I never thought I would agree with the current leadership of the House of Representatives on anything, partly because I don’t think they’re capable of organizing a one-color shoeshine. But on this point I think they’re right.

It matters what we wear. We are a visual species, and costume makes a difference to us. Think about this: you’re pulled over by a marked police car, and a tall, muscular man gets out of the car and walks up to your window. He’s wearing the uniform of a state trooper.

What if he’s wearing a clown costume, with smiley white makeup and a big red nose?

Is your reaction different?

Sleeves Required for Speaker’s Lobby

A few days ago, a young woman working for CBS was turned away from the Speaker’s Lobby, an area just off the floor of the House where members of the media often interview members of the House. She was wearing a sleeveless dress, and that’s apparently against the dress code of the House.

As is often the case with dress codes, it is much more specific for men than for women: men have to wear jackets and ties, women have to wear “appropriate attire.”  What does that mean?

“Appropriate” Does Not Mean “Dressed for the Weather”

A sleeveless dress is appropriate for the outside weather in Washington, DC, which has a summer climate often compared to the humid areas of Hades. The “inside” weather in Washington, where air conditioning reigns supreme, has a default setting of “morgue,” and a suit jacket is probably more appropriate. But that’s not what we’re talking about here.

Skimpier Clothing Implies Inferiority

I’m not sure whether the woman pictured in the US News and World Report story on this incident is the woman in question, but that picture shows the back of a sleeveless dress that would be acceptable in most offices and, for that matter, on most TV news sets. Where men wear coats and ties. The people on those news sets could often go straight out to a cocktail party and be perfectly appropriately dressed—the men in their okay-everywhere-social uniform, and the women in the latest fashion.

The picture that accompanies this blog, Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe, was controversial when Edouard Manet first presented it, not just because the woman was naked, but also because she was naked and the men beside her were not. Scandalous, n’est-ce pas?

Do you look at the picture and think the woman has the same occupation, the same reason for being there that the men do? When we see pictures of slave auctions, aren’t the slaves naked or in loincloths, while the people doing the purchasing are fully dressed?

Clothing Gives Status

Clothing provides protection. It is social armor. Men are socialized to know this. Women often are not.

In many occupations these days, men and women wear equally-ranked clothing. Where the men wear polo shirts and khakis, so do the women. Jeans are “appropriate clothing?” Then it’s jeans for both sexes. This is not true in politics, nor in the visual news media.

You may have noticed, in the picture of the woman in the sleeveless dress, that there is a man in a plaid flannel shirt taking pictures, and he appears to be unmolested. If you are a technical professional, you just need to accessorize properly: a man or woman with a lanyard full of media credentials and a $10,000 camera is in the proper costume.

When we come to where the power is, the clothing is still unequal. Women still don’t know what to wear, especially when it comes to representing on the mass media.

Yes, we all have the right to dress as we please. But we don’t all have the right to cover Congress.  We have a right to expect the respect that should be accorded every human being, but we cannot demand that people see us as authoritative.

You can’t be an effective questioner on, say, foreign policy, if you look like Betty Boop.

You also can’t do it if you look like Old Mother Hubbard.

Not a New Problem for Women

I totally get it that fashion does not support women who need to look like they belong side-by-side with the men in the corridors of power or on the TV news sets. I was a television reporter in the 1970s and 80s, the days when women didn’t do that, when women’s suits were something clothing manufacturers hadn’t made in 30 years. And, God help me, I was a pregnant TV reporter even before Jane Pauley was—when there was no such thing as “career” clothing for pregnant women. And I even worked in the Congressional Gallery, covering House and Senate, in those days.

I had two dresses I could wear. One was black, one was red. I got through it.

The originator of the term “Power Dressing for Women,” John T. Molloy, seems really quaint these days. (For example, he thought women should wear hats that looked like men’s.) But he was right about a couple of things: women shouldn’t try to look like imitation men, and they should wear suits if they wanted to look powerful. What’s more, he’s still in the research-about-appearance biz: witness his blog.

Which Women Look Powerful?

If you’re going to cover the House of Representatives, take a look at the women who represent us there. They wear jackets. They may wear pantsuits. They got elected to this position, and they know what they’re doing.

They do not appear on television in tight dresses, with skirts slit up to their sit-upon, nor do they have “leg lights.”

Are they fashion forward? Probably not. But we can maybe take a hint from them, and from our male colleagues.

What Hints?

  1. Wear a jacket for important professional occasions. Men know this. Many of the men I worked with spent most of the day in their shirtsleeves, but kept a jacket somewhere nearby in case they were called into a cabinet meeting or an important interview.
  2. Find a way to cover up, especially in the brutal air conditioning of Washington, DC, or other places where they regulate the climate for men in suits. A pashmina shawl tucked into a tote bag will do just fine, especially if you can pin it in place with an interesting pin. They usually cost about 10 bucks.
  3. Stand up straight and tidy up. Wouldn’t President Trump command a lot more respect if he tied his tie so it didn’t look like a chain attached to a neck shackle, stood up straight, and buttoned his jacket?

As for the highest reaches of power, look like you belong there, women, because you do. Your face and your voice belong in places of authority. Your cleavage does not.