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Discuss: Thoughts on the MT Legislature’s Dress Code

Montana has a “citizen legislature” that meets for only 100 days every two years.  Unlike Congress where well-off lawyers and businesspeople are the norm, most of Montana’s elected officials are middle-class ranchers, teachers, and community leaders.  As a result, the Montana legislature looks and operates a bit differently, which is usually a good thing.

Over the past sixteen years, I’ve visited the legislature during every session.  On my last two visits, I was struck by how shabbily some of the members and staff were dressed.  A female legislator wearing thin black leggings with a blazer and t-shirt.  Male legislators wearing black denim, plaid shirts, and fleece vests on the floor of the chamber.  A senior staffer attending a meeting in navy sweatpants and sandals.

While most legislators dress appropriately, poorly dressed members and staff reflect negatively on the Legislature as a whole.  I don’t expect Montana’s leaders to be turned out like a troupe of big city litigators, but leggings and sweatpants is not the image that I, as a Montana voter, want my legislature to project.

The Legislature recently adopted its first dress code for members and staff, and it was not well received by female legislators on the Democrat-side of the aisle.  They call the code sexist, “something out of Mad Men,” and a “relic of the 1800s.”  Some openly wonder if they’ll be made to kneel, ala Catholic school, to see if their skirts are long enough.  But while many outlets are happy to report on the uproar, very few printed the actual dress code, choosing instead to excise certain sections out of context.

When I read the first negative Tweets about the dress code, I thought, “Dear God, what have they done now?”  Because the Legislature is controlled by old, Republican men from conservative, rural communities, I expected the worst.  But far from the sexist diatribe it’s depicted to be, the dress code is fairly innocuous.

The code informs legislators and staff that leggings and jeans are not dress pants. It bans flip-flops, fleece, and tennis shoes in the chamber.  It reminds men that colored jeans are not business formal attire.  And it asks women to be “sensitive” about necklines and hemlines.

Few people like being told how to dress, but many businesses, the U.S. Congress, and 1/3 of state legislatures have a dress code. The Montana dress code isn’t even as strict (or detailed) as the dress code adopted by our neighbors in Wyoming, which requires polished boots and has specific rules for bolo ties.  Also, studies show that dressing professionally increases productivity and professionalism.

The way I see it, one blog in Montana ginned up a controversy to create pageviews and dozens of news outlets followed suit.  While it’s fair to argue that a citizen legislature may not need a business formal dress code, cherry-picking sections to paint the code as misogynistic is disingenuous.  It isn’t sexist to remind male and female employees (especially the early-twentysomething staffers who work the Legislature) what constitutes business attire.

As a woman, a Montanan, and a former politico, I don’t see what all the controversy is about.  Why should elected officials be held to a lower standard of dress than the high-school students who work as their pages?

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    58 comments

  1. Nicole says:

    I find it interesting that anyone is up in arms about this, considering both the length of the dress code (7 concise bullet points) and the content. Personally, I don’t see any article in there that I would think members would take issue with; “leggings are not considered dress pants” should not have to be written down, and “business formal” should not have to be defined. The very idea that this code needed to be disseminated shows that there were people dressed inappropriately, and I appreciate the measure taken to ensure cohesive and appropriate dress in the legislature. Thanks for posting, Belle!

    December 15, 2014/Reply
    • Belle says:

      You would think re: leggings as pants. I once had to tell an intern that wearing tank tops with lowered sides to expose her lacy bras and side boob were not appropriate for work, so nothing shocks me anymore.

      December 15, 2014/Reply
  2. Alleira says:

    You’re kidding, right? Unless the dress code included something about men being “sensitive” to tight jeans showing off their junk, then the code IS sexist. I have no issue with jeans, flip-flops, leggings, sweatshirts, and other casual attire being banned. That is a typical dress code and is inoffensive and innocuous.

    But asking women to be “sensitive” to hemlines and necklines is basically telling women not to dress sexily. What, are the men so unable to control themselves that they couldn’t handle a skirt slightly above the knee? The entire phrase smacks of paternalism.

    December 15, 2014/Reply
    • Belle says:

      You’re asking women not to wear mini skirts and halter tops, which is exactly what the dress code of every place I’ve ever worked has said. The reason this is an issue for women and not for men is that no one is making tight-fitting, mini-shorts for men and calling them work attire. (however, a law firm I just interviewed at bans skinny pants for men for this very reason.) But there are plenty of brands that offer backless dresses, halters and mid-thigh dresses and call them work attire.

