Turns out the dress of female Arkansas House members was the subject of an informal session last week during orientation of new members.
Montana just voted to do away with jeans and casual Fridays. That same dress code change took effect in the Arkansas House a few years back. The state of Montana has come in for some mockery, however, because women legislators were instructed to be mindful of necklines and skirt lengths. Some members took the instruction as patronizing. Others think the idea of decorous dress by lawmakers doing indecorous things like cutting off assistance to poor people presents an ill appearance of another sort.
Anyway. Arkansas. The dress code for male representatives, staff and media on the House floor is a jacket and tie. For women it is “business attire” or “professional wear.”
In years past, Parliamentarian Tim Massanelli delivered the talk at orientation about the dress code. This year, rising Speaker Jeremy Gillam asked Rep. Stephanie Malone to talk to women about dress. He figured it would be more diplomatic to have a woman do the job. Malone said the talk hadn’t been prompted by any specific concerns, that it was just orientation. One House member did say, however, a “seven-year-old” sweater one new member wore drew some comment last week. It was tightly form-fitting, in other words.
“We just kind of reiterated that professional attire was expected,” said Malone, who’s leaving office at the end of the year. “We said you don’t want to wear anything cut too low or too short.” She said women were told they shouldn’t wear sleeveless outfits on the House floor and that when they went to the well it had become custom for women to wear a jacket, even over a dress. “It’s a privilege to be on the House floor. Not everyone gets to do it. You need to dress that way.”
Malone noted that men must wear a jacket in the well. “If women want to be taken as seriously as their male counterparts, they should, too.”
Malone said she urged the women members to bring a blazer to wear on trips to the well. “Black goes with anything,” she said.
Malone said dress had been a learning process for her. She was in her 20s in her first term, and influenced by Vogue and Cosmo in her clothing. “I was wearing what they were wearing in New York. It’s not the same on the House floor. Coming into my second term, I realized I probably needed to wear more suits.”
Malone, as chair of the Rules Committee, serves as an arbiter on dress. She notes that it applies to men, too. She asked a new representative to go home last week and change when he arrived wearing jeans.
Robin Lundstrom, a new member from Springdale, said there was “no drama or excitement” about the session on clothing. “Most of us knew what to do anyway and most are dressed extremely professionally.” She said the main message was to wear a jacket when going to the well to speak. It’s a tradition that’s honored, even if not specified in written rules. It was helpful for new members to know that, she said. Lundstrom wore a sleeved dress during orientation.
Business attire is the order of the day in the Senate, too. Men are expected to wear jackets in the well. A woman member once remonstrated another senator for failure to remove his cowboy hat. There never was a casual Friday in the Senate, as the House once had, because the Senate almost never meets on Friday. But there is no explicit dress rule.
A representative who didn’t want to be named said at least a couple of new members didn’t take kindly to clothing instruction. “You can’t talk to women about what to wear without making someone mad,” the representative said.
UPDATE: Julie Mayberry, a new representative from Hensley, was one who didn’t react positively to the instruction to the 20 women of the house.
“I’ll be honest with you, I think a woman in a dress is appropriate. … I’m not a man. I might wear a jacket one day. I might wear pants. But I like wearing dresses.”
Mayberry said she wore a dress during orientation last week. “I didn’t have anything showing that shouldn’t be showing,” she said. “I worked in TV. I didn’t wearing anything I wouldn’t have worn as an anchor.” She said she’d sent a photograph of herself to her mother for a second opinion. “She said, ‘I”m proud of what you had on.’ I had on a dress. I looked feminine but very professional. I’m not a man. I don’t think I have to wear a jacket.”
Mayberry said she also was not one to flout the rules, even one that doesn’t formally exist. “If I have to have a jacket sitting at my desk, then I will do that if that’s the rule. But it’s a sad day a dress wouldn’t be considered appropriate.”
She also commented: “A lot of people are more offended by women wearing pants than wearing a dress.”