WASHINGTON — Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., wore a purple polo shirt with a silver clip-on bow tie last week when he spoke about a cellphone bill on the floor of the House. His ensemble, which quickly lit up Twitter, so offended the sensibilities of GQ magazine that it offered the congressman a makeover, which Polis promptly embraced.
“I accept and am looking forward to the consultation!!’’ Polis tweeted.
While America may be interested in — or appalled by — what its politicians are wearing, those who work inside the Beltway abide by one of the strictest dress codes in the country. The rules make Polis’ style faux pas more noticeable in a city where people are as offended by scuffed-up loafers as by last season’s blouse.
“I have a colleague who wears unpolished brown shoes, and I never fail to notice,” said Douglas Frantz, the U.S. State Department’s assistant secretary for public affairs.
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Each branch, department and agency that falls under the direction of the federal government has an unwritten standard for what is acceptable work attire, and even if it is not stylish, it needs to follow regulations. For a town of grand monuments and boulevards, a wardrobe that fails to reflect the gravitas of buildings where treaties were signed and wars were ended is not tolerated.
Enforcement can be as simple as a few behind-the-back whispers, and as severe as a forced exit.
“No tie, can’t come in,” said Wallace Simpson, a doorkeeper for the Speaker’s Lobby of the House of Representatives. “No jacket, can’t come in. Ladies can’t come in with no-sleeve blouses. No jeans.”
The Lobby, considered an extension of the House floor, is sacred ground in the House, with ornate fixtures and portraits of House speakers from years past. Simpson has seen people asked to leave for offenses as minor as open-toe shoes.
For employees in some federal agencies, Casual Friday is not quite as rare as impeachment — it can happen on Fridays just before holidays, or when the presiding Cabinet member happens to be out of the office, or when the precipitation is heavy enough to earn a nickname such as Snowmageddon or Snowpocalypse. On those days, a suit is still encouraged, but it is acceptable to skip the tie.
“People in D.C., they’re looking for everyone in the country to trust them, to run the government, to run finances,” said Brian Boyé, executive fashion and grooming editor for Men’s Health magazine. “When you’re asking someone to trust you, you need to look trustworthy. I think that’s why the dress codes in D.C. are still very conservative and dressy.”
At the White House, President Obama generally wears a suit and tie in the Oval Office, but will sometimes wear an open-neck shirt and a blazer in the evenings or on weekends. Former President George W. Bush made a point of never setting foot in the Oval Office without a suit and tie.
Outsiders also are expected to look the part. When the Northwestern University women’s lacrosse team visited the White House after winning a championship in 2005, there was an uproar after their picture with Bush showed that several girls wore flip-flops.
Few departments have dress codes as strict as the ones followed by the military and civilian personnel at the Pentagon. Employees there have even inverted the usual Casual Friday into an iteration they call Fancy Friday.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, an order was issued requiring every member of the military working in the Pentagon to wear battle fatigues as a sign of solidarity with the men and women in war zones.
The rule was lifted a few years ago, when the joint staff and the office of the secretary of defense instructed everyone to resume wearing the military equivalent of a suit, the Class B uniform — a shirt and tie, black shoes and blue trousers with a gold stripe up the sides.
“My brother who has lived for 20 years in San Diego and has quite a different sensibility of dress, came to Washington to participate in the ceremony for my promotion,” said Col. Steven Warren, a Pentagon spokesman.
“He had cargo pants and a polo shirt, and I wouldn’t let him come here dressed like that. I lent him one of my suits to put on.”
Frantz understands Warren’s brotherly directive.
“Washington remains, particularly in government, a very formal place,” he said. “I often lament to my wife that I can’t wear bluejeans to work, but it would divert attention from the seriousness. Serious men wear suits and ties at the State Department.”