      December 15, 2014/Reply
      • Allison says:

        Couldn’t agree more Belle. It’s clear that if a man came in with a plunging deep V neck or a micro mini skirt it would be inappropriate, but it’s not with addressing just to be “PC” because it doesn’t happen, especially in Montana/WY/CO/Dakotas.

        December 15, 2014/Reply
  3. Joy says:

    Belle, as much as I love your fashion posts, it’s posts like these that remind me how much I appreciate your blog. Thank you for addressing this issue and ‘controversy.’ As a young female working in law and politics in Washington, I cringe when I see someone wearing or doing something that could give me and my profession a bad reputation. Dress codes and standards, especially when reasonable and appropriate, are not bad things. Not enough people (even journalists) look past the headlines, and I am glad that you have taken the time to share your thoughts and analysis on this matter.

    December 15, 2014/Reply
    • Sarah says:

      Hi Joy,

      If you are worried about your profession having/getting a bad reputation, you might want to work on your own writing skills. “I cringe when I see someone wearing or doing something that could give me and my profession a bad reputation” is incorrect. It should be “my profession and me”.

      I actually somewhat agree with your sentiments here, but check your work before judging others!

      December 15, 2014/Reply
      • Another Sarah says:

        It’s an internet comment…not a brief. Though I guess “judge not..” is always a good reminder.

        December 15, 2014/Reply
      • Megan says:

        I’m fairly certain that Joy’s grammar is correct. In this instance, “me and my profession” an “my profession and me” are both correct.

        December 15, 2014/Reply
        • Megan says:

          and NOT an ;D

          December 15, 2014/Reply
      • Anna says:

        While grammatically incorrect, the order Joy used may be appropriate for the sentiment she was trying to convey. It’s called taking artistic liberty. She isn’t writing a dissertation; it’s a blog comment. Maybe you should get off your high horse, take your own advice, and stop judging.

        December 15, 2014/Reply
    • giggling gourmand says:

      I don’t think it’s the clothes that give lawers the bad rep … sorry just couldn’t resist I’m one myself.

      December 15, 2014/Reply
      • Belle says:

        No, probably not.

        December 15, 2014/Reply
  4. E says:

    I totally agree that dress codes are extremely valuable in level-setting, and providing clear, across-the-board standards for people to follow. I also completely agree that elected officials and staff should respect the institution and dress appropriately. I do, however, think that a reasonable person could conclude that separating out what constitutes appropriate shoes for women, but not including men, and including specific instructions for women, but not men, could be deemed a little sexist. Why not have a dress code that is universally applicable? By saying that tennis shoes and flip flops are not considered business formal for women, but not including men in that, it begs the question whether a different standard applies based on sex.

    December 15, 2014/Reply
    • Belle says:

      Maybe they haven’t had problems with men wearing those types of shoes? But I agree there should have been a section on shoes that applied equally to everyone.

      December 15, 2014/Reply
  5. Sarah says:

    Belle,

    I am a fellow Montanan and law student (across the mountains); it’s part of the reason I find your blog so appealing. However, I would disagree on a few points raised in this piece. The blog in question did in fact link to the dress code, several times, in their original article. Further, the language that has been omitted from the Montana dress code appears problematic. From the Wyoming dress code: “sleeveless dresses and knit dresses are acceptable if a jacket is worn over them.” The removal of this language, when the rest is almost mirrored, reads as implying those items would not be allowed. If those items are acceptable, why remove it? Perhaps this issue will settle itself, but as a Montana voter I’m glad it was reported on. Finally, because I rarely comment, thank you for continuing your blog while in school. I cannot imagine trying to juggle this with classes and your blog provides a nice break between studying.

    December 15, 2014/Reply
    • Jenn S. says:

      The blog may have linked it, but the subsequent explosion of criticism may not have actually referred to the code itself rather than the blog’s commentary.

