What the Missouri Compromise was to Henry Clay, what the Second Reply to Hayne was to Daniel Webster, what the Civil Rights Act of 1957 was to Lyndon Johnson, Carhartt sweatshirts and baggy shorts will be to John Fetterman.
The Pennsylvania senator is the poster boy — if self-indulgent sloppiness is your thing — for his chamber dropping a dress code that required senators to dress in business attire when appearing on the Senate floor.
Fetterman briefly complied with the rule by making the sacrifice of putting on a suit and tie after he was first elected.
Then he reverted to his standard uniform that makes it look like he just arrived after sitting on his couch, surrounded by empty pizza boxes, watching football games all weekend.
There’s business casual, then there’s Fetterman’s garb.
It wouldn’t be acceptable at many fraternity events around the country.
Philadelphia Eagles fans dress more carefully on game days.
But as it happens, he’s only a United States senator, so he can wear whatever he damn pleases.
When the history of the decline of American institutions is written, the jettisoning of the Senate dress code may not be more than a footnote, yet it will deserve mention.
It has long been remarked that it matters how we dress. Mark Twain is sometimes said to have written (in what’s actually a paraphrase), “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.”
It turns out that slovenly people do, however.
The business suit as we know it had its origins in the court of British King Charles II.
Then the 19th-century British trendsetter Beau Brummell made an important contribution by simplifying the outfit.
After various twists and turns, by the mid-20th century in the United States, the modern suit had arrived.
As an article in The Atlantic notes, “It appeared on everyone from cab drivers to business executives, and made all appear polished and professional.”
The unraveling began several decades ago with the advent of Causal Friday, which eventually spread into Casual Everyday.
The Senate giving way to this ethos after a couple of centuries of a higher standard is a sign of the times.
We no longer reliably produce people willing to conform themselves to the norms and expectations of their institutions; personal brands are considered more important.
And the leaders of institutions tend to lack the courage to insist on rules that may no longer be fashionable, even if they still serve an important function.
It’s not that John Fetterman is going to be a better or worse senator depending on how he dresses — he’ll be a party-line vote regardless.
But his dress speaks to how he regards his position.
This would be obvious in other contexts. If someone shows up at a funeral or a wedding in jeans and a T-shirt, it is taken, understandably, as sign of disrespect, as an unwillingness to make the basic effort to acknowledge the solemnity of the occasion.
A session of the Senate isn’t as fraught and meaningful as a wedding or a funeral, but it should be considered an event of some consequence.
The history of the body stretches back to the beginning of the republic, and it is invested with considerable power.
Dressing appropriately acknowledges this; dressing as if it’s a bowling alley disregards it.
Would we take a judge as seriously without his or her robes? Or an officer of the law without his or her uniform?
Fetterman has won this battle but at the price of beclowning himself and his institution — not that he cares.