Are suit jackets oppression? Lawmakers fight own dress codes

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Rhode Island Democraticstate Sen. Jonathon Acosta addresses the state Senate, Tuesday, March 23, 2021, in Sapinsley Hall, on the campus of Rhode Island College, in Providence, R.I. With women and people of color elected in historic numbers in many states, legislatures are being forced to confront longstanding dress codes that are increasingly viewed as sexist and racist. The auditorium at Rhode Island College is being used by the Senate during the COVID-19 pandemic. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

BOSTON – A sneaker-clad Latino state senator in Rhode Island is objecting to his chamber’s jacket and dress shirt edict as a form of white oppression. Female lawmakers in Montana complain proposed rules dealing with s kirt lengths and necklines are overly sexist.

And an Iowa state representative wore jeans on the floor last month to highlight the irony of Republican leaders refusing to mandate face masks in the chamber as the coronavirus pandemic rages while still banning jeans and other casual clothes.

With women and people of color elected in larger numbers in many states, legislatures are being forced to confront longstanding dress codes that are increasingly viewed as sexist and racist.

“These rules make it OK for us to judge people based on the way they dress or how they look, and I just feel that’s super problematic,” said Jonathon Acosta, the 31-year-old Democratic state senator from Rhode Island. “I assure you that what I wear does not influence the quality of the work I produce.”

The National Conference of State Legislatures hasn’t tallied how many legislatures are considering or have adopted rules addressing attire this year. But the Denver-based organization said roughly half of all state legislatures had some sort of formalized dress code in 2019.

Debates over dress have also come up in Congress. Objections from female lawmakers to a longstanding ban on sleeveless tops and open-toed shoes in the House prompted former Republican Speaker Paul Ryan in 2017 to promise a review, though it's unclear whether the rule was updated to reflect contemporary standards. Spokespersons for Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi didn't respond to phone and email messages seeking comment Wednesday.

On the other side of the globe, a Maori lawmaker won his battle against wearing a tie in the New Zealand Parliament last month. He derided the tie as a “colonial noose" and wore a traditional hei tiki pendant instead.

Wearing unconventional clothing can be an effective “statement of resistance” or solidarity in the political arena, but dress codes also play an important role in preserving decorum, said Rhonda Garelick, a dean at the Parsons School of Design in New York.