      December 15, 2014/Reply
  6. s.rod says:

    I find myself not quite sure where to begin, so forgive a somewhat haphazard response to this post. For starters, the idea that a formalized dress code is necessary in any legislature is concerning, but that’s the world we live in, I suppose. At every level of government I’ve participated in, whether university, state, or federal, there is an expectation of professional dress. You are there to conduct the work of your constituency. Be presentable and respectable in that role as a sign that you take your duties seriously and want to do well by the people who elected you. A citizen legislature could well be less formal than other bodies, but I think we can at least maintain that if you would wear it to the gym (leggings/sweatpants/sweatshirts/sneakers) or the beach (flip flops, shorts, tank tops), it is not an appropriate choice for the venue. This is not an example of sexism. Sexism would be a page of rules specifically for women. Sexism would be rules mandating specific neckline and hemline requirements, instead of a reminder to use your own best judgment like the adult you are. Like a good friend of mine tells her interns, “If you have to ask if it’s too short, it probably is.” And someone tell Ms. Eck (who, it should be noted, could be counted on to find a skirt suit and scarf for her photo opp in the NYT) that the dress code isn’t making her colleagues male chauvinists who feel entitled enough to comment on her appearance, they were already that way. If there’s a theme of chauvinism in the legislature (and that perfume comment could indeed be troubling in context), address that appropriately.

    December 15, 2014/Reply
  7. GoGoGo says:

    Meh, looks like the dress code is both not a big deal, and a totally predictable and avoidable big deal.

    It is awkward to put anything in writing regarding necklines and hemlines in any context involving adult women. If you’re an employer and you’re in the public eye, it’s gonna be extra awkward. It doesn’t matter if what you’re asking is reasonable or unreasonable. Because what you’re tacitly doing here is putting the words “adult elected official” and “boobs” and “thighs” in the same sentence. Doesn’t matter how you phrase it. This document does it as delicately as you possibly can, it’s true Belle. But it’s still just kinda impolite.

    (Inevitable response: but sometimes women do wear plunging necklines and it’s uncomfortable for everyone, etc.)

    (Inevitable response to that: but women should be able to rock their cleavage if they want and men should just deal with it, etc.)

    Both those things are true. Doesn’t matter. Either way, don’t publish anything about it in writing and save yourself the trouble. Say “suits or business separates” if you must and leave it at that. Let individuals make it awkward for themselves or not. It’s an etiquette no-win. That’s what I would advise if I were on their staff or something.

    December 15, 2014/Reply
    • Belle says:

      I agree with most of what you said. I don’t know how they could have predicted it given that they were using Wyoming as a model and there’s didn’t generate any problems re: sexism. I think they were expecting backlash about the jeans, but never guessed this would happen.

      December 15, 2014/Reply
      • GoGoGo says:

        True, regarding Wyoming. And no question, there’s clearly “reveling” going on on the left here too, to use your word from below.

        December 15, 2014/Reply
  8. GoGoGo says:

    Also, I’m not a Montanan but I fwiw I find the idea of blue jean Fridays totally charming.

    And I love Members that rock their local flair here in DC, bolo ties and leis and Rep. Wilson’s hats and everything else.

    December 15, 2014/Reply
    • Belle says:

      Yeah, I was surprised by how far it went. I don’t mind when they wear jeans as long as the rest of the outfit is a shirt, jacket, tie, boots, etc. But unfortunately, some members used jeans as a base for outfits that don’t pass for business attire in a body like the legislature.

      December 15, 2014/Reply
  9. LM says:

    Thanks for this post. In our legislature (NC) the benefit of a dress code with PICTURES would be useful for female pages (high schoolers). Unbelievable what they show up wearing…more unbelievable that their parents drop them off in Raleigh knowing this! I guess when your fashion inspiration is the Karsashians, you think the “club” look is professional.

    December 15, 2014/Reply
  10. YouSaucyMinx says:

    I find it slightly disheartening that a dress code is necessary, but as you’ve mentioned, people going on the floor in sweatpants, leggings, and flipflops proves that people are clueless about what’s appropriate and what’s not.

    And I dont see it as sexist. I see it as common sense (that is missing). I had to send an intern home the other day because she was wearing a black mini dress with side cutouts. When I told her it was inappropriate for work, she looked at me in complete bewilderment, because she had bought it in an “expensive” store.

