In a swampland of ill-fitting suits, worn-out shoe leather, and billowy button-down shirts, it sometimes feels like no one is monitoring the fashion of D.C. Travel and Leisure ranked the capital as the 14th-worst-dressed city, just ahead of—Houston. And, yet, someone is paying attention. Stationed atop Capitol Hill, the guards of the Speaker’s Lobby are paid to, among other things, judge clothing. They are our are national fashion police.
The Speaker’s Lobby of the Capitol Building is a special place. Poor journalists, who would probably feel more comfortable in coffee-stained sweatshirts, get to mingle in coats and ties alongside members of the House, who are often well polished and independently wealthy. It’s a place with chandeliers and golden cherub light fixtures. The walls are adorned with oil portraits of representatives, and the ceiling is decorated with frescoes (including one of a bald eagle perched atop an American flag). It’s the kind of place that should have French horns blaring as you walk through it (in this video tour from the Clerk’s Office, it does).
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You have to look the part to walk this hall (which incidentally is thought to be where the term “lobbying” came from). On one occasion last year, I didn’t.
“Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to leave. You can’t wear those in here,” a young security guard with close-cropped hair said to me, gesturing at my blue-and-white leather shoes.
To be fair, the shoes were ugly. Almost like bowling shoes. But in my coat, tie, and khakis, I was honestly surprised to be getting the boot.
“Where does it say I can’t wear blue shoes, just out of curiosity?” I asked him.
“It says in the official rule book you have to wear appropriate attire,” he said.
I asked him what made him the arbiter of style, what gave him and the guards downstairs the power to decide whether my shoes lived up to the sartorial standards of our founders.
“It’s one of those things that you know 'appropriate' when you see it,” he said. “And that’s not it.”
Clause 5 of Rule 17 in the House Rules Manual states:
In the 96th Congress the Speaker 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 (where thermostat controls had been raised in the summer to conserve energy).
Technically, members of Congress and the press have to adhere to the same standards in the Lobby. But, in practice, that’s not the case. “Constitutionally, we can’t stop members from voting,” one guard told me. “They could be wearing just a thong, and I wouldn’t try to keep them from getting to the floor.”
That’s why on the first votes of the week—usually Monday or Tuesday evening—it’s not unusual to see members going in to vote in jeans, or without a tie. It’s why everyone in the world got to see Barney Frank’s nipples that one time. But the guards are much more strict with the press. The rules are clear about the coat and tie, but everything else falls into that tricky category of what’s “appropriate.”
Members of the press gallery staff told me that over the years changing fashions have caused problems.
“We had women wearing hip-huggers, and those shirts—What are those shirts called that expose the stomach?” one longtime staffer said. “Crop-tops? One woman was always getting in trouble for crop-tops. I’m happy to fight on behalf of the press, but sometimes the style isn’t appropriate.”
“My rule of thumb is that if you’d wear it to a job interview, it’s probably OK,” Danny Kim, a chamber security guard told me this week. “But I guess some people define that differently.”
But sometimes what’s appropriate fluctuates from day to day. One reporter told me she often wears black jeans into the lobby; another journalist is regularly spotted wearing Converse sneakers. Some days, women get kicked out for showing too much shoulder, and other times ...
“There was a time that a woman was wearing a tank top and I told her she had to go,” Kim said. “She told me that it was Versace, so I let her stay.”
When Kim’s colleague asked why he hadn’t kicked her out, he told her about the shirt’s pricey label.
“She told me that Versace also made underwear, and asked if I would have let her in the lobby wearing that,” Kim said.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.