A debate swirling around the casual attire a Québec politician has been wearing in the province’s legislative assembly is one that has echoes in parliaments around the world.
That’s because the dress code rules for elected officials — especially women — are not necessarily set in stone and sometimes lead to calls for a ban on entering the legislative chamber.
Members of the Québec national assembly recently threatened to complain to the legislature’s speaker and have Catherine Dorion sanctioned when the Québec Solidaire politician entered the chamber wearing an orange wool hoodie. Dorion, who said later she felt uncomfortable with the reaction, decided to leave on her own. Other politicians said her attire did not respect decorum and dress code instructions given at the opening of the parliamentary session.
It happened a week after Dorion posted a photo on her Facebook page showing her dressed more formally. The picture, taken in the room at the national assembly normally used for ceremonies such as the swearing in of the cabinet, bore the message “Happy Halloween.” Some legislature members said they thought she was mocking them.
It’s not the first time Dorion has been called out on her choice of clothing, and last year, partly in light of the debate, Speaker François Paradis said the dress code needed to be reviewed and modernized. Dorion has said she believes her less traditional outfits might spur more young people to run for office.
Paradis sidestepped the orange hoodie controversy, saying he hadn’t seen Dorion in the hoodie and could only act if he had. However, he said hoodies, sweatshirts and sportswear were unacceptable.
In Ottawa, an official guideline on procedures and practices notes that “speakers have ruled that all Members desiring to be recognized to speak at any point during the proceedings of the House must be wearing contemporary business attire.” Furthermore, it notes that male politicians are required to wear “jackets, shirts and ties.” The House of Commons guidelines do not offer specific suggestions for female politicians.
No specific rules in Britain
There is no specific dress code in the British Parliament, the Palace of Westminster. The standard dictates that elected officials must comply with the House of Commons Rules of Conduct and Courtesy.
These rules stipulate that attire must show “respect for the Chamber and for its central position in the life of the nation.” It was previously customary for “men to wear jackets and ties” and “a similar level of formality must be observed by women,” but changes to these rules in 2018 excluded the tie requirement. Nothing is now specified for women.
Changes in dress codes are sometimes accelerated by weather. Before the summer heat waves in 2017, a male politician was not permitted to express himself in the House if he did not wear a tie. But the speaker of the House of Commons at the time, John Bercow, used this pretext to bring the rules up to date because members of Parliament were literally suffocating in the overwhelming heat.
“As long as a parliamentarian arrives in the House dressed properly, the question of whether or not he is wearing a tie is not very important,” Bercow said.
Ties, typically a male issue, have received less attention than the clothing of women politicians. Despite their respect for the “similar level of formality” required, Barbara Castle, Margaret Thatcher, Theresa May and others have been criticized over the years for their brightly coloured clothing, their “eccentric high heels” or the choice to wear maternity clothes.
Similar to the Dorion situation in Canada, Labour politician Harriet Harman caused outrage in the British House of Commons in 2014 by presenting herself to then-prime minister David Cameron wearing a T-shirt with the logo: “This is what a feminist looks like.”
A year earlier, in 2013, Green Party MP Caroline Lucas was asked to hide her T-shirt, which was emblazoned with the message: “No More Page Three,” a reference to the sexism of some British newspapers and the fact that women almost never make the headlines.
The speaker told her to put her jacket back on and to respect the Westminster dress code. She replied by saying that it seemed “ironic enough to her that this T-shirt should be considered inappropriate to wear in this House, when it is apparently appropriate that this kind of newspaper should be available in eight different outlets in Westminster Palace.”
A new dress code in France
The National Assembly of France has imposed a dress code on its members since 2018. These regulations, intended to “react to certain excesses” that departed from the previous norm, oblige elected officials to meet the following rules, according to the Presidency of the National Assembly:
“The clothing adopted by Members in the Chamber must remain neutral and resemble business attire. It cannot be used as a pretext for expressing any opinion. In particular, the wearing of any conspicuous religious symbol, uniform, logos or commercial messages or slogans of a political nature is prohibited.”
The trigger for this sudden desire to codify stems from the appearance last December of the member of parliament for the La France Insoumise party, François Ruffin, who dressed in the jersey of the Eaucourt-sur-Somme football club.
He supported a bill to introduce a tax on transfers of professional athletes. François de Rugy, speaker of the Assembly, sent him a warning on the matter with an entry into the minutes of the session.
The new regulation does not change the exemption from wearing ties and jackets in the chamber. That battle was fought and won in 2017 by the Sans-cravates movement, a nod to the sans-culottes of the French Revolution.
There are no specific provisions for French female politicians. In 2017, the colourful dress worn by Cécile Duflot, the minister of housing, triggered whistles and inappropriate remarks from her male counterparts, despite the fact that it was completely appropriate business attire. Duflot said afterward:
“I am a bellweather for reaction. Some of my colleagues arrive at the Elysée wearing Perfecto (a style of leather coat), others come to the Assembly in jeans and sweaters and no one notices.”
Sleeveless dresses allowed in U.S.
Unwritten rules prevail in the House of Representatives of the U.S. Congress. A jacket and tie are recommended for men and appropriate clothing for women. Sandals and sneakers are prohibited for all elected officials.
Until 2017, appropriate dress meant that congresswomen as well as all staff and journalists around the chamber were not allowed to wear sleeveless tops or dresses, except with jackets. But, following the temporary dismissal of a journalist for wearing a sleeveless dress and other such “violations,” elected women mobilized around the Sleeveless Friday movement.
They gathered on the steps of the Capitol and eventually obtained from Paul Ryan, then Speaker of the House, the withdrawal of the unwritten rule. Accused of sexism, he defended himself by indicating that while decorum was important, it was indeed time to modernize the dress code.
Paradis, the speaker of Québec’s national assembly, and his office are currently working on a reform of the dress code, with the aim to make it more flexible. But it’s unlikely any change will prevent legislators from violating the clothing rules. As has been shown in France, Great Britain and with Catherine Dorion, it attracts the attention of the media and the public.
The most important thing for any changes in Québec will be to ensure that the new rules do not harm women in the legislature, but instead gives them the freedom to dress in a way that doesn’t reduce them to their gender identity.