    The complete obliviousness to appropriateness and proper work attire scares me, and yes darnit, I’m clutching my pearls 🙂

    December 15, 2014/Reply
  11. ww says:

    Establishing a dress code, like “business formal,” isn’t offensive. Specifying necklines/hemlines for women (a rule that already would be dictated by the stated dress code) is offensive.

    December 15, 2014/Reply
    • Serena says:

      Completely agree with this.

      December 15, 2014/Reply
    • Belle says:

      I wish saying “business formal” was enough. But many of us have very different definitions of what that means, so you kind of have to give specifics. I think jeans are “business casual” with appropriate separates, my old Boss did not, so the dress code said Business Casual: No jeans.

      From my perspective, seeing how far some employers take this (I have seen codes that literally prescribe skirt and vent lengths in inches and approved necklines.), I thought a reminder wasn’t out of bounds. But I also would have liked a reminder to men that undershirts are required so that I don’t have to see your flesh through your threadbare white shirt (something I’ve also seen in Montana too many times).

      December 15, 2014/Reply
      • ww says:

        “Be sensitive to skirt lengths and necklines” does not clarify in the way that “no jeans for business casual” does. It condescends. The bounds of what constitutes an acceptable neckline or hemline for business formal is not so large.

        December 15, 2014/Reply
        • Belle says:

          Again, you would think that, but some people don’t even think about it. They assume because they have a cardigan on over it or hose on with it that it’s okay. I can imagine workplaces where you would not need to say it, as someone who has hired lots of young Montanans, I have had to remind every one of them what was okay. It’s also one of the most common questions college and grad school students ask me when I speak at work attire events.

          December 15, 2014/Reply
  12. Faith says:

    “Because the Legislature is controlled by old, Republican men from conservative, rural communities, I expected the worst.”

    No sexism or ageism there, huh? You do realize that there are middle aged Republican women that read your blog, right? (I can’t be the only one!) Your post was wonderful except for this very ugly sentence. It appears that you do the same thing you condemn.

    December 15, 2014/Reply
    • Tel says:

      You do realize that Belle is a Republican woman who has worked in Republican political offices and is from (what I believe to be) a relatively conservative, rural community, right?

      December 15, 2014/Reply
    • Belle says:

      Faith: I know most of these men. Some of them revel in not being sensitive to the complaints of others regarding sexism, racism, etc. So based on the way people were reacting, and how tone deaf I know some of these folks can be, I was expecting something really harsh. I’m not judging old Republican men as a group, but the leaders of this group are people I’m well acquainted with, and while I don’t think they would ever do something malicious to evoke an -ism, some of them could easily fall into one with good intentions.

      December 15, 2014/Reply
      • Faith says:

        Well, then I take it back!!

        December 15, 2014/Reply
  13. thb says:

    I am a middle-aged woman who regular is present at the legislature. To me the references are more about an attitude than gender/age/education. In light of what I experienced with the recent elections, the dress code needed a refresher and a reminder of our importance in representing our state to constituents, visitors and observers. We are quite relaxed in our western dress (almost to the point of slothenly) and at times embarrassingly so when I have been asked to introduce out-of-staters to our representatives and staff. In these offices of influence we really do need be more aware of our impact and pick it up a bit.

    December 15, 2014/Reply
  14. Jenn S. says:

    Overall, I do not feel that it is some horrific sexist statement.

    It was, at most, thoughtless and redundant – but I don’t think it was ill-intended. People need to calm down.

    So they could learn how to not be redundant in a dumb way, sure. That could have been handled better. But at the same time, no, it is *not* appropriate, in most workplaces (especially legislature), to have a great deal of cleavage on display via a plunging blouse’s neckline or a great length of thigh in view via a pencil-style miniskirt. I can’t help but feel like it wouldn’t have been mentioned if it hadn’t been an issue.

    December 15, 2014/Reply
    • Belle says:

      Jenn: I think the reason for the neckline mention is that because most of the female staff (less the members) don’t have money to buy a whole new wardrobe for 100 days of work, they try to make occasion dresses “work for work.” As a result, the MT legislature ends up with a lot of young women in halter, mini dresses and the like, which are totally fine for the occasion the dress was meant for, but not for work.

      It’s certainly a problem that I experienced with female interns coming straight from MT. They’re thinking about utility, not appropriateness, so a reminder gets them off one page and onto another.

