Hill Staffers Are Wearing Sneakers Now

Congress is modernizing thanks to the pandemic. But it still has a long way to go.

An illustration of a politician wearing shorts standing at a lectern
The Atlantic

Congress has never been a place known for cutting-edge fashion. Instead, a stuffy formality has long been its trademark. As Allbirds and preppy quarter-zips swept into boardrooms and C-suites across the rest of the country, Capitol Hill remained one of the last bastions of traditional American business attire—the global headquarters of wing tips and ill-fitting suits, Tory Burch flats and bland Banana Republic pencil skirts. During sweltering D.C. summers, you could find communications directors and legislative aides wearing jackets and ties to work, wiping their sweaty brows on their uncuffed sleeves as the dew point climbed. The Hill is perhaps the last workplace in the country whose young employees still use the word slacks.

But just like so many other great American traditions, Capitol Hill’s staid dress code has been disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. Since most of the Hill has returned to working in person, a casualness has spread among some staffers. The trend is slight enough to be imperceptible in fancier quarters, such as parts of the Senate and most House leadership offices. And the change is unevenly distributed because every office on the Hill is essentially its own fiefdom, with its own standards for professional attire. But the shift is real—and it extends far beyond fashion.

After more than a year of working remotely, often in sweats or shorts, “I don’t care to put on form-fitting pants anymore,” one senior staffer to a Democratic House lawmaker told me. Like many other offices, at least on the Democratic side, this staffer’s team transitioned back to in-person work in early summer. “It is not the same place it once was, where everyone feels like they have to be buttoned-up all the time,” he said. The senior staffer and his colleagues have started dressing more informally around the office, occasionally wearing black jeans, sneakers, and short-sleeved shirts without ties. It’s still bad form to interact with members or show up to the House floor looking like you’re at a Miami nightclub. But it’s happened. Once, the senior staffer wore shorts and a short-sleeved shirt to the Hill, expecting to spend most of the day at his desk. Then, at the last minute, he was called to the floor to bring something to his boss. On the way, lots of people witnessed his ultracasual look. Representative Madison Cawthorn, the 26-year-old Republican from North Carolina, stopped to shake his hand. The staffer was embarrassed, but the feeling wore off quickly. “Ever since that moment, I was like, I don’t care,” he said. Now that autumn is here, he’s opting for turtlenecks and blazers.

The changes only go so far. Most of the Hill employees I interviewed for this story requested anonymity because they didn’t want their bosses to be associated with a story about what is widely—and incorrectly—viewed as a frivolous topic. But dress-code tweaks can have real economic and political impacts. Dressing more casually—say, investing in just one or two Bonobos suits instead of several—will save chronically underpaid Hill staffers money. Congressional positions, which have traditionally been dominated by the children of the wealthiest Americans, might become more widely accessible to poor and middle-class people. Another House aide to a Democrat told me that, before the pandemic, she wore pumps and dresses to work every day. Now that she’s back in the office, she wears mostly ballet flats and pants to escort her boss to meetings. Her colleagues are doing the same, opting for Rothy’s ankle boots instead of heels, and cozy fall sweaters instead of button-down blouses. Some aides wear leggings on recess days. “You’re keeping dry-cleaning bills down,” she told me. “You’re having things that meet multiple functions. That’s been helpful on the budget.” She’s started wearing a lot less makeup, too, switching from a cream foundation to a powder bronzer because it provides lighter coverage and doesn’t rub off under her mask. “I’m still always professional and put-together,” she said. But “I’ve been prioritizing flexibility.”

Not all Hill aides are wearing leggings to work. Just like the states they represent, each office in Congress is governed by its own set of rules. Some members view their staff as a reflection of themselves: Lawmakers in leadership roles demand a classy entourage. Lawmakers who want leadership roles require their staff to look the part. Many Hill aides simply don’t want to go casual, arguing that dressing up is part of the job when you work in the seat of American democracy. People don’t think very highly of Congress to begin with, one aide to a Republican senator told me. Why make it worse? “Government officials ought to keep a certain level of decorum as people that are creating our laws,” he said.

The Hill’s enhanced casualness is more visible among staffers for Democrats than for Republicans, according to the employees I interviewed, given that more GOP offices worked in person during the pandemic. An even more glaring fashion divide between the parties is that, on the House side where masks are required, Democratic aides generally wear them and Republican aides usually don’t. “In normal times, everybody’s wearing their business attire and you don’t know who’s a Republican or a Democrat,” Patrick Malone, the communications director for Representative Jim Himes of Connecticut, told me. “Now the battle lines are clearly drawn.”

The Hill’s sartorial evolution has coincided with a bigger and potentially longer-lasting shift: Congress is tech-savvy now—or at least savvier than before. The pandemic forced lawmakers to learn how to use videoconferencing tools such as Cisco Webex and Zoom for remote hearings and committee meetings. These tools allowed witnesses to testify from anywhere, and lawmakers to do more TV hits on news stations in their own district without having to fly home. Members of Congress are now able to sign onto bills electronically, something they couldn’t do before. And House leadership expanded the use of proxy voting during the pandemic, which members from both sides of the aisle have used throughout the past 19 months. “Implementing technology like that should have been done years ago,” Representative Derek Kilmer, the chair of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, told me this week. Before COVID, many offices didn’t even have laptops or videoconferencing. “There’s a meeting back in my district tonight that I wouldn’t have been able to participate in,” he said. “That can and should be here to stay.”

The pandemic has proved that many American workers can do their jobs just as well from home—and that includes congressional staff. Sure, remote work has some downsides: Politics is a business best conducted in person. But the aides I spoke with all hope to retain a remote-work option, even after the virus clears. Writing speeches and doing research are easier without all the background noise of a congressional office—the ringing phones and C-SPAN blaring from three different computers. Plus, people appreciate the flexibility. “I have a 40-minute commute each way, and if I don’t do that, I can start earlier or work later,” Malone said. “If I need to change the laundry, I can do that.”

Remote work has allowed staffers to escape the Beltway more frequently, and experience a healthy jolt of reality. “It’s good to be outside this place, because you begin to think what’s in Politico Playbook or Punchbowl is actually what people are talking about,” the senior staffer said. “The time you get to spend out there is great for your ability to legislate and message. You can [ask]: ‘How’s the child tax credit affecting your family? Are you feeling it?’” Some offices have even been hiring interns and aides to work remotely, opening up a world of opportunity for people who can’t afford to live in one of the most expensive cities in America.

The virus suddenly and aggressively dragged Congress into the 21st century. But the institution still has a long way to go. Although some members have embraced Blundstones in the office and hired interns to clock in from 600 miles away, others have been much, much slower to adapt. “If you want Congress to modernize completely, you need some umbrella rules that everyone has to follow,” the senior staffer said. By now, he added, “my office is as modern as it can go … But I don’t have that hope for all offices.” It’ll take more than a global pandemic to make that kind of change.