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Opinion: Will the Senate perform as well in gym clothes?

Studies show people who dress formally do better with abstract thinking, and that’s exactly what members of the Senate need right now

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Sen. John Fetterman waves to members of the media on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., waves to members of the media, Monday, April 17, 2023, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Jacquelyn Martin, Associated Press

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has quietly done away with the dress code that required senators to wear business attire if they wished to access the Senate floor in the U.S. Capitol.

An increasingly casual American culture may think this is insignificant. However, this simple act will change the way the Senate performs its duties and presents itself to the world — just as lax standards have affected human behavior in society at-large. There is plenty of science to back that up.

Schumer was no doubt deferring to his Democratic colleague, Sen. John Fetterman of Pennsylvania, who generally comes to work in shorts and a hoodie and who has been forced, because of the dress code, to cast votes from a side entrance or the main doorway. 

No one should minimize the difficulties Fetterman has recently endured. He suffered a stroke in May of 2022, then spent much of the past year battling clinical depression. Still, it is unclear why he is unable to put on a suit and tie, as his colleagues do. It doesn’t appear to be an issue of health, alone. Fetterman was known for wearing casual attire as Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor, which predated his recent medical problems.

The Deseret News quoted Utah Sen. Mike Lee posting on the social media platform X, “In certain institutions, a consistent level of formality should always be maintained. The Senate is one of them.” We agree.

The Senate, one of the most powerful institutions in the world, should not risk sending a message that its members don’t respect its history or its importance.

Americans today seem to dress as if clothing choices don’t matter. Fashions mirror the ironic attitude that to look slovenly is chic. Jeans are sold new with tatters already in place. Shorts and sweatpants abound, even at funerals and weddings. The pandemic added to this trend, as people worked from home for a time, then returned to work looking much more casual than they had before.

This position is not the old adult scolding the defiant child. It’s trying to make a point that what we wear truly does matter. “Dress for success” became a popular approach, as did “dress like your boss” as an aspirational approach to showing you care about your career and work environment.

Reduced standards coincide with a political discourse that is becoming coarser and less civil. A Reuters/Ipsos poll last year found that 17% of Americans either somewhat or strongly agreed that political violence was acceptable against those with whom they disagreed. Political debates often turn into shouting matches. Public meetings quickly become unruly. Airline passengers behave poorly toward one another. 

These problems may not be caused solely by lax and slovenly dress. However, we doubt these types of behaviors would abound to the same degree if people adopted dress standards similar to those that existed a half-century ago.

A number of studies show that dress affects behavior and performance. One, published in 2015 by “Social Psychological and Personality Science,” involved subjects who changed into either formal or casual wear before performing cognitive tests. The people in formal business attire consistently did better with abstract thinking.

Another, titled, “The Cognitive Consequences of Formal Clothing” and published by Columbia University, confirmed these results, finding that wearing formal clothes helps foster abstract thinking, while also giving the wearer a sense of power. 

Abstract thinking, the study said, “facilitates the pursuit of long-term goals over short-term gains.” That is exactly the sort of thinking Congress needs right now when dealing with long-term problems such as Social Security and Medicare reform and runaway spending. 

No one should be surprised to learn that people judge others by the clothes they wear. Clothes send signals about how much the wearer respects the people and institutions he or she is encountering, as well as how people feel about themselves.

Of course, styles and rules change and evolve, as do perceptions of what constitutes proper formal attire. In the 19th century, men wore top hats, waistcoats, gloves and boots — none of which is part of today’s typical wardrobe. 

But institutions whose performance matters greatly, such as the Senate, or a courtroom, ought to require the very best of whatever current standards dictate. If senators begin to look as if they just came in from mowing the lawn or taking a nap, it’s doubtful they will be prepared to give their best to the American people. That is not how great world powers thrive.