On the Runway

From the L.P.G.A. to Congress, Dress Code as a Cause Célèbre

Danielle Kang tees off on the 18th hole at the Women’s P.G.A. Championship golf tournament in July.
Credit...Brian Spurlock/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

And so we come to yet another chapter in the continuing opus of dress code in the late twenty-teens.

The latest plot twist is twofold. On the one hand, the L.P.G.A. has issued much more stringent guidelines that prohibit golfers from wearing shirts with “plunging necklines,” too-short skirts or skorts, or racerback tops without collars, according to a report in Golf Digest.

On the other, the House of Representatives has come under fire because, said CBS News, female reporters were being turned away from the speaker’s lobby — the area outside the House chamber where lawmakers and reporters gather — for wearing sleeveless dresses or open-toe sandals.

In both cases, social media uproar ensued.

Certainly, in the case of the speaker’s lobby, you can see the problem: How can the sergeant-at-arms, the chief law enforcement and protocol officer of the House, deem such garments inappropriate when they are clearly among the most favored by both Melania Trump, the first lady, who wore two sleeveless dresses during an official visit to France last week, and Ivanka Trump, the special adviser to the president, who is pictured in a sleeveless dress on the cover of her recent book, “Women Who Work: Rewriting the Rules for Success”?

Credit...Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

What a paradox!

In any case, Speaker Paul D. Ryan has already ridden to the rescue, announcing at a news conference last week that he would work with the sergeant-at-arms to modernize the official rules, which don’t specifically bar bare shoulders but leave the guidelines open to interpretation. (They also require men to wear jackets and ties.)

Not that we are in for a “casual Friday” Congress — just, maybe, you know, one that is less mired in a last-century definition of “appropriate dress” that treats the female arm like an erogenous zone, the way an ankle was at the turn of the 20th century.

Exactly when the new rules would go into effect or what they would be was not specified. And Mr. Ryan admittedly has a lot on his plate, so the dress code is unlikely to be a top priority.

Still, while he may have seen this as an easy win, electorate-wise, it may prove to be a thornier problem than he was anticipating. Dress code issues have become a cause that resonates far beyond the borders of whatever institution or industry is in question, and one that unites people across political parties and national borders. And sports preferences!

Indeed, we’ve been in something of a dress code revolt for the last few years. There was, for example, the British woman who was sent home from work for wearing flat shoes, only to incite such an uproar on social media that there was an inquiry overseen by two parliamentary committees. And the time State Senator Mitch Holmes of Kansas, chairman of the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee in Topeka, had to apologize for including a guideline that women appearing before the state panel could not wear “low-cut necklines and miniskirts.”

Credit...C-SPAN, via Associated Press

Then there was the whole no-leggings-on-airplanes-for-employees furor at United Airlines this year. And the great male skirt rebellion, in which British schoolboys and French bus drivers wore skirts to protest dress codes banning tailored shorts, despite high temperatures and even though their female peers could wear the airier garments. Even the British Parliament bowed to current reality, with John Bercow, the speaker of the House of Commons, telling members it was no longer necessary to wear a tie, acknowledging that looking “businesslike” did not have to involve neckwear.

And now this.

The common thread among all of these events, of course, is Twitter et al., which both allowed the beleaguered parties to take their causes to the wider world and then subjected the governing bodies to such mockery for their outdated definitions of dress that almost all of them caved to popular pressure and changed the rules. Just like the House is about to do. We’ll see about the L.P.G.A. But already, Teen Vogue has taken it to task for what the magazine called “body-shaming.”

The issue is that definitions of “appropriate dress,” the catchall phrase for what is expected in a professional wardrobe everywhere from Capitol Hill to pro-am golf to — well, The New York Times — are so vague and open to interpretation that they have an enormously wide margin of error.

After all, what might be “appropriate” at, say, Facebook, at least judging by the favored gray-T-shirts-and-jeans uniform of its chief, Mark Zuckerberg, is probably not appropriate on, say, the House floor.

And who is to judge what is appropriate? The individual? The institution? The term is so vague as to raise the possibility that we should get rid of dress codes entirely. Is that the answer?

Probably not. But that leaves Mr. Ryan, for example, with the option of specifying exactly what “appropriate” means, down to the garment — probably another recipe for trouble, as demonstrated by the L.P.G.A. — or (perhaps easier) specifying what isn’t appropriate (Hawaiian shorts? spaghetti-strap dresses?). Or simply appending adjectives to the definition of “professional” in an attempt to clarify it for the 21st century.

In any case, it’s a slippery slope.

We wish him luck.