      December 15, 2014/Reply
  15. Jess says:

    I am all for casual dress, especially when you look at Montana as a whole like Belle said. What irritates me to death is that people get all up in arms and try to say that it is sexist because it’s addressed at women. It seems to me that most of the perpetrators of bad dress are the women. I don’t think it needs to be some politically correct issue to say that the women need to pull themselves together. A man dressed in jeans and a flannel is still going to look more pulled together than a woman in flip-flops and leggings. Should they have targeted the men more? Yes, but my goodness, we can’t say anything in this world anymore without trying to be politically correct. Can we not just say something the way that it is?

    December 15, 2014/Reply
    • Belle says:

      As I mentioned above, I think women are more prone to mistakes because there isn’t as much uniformity in our dress code. Men get pants, shirt, jacket, tie, shoes, done. Women have many more options, and sadly, those options are usually designed by people who have never worked in a real office.

      I’ve seen a lot of women get lured into the siren song of mini-skirts with blazers as suits, or short suits, or leggings with a jacket, because a magazine or a sales person says, “You can totally wear this to work!”

      If we don’t want to be forced into pants, jacket, shirt, flat shoes, then we have to create some basic rules for how to keep our options in an appropriateness box. Some of the rules people come up with are stupid, some of them make sense.

      December 15, 2014/Reply
  16. CynthiaW says:

    Interestingly enough, the Texas Senate has a dress code for men that includes coats and ties when the Senate is in session, but no stated dress code for women. I’m guessing that they all stick with suits themselves. And we also have a part-time legislature.

    December 15, 2014/Reply
    • Belle says:

      If my own Mother is indication, Southern women are taught to dress from birth, so probably no need to clarify. Also, if there was ever someone out of bounds with appropriateness, some well-meaning lady would pull them aside.

      December 15, 2014/Reply
      • SLG says:

        As a southern woman, I had to chuckle in agreement. My grandmother routinely wore a hat and gloves to go shopping. Obviously times have changed, but I still can’t bring myself to wear sweatpants unless it is actually bedtime or after. (I’m not saying that’s a good thing. 🙂 ) It wasn’t until I started traveling outside the East Coast that I realized how unusual my upbringing was compared to the rest of the country.

        December 15, 2014/Reply
        • Belle says:

          I was the only child in my hometown with church clothes, school clothes, and play clothes. My friends were always perplexed as to why I had to change before I came over to play.

          December 15, 2014/Reply
          • . says:

            Wow. Congratulations on having well off parents who were able to afford three different wardrobes for you. The price leg and ignorance of said privilege in some of your responses on this post are kind of mind boggling.

            December 15, 2014/Reply
          • MidWestChic says:

            My family is from the south and I also had church clothes, school clothes, and play clothes… and no, my family was not well off at all (in response to the comment below). I had a uniform for school, nice dresses for church on Sundays, and “normal” clothes for evenings and weekends of play with my friends.
            Some of the clothes I see in my “business-casual” office are just down right casual… especially for the gal down the hall from me who wears t-shirts and yoga pants with flip flops EVERYDAY. Which isn’t even comfortable in mid-west winters.

            December 16, 2014/Reply
  17. Sandra says:

    You have to realize this is Montana, where fleece and denim are considered appropriate funeral attire for both genders.

    December 15, 2014/Reply
    • Belle says:

      How true…how true. It’s also wedding attire.

      December 15, 2014/Reply
  18. Belle's Mom says:

    To the anonymous commenter above, We had an abundance of nothing when my daughter was young, two church dresses, a set of overalls and jeans for play and little of everything else for school. But I did see to it that what we had was appropriately taken care of so they lasted. You miss, know nothing of our family or our circumstances besides the little you glean from this blog. Your care and social grace for others is obviously lacking.

    December 15, 2014/Reply
    • historian says:

      To Belle’s Mom–while your points may be valid, to address the original poster as “you miss” while chastising her for her lack of “social grace” is both patronizing and hypocritical and undermines the value of your entire comment.

      December 15, 2014/Reply
      • Belle says:

        Wow.

