeit some could say their taste at times was lacking.
Take, for instance, the late Sen. Gale McGee (D-Wyo.), who had an eye for eye-popping patterned suits. The Senator, who served from 1959 to 1977 was, in Ritchie’s words, “a dapper dresser.” McGee was known for his white shoes and plaid pants ensembles that dramatically stood out among the standard sea of navy and gray suits in the Senate.
In general, male Senators remained conservatively dressed during the ’60s. “We didn’t have any hippie Senators,” Ritchie said.
But that changed in the ’70s — an era widely considered a bad decade for fashion among male Members. With Members displaying a penchant for variations of the double-knit suit, it’s sometimes hard to look at a “grip and grin” photograph and tell apart the Senators from the visitor. “Some Senators dressed as elaborately as their constituents then,” he added.
Not all Members could be as fashionable as Sen. Guy Gillette (D-Iowa), who in the ’50s was ranked in the top position on best-dressed lists. The rule “It’s not what you wear but how you wear it” applied to the distinguished Gillette. He had only two suits and alternated looks between his dark blue and white stunners. “It was that he just looked so good in what he wore,” Ritchie said.
One Member who deserves special mention in any Congressional fashion history is Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.).
When Campbell was a Democratic House Member, he asked then-Speaker Jim Wright (D-Texas) to grant him special permission to wear a bolo on the floor as opposed to a traditional tie. Campbell, an American Indian and jewelry maker, wanted to make the switch because he said he would never again wear a clip-on tie after the one he was sporting fell off while he was on the floor of the state Legislature.
Visitors: What Not to Wear
Now, if only there could be a fashion rule for all Hill tourists.
In the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s many editorials were submitted to Roll Call criticizing what tourists and Capitol Hill staffers were wearing. For example, in 1961, Roll Call published an article titled “Nation Wants Tourists to Remove Shorts” — short-shorts, that is. One man quoted in the article likened the trend of scantily clad women visitors at the Capitol to a burlesque show.
Roll Call attempted to tackle the tourists’ fashion issue in a 1993 article, “Visitor’s Guide to Capitol Hill.”
“When you’re out walking the Mall all day, eating mustard-laden soft pretzels and dragging small children around, you’re going to dress sensibly. ... But if you’re also planning a tour of the Capitol the same day, keep minimum dress standard in mind.”
The etiquette rules detailed in the guide included what tourists should wear when walking through the Capitol.
While it isn’t expected for tourists to mirror what Hill employees wear daily, such as suits, it is advised that tourists wear “longer walking shorts rather than short athletic ones.”