Missouri's House of Representatives kicked off its new session by tightening its dress code — but only for female lawmakers, to the dismay of Democrats who slammed the measure during floor debate and on social media.
Lawmakers met on Wednesday to debate changes to the House rules, as is customary at the start of a new General Assembly every two years. And while the day's discussions would go on to cover rules around issues like committee business and public hearings, they began with a heated conversation about workplace wardrobes.
The House's existing dress code defined proper attire for women as "dresses or skirts or slacks worn with a blazer or sweater and appropriate dress shoes or boots," according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. It also had rules about men's clothing, though no one sought to update them this week.
Republican state Rep. Ann Kelley proposed an amendment that would require women to wear jackets — defined as both blazers and knit blazers — because "it is essential to always maintain a formal and professional atmosphere."
Several House Democrats were quick to push back, deriding the proposal as sexist, impractical and even hypocritical.
"Yep, the caucus that lost their minds over the suggestion that they should wear masks during a pandemic to respect the safety of others is now spending its time focusing on the fine details of what women have to wear (specifically how to cover their arms) to show respect here," tweeted Democratic Rep. Peter Merideth.
Several said Republicans shouldn't be making women's decisions for them, especially with other more important matters at hand. Rep. Raychel Proudie made one such argument in brief remarks on the House floor, which progressive digital outlet Heartland Signal shared on Twitter.
"There are some very serious things that are in this rule package that I think we should be debating, but instead we are fighting, again, for a woman's right to choose something, and this time [it's] how she covers herself," Proudie said.
She was one of two representatives who questioned Kelley's right to decide what is and isn't appropriate for others to wear — saying that Kelley had recently worn a pink sequined outfit on the House floor.
"[She's] telling me I can't wear a crispy good St. John sweater if it has too many buttons," Proudie added. "I spent $1,200 on a suit and I can't wear it in the people's house because someone who doesn't have the range tells me that it's inappropriate. That's not why any of us were elected."
Rep. Brenda Shields, a Republican, defended Kelley's proposal as an effort to clarify the rules that were already in place and suggested adjusting the language to let cardigans count as jackets.
The Republican-controlled House ultimately approved that modified version of the amendment — though the conversation, and criticism, has continued.
The proposal raised questions and heated debate
Several critics took issue with the substance of the proposed rule change, characterizing the specific jacket requirement as both an inconvenience for current lawmakers and a possible obstacle to future ones.
"Just finished floor debate explaining why knit blazers do not include cardigans on an amendment restricting what women can wear in the House," tweeted Dem. Rep. Jamie Johnson. "Why would we need to add additional class barriers to the idea that anyone could represent the people..."
Women hold less than a third of seats in the Missouri House, according to the Post-Dispatch.
Proudie noted in her floor remarks that any sitting lawmakers who become pregnant will have to spend additional money buying or tailoring clothes.
"And I hope that you're able to continue to wear your cardigan, and vote on behalf of the people who sent you here," she said.
Rep. Ashley Aune took to the floor to question how such a requirement could even be enforced: Would someone be checking women's jacket tags to see what kind of material they were made of? Does silk count?
"Do you know what it feels like to have a bunch of men in this room, looking at your top, trying to decide whether it's appropriate or not?" Aune asked in a video clip shared on Twitter, calling it "ridiculous."
That sparked an almost minute-long back-and-forth between her and Kelley, who agreed that it was "absolutely absurd" to have this conversation on the House floor. Then why, Aune asked, did she even bring it up?
"You would think that all you would have to do is say 'dress professionally' and women could handle it," Kelley said. "You would think elected officials could handle that."
"You would think," Aune retorted. "But we're walking around here in sequins and velveteen, to the lady's point. So what is appropriate and why do you get to decide?" NPR has not seen images of the controversial top.
A post on the Facebook page of "Anne Kelley MO Representative" said that she has gotten "lots of hateful calls emails, and messages in regards to this amendment, which is funny because we already have a dress code all I was doing was fixing the errors and clarifying the rule."
She added that she brought the amendment to the floor because the House's chief clerk had "requested for many years to get [this] fixed in our rules." And she denied wasting anyone's time, saying her speech had only taken five minutes and blaming the Democrats for prolonging the debate.
"How is encouraging professionalism wrong?" Kelley added. "If there is ever a time to honor traditions and be professional it is on the House Chamber Floor in the Missouri House of Representatives; I will not apologize for standing up for these things."
Dress code debates have played out in other states
Dress codes are regularly the subject of controversy and debate in educational and professional settings, and state legislatures are no exception (neither is Congress).
The National Conference of State Legislatures counted some sort of formalized dress code in about half of states as of 2019, as The Associated Press reported in a 2021 story about the growing sentiment against such rules "increasingly viewed as sexist and racist."
Some state legislatures have moved to deregulate their dress codes, or at least equalize the standards for men and women.
Lawmakers in Wyoming, which until recently was on the stricter side of the spectrum, voted last year to strip its dress code down to the basics: Members must dress in "business attire befitting the decorum of the house." Bolo ties are allowed, denim is not.
Legislators had initially set out to align the requirements for men and women, but decided to go in a simpler direction by essentially copying the dress code New Mexico implemented in 2009.
The onset of COVID-19 and remote work have helped relax dress codes in many workplaces and industries, including in politics, as NPR has reported.
The pandemic also shed light on what certain legislatures would — and wouldn't — require their own members to wear. In 2021, Iowa Rep. Beth Wessel-Kroeschell, a Democrat, wore jeans on the floor of the state House to protest Republicans' refusal to mandate face masks.