        A commenter makes a snarky comment presuming to know the financial situation that I grew up in based on an innocuous statement about how my Mom, in quintessential Southern fashion, made me change my clothes before I went out to play, so that my school clothes wouldn’t be damaged because we couldn’t afford to replace them. My Mom, an incredibly lovely woman who dedicates her life to mentoring other people’s children and who was essentially a married, single-parent who raised her kids with no help from anyone, takes offense–as almost anyone in her position would. And of all the words she could call the commenter in her hasty fury, she chooses “miss,” and that devalues her point that people should not presume to know everything about a blogger whose life they see only a sliver of.

        I really love the Internet.

        December 16, 2014/Reply
      • Jenn S. says:

        Should she have addressed the commentor as, “You .,” instead since the commenter did not have the decency to leave a name by which she could be addressed?

        Perhaps, “Hey you,” or, “Presumptuous commenter,” or… what? What would you suggest, hm?

        December 16, 2014/Reply
        • MidWestChic says:

          “You miss” is a heck of a lot better than “listen here, girl with a super bitchy comment.” I’m with Belle and her mother on this one, as my upbringing was nearly the same in terms of clothing and essentially having a married single-mother. You were crossing the line by presuming different clothes for different situations = privileged, wealthy white girl.

          December 16, 2014/Reply
          • Christine says:

            What exactly is a married single mother? As in you aren’t officially divorced? Because I’d be extremely leery of trying to put yourself in the same category of an ACTUAL single mother if you are in fact in a dual-income home.

            December 17, 2014/Reply
            • Belle says:

              Not same as single mother; total single parent is the ultimate hard job. A married single mother is someone whose spouse might as well not even exist because they never do anything to help with the kids. My Dad left for work before sun-up and came home for 45 minutes for dinner and then went right back to work. He hit the occasional sporting event, but every other parenting duty fell to my Mom. As example, my Mom once had pneumonia, the doctor wanted to check her into the hospital, and she had to refuse because she had a 7yr old and a 2yr old who would have no one to take care of them if she did. My Dad really fell down on the job for all of the 80s and most of the 90s, but if he didn’t work, we couldn’t eat, so it was a balancing act.

              December 17, 2014/Reply
          • Christine says:

            Ya no offense but I know tons of families who had “married single mothers”, it’s called life. Not everyone makes enough for one parent to stay home full-time. I knew families that had one parent in another state for monday-friday because that was the only job they could find at the time. I know it’s hard but I don’t really think you should be advertising it as a “single mother”. Single mothers don’t have the extra income of another person, whether or not they’re able to help with the childcare. Using the term “single mother” implies that EVERYTHING bills, childcare, housework…etc. all fall on one person. I think it’s incredibly tasteless to use that term that way. Perhaps something along the lines of “who was essentially a married, working mother who didn’t have much help around the house as my father needed to work enourmous amounts of overtime”. Using the term “single mother” sounds like she wants sympathy.

            December 17, 2014/Reply
          • MidWestChic says:

            My mom was perfectly described by the term so I stand by it. We didn’t have dual incomes… unless you count my mother’s two jobs trying to support two kids and an alcohol and abusive husband/father. But I guess “that’s just life.”

            No offense Christine, but your comments are judging and tasteless. The term wasn’t used for sympathy, but in an attempt to answer another tasteless comment about being privileged for having different sets of clothing as a child. Not every comment on this blog needs to be PC or fall into what you would deem the appropriat euse of a word. So just get over it and enjoy the wonderful posts and items Belle posts on here.

            December 17, 2014/Reply
          • Christine says:

            Your mother and Belle’s mother were not in the same situation. I never once said I judged Belle or her mother, I just wasn’t agreeing with choice of words. Belle is an extremely intelligent woman and she knows exactly how her comment would come across, and if she didn’t then that’s fine but I think she should at least hear how it came across to others who might be feeling the same way I do but might not voice and might instead just stop reading the blog.

            December 17, 2014/Reply
            • Belle says:

              I understand that you feel my comment was insensitive; it was not my intent to offend or be flippant. I’m not going to get into any more details of my Mother’s life when I was young, because that’s not my story to tell and people who know her read this blog. But I stand by my use of the phrase. Yes, without question, true single mothers have it harder, I would not argue otherwise. But I would not wish how my Mother lived during my elementary school years on anyone.

              You shouldn’t make assumptions about what her situation (or our family’s situation) was or was not based on the sliver of familial information I’ve posted on this blog or that you can Google. That was the main thrust of my original comment.

              December 18, 2014/Reply