Powdered Hair to Hoodies: How Did the Senate Get Here?

Just as the fashion world was turning its attention from London to Milan, Washington made style news of its own: Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader, announced on Monday a relaxation of the “informal dress code”in the chamber.

The outcry was swift, with 46 Republican senators signing on to a letter condemning the shift. “Allowing casual clothing on the Senate floor disrespects the institution we serve and the American families we represent,” they wrote.

But even though the Senate prides itself on a tradition of decorum, expectations of dress in the chamber have been largely governed by norms, rather than by written rules.

That flexibility has allowed for notable deviations from the buttoned-up status quo throughout the years. In the late 1990s, Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi instituted Seersucker Thursday as a nod to the days before air conditioning. In those days Southern senators showed off linen and cotton attire that was fashionable and comfortable, including the seersucker: The lightweight, puckered fabric helped make the muggy Washington summer more endurable. (Seersucker Thursday was also a reminder, according to Mr. Lott, a Republican, that “the Senate isn’t just a bunch of dour folks wearing dark suits.”)

The most recent guidance, which fell to the Senate’s sergeant-at-arms to enforce, called for business attire while on the Senate floor. For the most part, that dress code has been interpreted by men to mean suits (navy and gray are favorites) and ties (often red or blue, depending on party affiliation). Women have gravitated toward pantsuits or jackets, but a 2019 amendment to the dress code opened the door to sleeveless dresses and was quickly embraced by senators including Kyrsten Sinema.

Shortly after Mr. Schumer’s announcement on Monday, Senator Susan Collins, a Republican who has traditionally favored Chanel-style suits while representing Maine in the nation’s capital, joked that she planned “to wear a bikini tomorrow to the Senate floor.”

Had she followed through, she would have almost certainly taken some of the heat off Senator John Fetterman, Democrat of Pennsylvania, who just months into his freshman term pivoted from suit and tie to hoodie and basketball shorts.

Here’s a look at how the august upper chamber of the United States Congress has evolved from the days of powdered hair to pastel wigs.

A depiction of George Washington’s Inaugural Address in the first Senate chambers, in Federal Hall in New York, offers a glimpse of late 18th-century lawmaker style: powdered hair, ruffled front shirts, high-waisted coats and stockings.Credit…Associated Press
Senator William Wallace Eaton of Connecticut wore a three-piece suit with peak lapels and a modified bow tie.Credit…Heritage Images/via, Getty Images
In 1870, Hiram R. Revels of Mississippi became the first Black senator. He’s seen here wearing wide lapels and a matching necktie, with a close shaved beard.Credit…Library of Congress/Corbis, via Getty Images
Senator Hattie W. Caraway of Arkansas, who in 1932 became the first woman elected to a full term in the Senate, wearing a modest dark-colored long-sleeve dress.Credit…Associated Press
Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, with his wife, Jacqueline Kennedy, on Capitol Hill in 1955. He wore a more casual lighter-colored two-piece suit, offering a glimpse of the breezy confidence that would buoy him to the presidency five years later.Credit…Getty Images
In 1997, eight of the Senate’s nine female members gathered to discuss opportunities for bipartisan cooperation. The array of pant and skirt suits, with splashes of color, silhouettes and shoulder pads showed what ’90s power suiting looked like.Credit…Joe Marquette/Associated Press
Senate members celebrating National Seersucker Day in June 2021 by wearing the lightweight fabric, giving it a role in bipartisanship.Credit…Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times
Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona regularly embraces a 2019 revision to the dress code, wearing outfits that bare the shoulders. In 2020, she also sported this wig, a pink bob with bangs.Credit…Anna Moneymaker for The New York Times
Senator John Fetterman, Democrat of Pennsylvania, is fond of workwear brands such as Dickies and Carhartt. His penchant for wearing hoodies and gym shorts have made headlines.Credit…Haiyun Jiang for The New York Times

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