When John Fetterman was elected Senator for Pennsylvania last November, many Pennsylvanians were dismayed. As a stroke victim, Fetterman struggles to speak coherently. Aside from that, there are the Catholic concerns around the fact that he is a dyed-in-the-wool pro-choicer, has officiated at gay “marriages,” and is a staunch supporter of legalizing marijuana). After a bout of clinical depression (with sympathy, another vote of no-confidence), Sen. Fetterman has been at the center of a new controversy of representation by his apparent insistence on going to work on Capitol Hill in his signature Carhartt hoodie and baggy gym shorts.
His intention, presumably, is to show himself a man of the people. But what sort of constituents would choose to represent themselves officially, or be officially represented, in such oafish fashion? Since the dress code of the Senate floor required a suit and tie for men, Fetterman would appear in his slovenly apparel at the door of the chamber to record his vote and then retire again to his office.
I say “required” because complaints and indignation pressured Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to relax the dress code, allowing lawmakers to appear on the job in jeans, t-shirts, and the Fetterman hoodie. A fresh wave of complaints and indignation arose for abandoning tradition and respect for the institution. And then another wave formed against the old fuddy-duddies in the Senate who abhor change and cling to old rules and regulations that are outdated, like the filibuster or wearing a tie to work.
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Finally, as the last backlash, the Senate unanimously passed a bipartisan resolution, in a bill led by Joe Manchin and Mitt Romney, to restore and maintain a formal dress code for the chamber floor—putting an end to a particularly grotesque episode of political theater. Perhaps the abhorrence of the J-6 rioter in horned and hairy garb was a genuine reaction to being poorly dressed on the Senate floor. Ironically, Fetterman’s poor dress reflects a new barbarism. Catholics should be wary of efforts to dilute traditions or formality and ceremony and honor, as were the majority of our Senators.
Though reaction to Schumer’s concession was largely and rightly negative and surprisingly strong given the cultural landslide that is quickly abandoning long-held customs of formality, there is an aspect to all this that goes beyond mere manners. St. Francis de Sales wrote, “Exterior neatness represents in some degree the cleanliness of the interior.” That is, manners presuppose morals, and when the latter deteriorates, the former will follow suit.
As has been explored in these pages, dress is an accident that often proclaims something essential. It communicates intention and commitment. And, of course, in a society that is losing its grasp on commitment, objective truth, and human decency, it is not surprising that there is a symbolic lassitude in the way people dress. It is a sign of a deeply endemic disrespect, and it is everywhere.
Rather than project deference and dignity, there is a relativist streak in the way people dress that projects the self while debasing the self, flaunting disregard and a lack of concern for the way others might feel or think or react. Though it is not often done consciously, some of the greatest cultural toxins are those that settle in without malice or violence, like a progressive disease. The increasing breakdown of dress codes is an instance of this, as these policies are dismissed as discriminating, gender non-affirming, or even sexist (as was former-Speaker Paul Ryan’s 2017 rule for the House that restricted women from sleeveless tops or open-toed shoes). Rather than project deference and dignity, there is a relativist streak in the way people dress that projects the self while debasing the self, flaunting disregard and a lack of concern for the way others might feel or think or react.Tweet This
Dress and the attitude toward dress is clearly a touchstone of culture, and we are in a strange, sad place if the times are to be read in vulgar yoga pants and slipshod public attire—even in public office. (The Senate floor is one thing, but Catholic churches everywhere are another.) Gone is a general sense of civilized style and modest fashion, where people know how to present themselves well and truly. In the simple yet sturdy words of St. Louis IX:
You ought to dress well, and in a manner suited to your condition, so that men will have more respect for you. For, as a wise philosopher has said, our clothing and our armor ought to be of such a kind that men of mature experience will not say that we have spent too much on them, nor younger men say we have spent too little.
Virtue requires that right reason govern the passions and that grace, in turn, govern reason. The passions and their external manifestations connected with personal deportment—eating and drinking, dress, and language—is no exception. A standard of good manners, proper dress, and courteous conduct is appropriate in civilized communities as they are signs of the dignity of man and his higher pursuits. And in no place are manners of dress and comportment more important than in the place where the laws of a civilized people are debated and delivered.
Manners are the right approach to things. They bespeak not only respect for oneself, but respect toward others in a spirit of decorum that descended from the codes of chivalry. A civilized person is not only polite but desirable. With a mind and a body mirroring his nature, he is human and humane.
If Christianity is to raise again a race of heroes and saints, efforts must be made to regain those social traditions which ennobled the hearts of men and enriched society. These must be reclaimed and handed on once more in all their purity and beauty. Manners are the fruit of morals, and morals are the foundation of all exterior life. And on the principle that extremes mirror each other, manners also reflect the interior life of grace.
Proper behavior and dignified attire are not only traits of a Christian people; they are essential to a community’s morale since they foster a general respect. Proper dress is politic and therefore has a very fitting place in politics. As the primary vocation of civil servants is to cultivate in citizens the virtues necessary to be decent people who are considerate and courteous, it follows that the people’s behavior, posture, and dress—whether on the Senate floor or at home or on the street—should reflect the dignity of that pursuit.
Throughout history, all cultures have attached significance to clothing that surpasses the passing fashion of the times; clothing is an external expression of character. A uniform identifies the man who wears it and represents his personality and intentions. Moreover, it symbolizes unity of purpose. Whether it is in the militant defense of a nation, the office of governmental authority, or the holy priesthood, uniform signifies belonging. The uniform of our leaders, whether statesmen or servicemen, whether priests or parents, stands for the symbol of the noble pursuits of the Christian West.
Though clothing is an external expression of character, it also affects behavior; clothing naturally draws man to assume the role of the costume he wears. When a man dresses professionally, he will, in general, act professionally. And when it comes to the fuss Sen. Fetterman caused, it is hard to avoid the conclusion voiced, again, by St. Francis de Sales: “It is a kind of contempt of those with whom we converse, to frequent their company in uncomely apparel.” We should be able to expect more from our elected officials.
Though some may object to what may sound like a nostalgic call for old-fashioned standards of dress, as though pining for a golden age of men in fedoras and flat-fronts and women in gloves and gowns, the symbolic quality of dress is not a thing for Catholics to take lightly. After all, the first act of sinfulness was to make clothes. We are what we wear, and clothes should strive and stand for an obligation to and reclamation of human dignity. Or, in Mark Twain’s typical incisive cheek: “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.”
The Church towers above this collapsing confusion and helps us to rise above the mess with it to see who we are so that we can act accordingly—even if it seems out of touch with the times. As Chesterton wrote:
Christianity is always out of fashion because it is always sane; and all fashions are mild insanities. When Italy is mad on art the Church seems too Puritanical; when England is mad on Puritanism the Church seems too artistic. When you quarrel with us now you class us with kingship and despotism; but when you quarreled with us first it was because we would not accept the divine despotism of Henry VIII. The Church always seems to be behind the times, when it is really beyond the times; it is waiting till the last fad shall have seen its last summer. It keeps the key of a permanent virtue.
The Church is not concerned with fashion per se, though it is concerned with perfection and the ways in which the bodily aspects of life participate in and even facilitate redemption. As such, Catholics should dress in a manner befitting our nature and station and purpose without succumbing to mundane fads that manifest the nihilist deterioration of the human resolve to secure salvation.
Dress that doesn’t care, dress that reveals, dress that disconnects us from the noble are all signs of dysphoria and displacement—and it is disappointing, if not discouraging, to see societal disintegration in a place as socially sacred and salient as the Senate chamber. Though Fetterman will have to suit up on the floor, a lassitude lurks still in the highest offices of the land.