It was initially a quiet move made by U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer last week. As reported by Axios on September 17th, the senate leader had apparently directed the Senate Sergeant at Arms to no longer enforce the chamber’s long standing dress code. The code was not changed, modified or modernized. It was, in effect, eliminated.
By September 21st, Sen. John Fetterman (D-PA) was presiding over the body dressed in a short sleeve, collared blue shirt and shorts. In this regard, the shirt was a slight upgrade to the expected hoodie that is his usual attire. But still, many are outraged.
All but three members of the Senate Republican Caucus signed a letter of protest to Schumer even before Fetterman’s norm shattering, jacket-and-tie-lessness had occurred. CBS News reports that the dress code is not among the 44 Senate Rules. It’s actually an “informal rule,” a custom or protocol. In other words, it’s not important enough to rise that high.
Or is it? As a communication professor at an elite business school, I would argue it’s so important, it’s beyond being codified.
Here in my ivory tower of higher education in 2023, dress codes can be a complicated issue. To my students, primarily the young men in my classes, I am the fashion police. I teach many of them the correct way to tie a tie, the importance of a business suit fit, and how sneakers are not appropriate “business attire.” I actually had a student come to my classroom earlier this semester for the sole purpose of getting my advice on which tie he should wear to an important meeting, and to help him tie it correctly, all in front of a room full of students!
This is who I have become as a mentor to these young people. And I do it while dressed more like John Fetterman, than Gordon Gecko. What? What kind of leader doesn’t practice what he preaches?
First, I dress casually, not sloppily. Second, I achieve credibility with my students in a variety of other ways. I doubt any single student of mine would even suggest I am not an expert at what I teach, or that I am not fully invested in teaching it to every one of them. Honestly, after the first week of classes, I don’t think my students even notice what I’m wearing, even on the days I try.
This is what matters most about our appearance: how it impacts our credibility.
I could not care less about “decorum” for decorum’s sake. A room doesn’t have emotion. The inhuman, inanimate nature of a place can’t give credibility to anyone or take it away. And simply being present in an important room, like the Senate Chamber or the U.S. Supreme Court, doesn’t make one credible. This is the reason why Fetterman, and every other member of the Senate needs to dress the part.
It’s also why recently indicted (for the second time) U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) needs to resign. What tiny bit of credibility he may have had is gone and won’t return. Decorum requires his resignation for that reason. He can’t effectively advocate for his constituency any longer.
Which leads me to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and his self-annihilation of his personal ethics. The voluminous Pro Publica reporting of Thomas’s disdain for merely reporting the lavish gifts, entertainment and financial benefits he has received has reduced him to someone without an ounce of remaining credibility. And in the example of SCOTUS, credibility is the primary source of its authority.
Parties refusing to comply with SCOTUS decisions is in our future. Trust me on this one. And the primary reason for the non-compliance will be a lack of respect for the court’s authority. The current justices themselves are to blame.
Invest in your ethos
As Aristotle taught in his Three Pillars of Persuasion, anyone attempting to be convincing must invest in their “ethos.” Before an arguer even gets to the logical or emotional component of any argument, they must establish their own credibility. Without that, they might as well sit down and shut up.
I won’t take Fetterman seriously if he doesn’t invest in his ethos. He can solve this by dressing appropriately on the chamber floor. Menendez and Thomas, on the other hand, cannot rebuild the trust their mutual disrespect for norms and mores has destroyed.
My students are in the process of building credibility through their new studies and new experiences. But to their audiences, they are just young people. Because of their age, how they stand, speak, move and smell impacts their ethos even more. And they know it.
The old folks in DC could learn a thing or two from them.