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It's 90 Degrees In Washington But Some Women Covering Congress Still Aren't Allowed To Go Sleeveless

by Liz Dwyer

July 6, 2017

Sleeveless dresses have been a staple in American fashion since 1960 when Jackie Kennedy hit the presidential campaign trail with her husband, Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy. While he would go on to nab the presidency, Jackie’s simple yet elegant style captured the hearts of ladies nationwide. And now, more than 50 years later, sleeveless shirts and dresses endure as a wardrobe staple for professional women in Washington, D.C., and beyond, particularly during the hot summer months.

She ripped out pages from her notebook and stuffed them into her dress's shoulder openings to create sleeves."

But if Jackie, who was a journalist at the Washington Times-Herald newspaper prior to her marriage, wanted to wear a sleeveless outfit while working at the Capitol today, she might be booted from the premises. That’s because Congress’ interpretation of professional dress does not include bare arms — and female reporters are being asked to cover up or leave if they don’t comply.

Indeed, a report on Thursday by CBS News details how an unnamed sleeveless-dress-wearing female journalist ran afoul of the rule when she tried to enter an area near the House Chamber known as the Speaker’s lobby, which is where reporters often linger to try to interview members of Congress. She didn’t have an extra sweater or blazer, so, according to CBS, “she ripped out pages from her notebook and stuffed them into her dress's shoulder openings to create sleeves, witnesses said. An officer who's tasked with enforcing rules in the Speaker's lobby said her creative concoction still was not acceptable.”

Journalist Kellie Mejdrich tweeted on Thursday: “Can confirm I was warned the next time I would be removed.”

Soon after that, another reporter, K. Tully McManus corroborated the ban on bare arms. “This is real. Fellow female reporters barred from Speaker's lobby for wearing sleeveless dresses while doing their jobs. (It's hot in DC)” she tweeted.

Some folks speculated on social media that this was the fault of Republicans in Congress — that they’d invented a new rule at a time when male politicians get to vote about what women do with their bodies. But it turns out that the dress code is based on a nearly 40-year-old vague guideline.

In July 1979, the 96th Congress included a dress code update to the Constitution, Jefferson's Manual, and Rules of the House of Representatives, which has guided parliamentary procedures for the legislative body since 1837. In the update, then Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, a Democrat from Massachusetts, “announced that he considered as proper the customary and traditional attire for Members, including a coat and tie for male Members and appropriate attire for female Members.” Yes, that means men get to sweat it out during hot D.C., summers in a jacket and tie.

But what surely angers some ladies working in D.C. is that “proper attire” is “as determined by the Speaker." As in, Speaker Paul Ryan, the same man who regularly votes no on legislation that benefits women, gets to decide what’s cool for women to wear in the House. And, apparently, flexed lady biceps are too much for the Republican senator from Wisconsin.

The dress code is also, as CBS notes, “subject to the discretion of chamber security.” So does a female reporter from Fox News, which is in favor with the White House, get a pass when she shows up with her biceps on display, but the CNN reporters’ arms are considered fake news? If the rule isn’t applied consistently, the perception of bias against women from some news outlets could be created. And after eight years of Michelle Obama being raked over the coals for wearing sleeveless dresses, will Ivanka Trump, who overwhelmingly favors sleeveless clothing, get a pass? 

Security might not enforce the rule consistently because they know that it’s a remnant of the belief that women’s bodies need to be policed. From schools that create 19-page documents about what girls can wear, to the highest echelons of power, women never really get a break from arbitrary dress codes. This is not to say that dress codes shouldn’t exist — nearly every workplace has one because there’s always that employee who will show up to the office in their going-to-the-club outfit. But as Jackie Kennedy’s social secretary Letitia Baldrige said in 2011, “There’s nothing immodest about showing your arms.” 

Image via Instagram user theonlykateryan.

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It's 90 Degrees In Washington But Some Women Covering Congress Still Aren't Allowed To Go Sleeveless