Dressing to Visit Congress (or the White House)

One of the great things things about living in Washington, D.C., is that people come here from all over the world to visit. For some, it’s a life’s goal to stand in front of the White House and take in its iconic power and history, regardless of who is living there at the time.

Others simply take in the city, exploring our monuments and parks, famous sites and historic places.  Nothing is quite a beautiful as the city awash in Cherry Blossoms.

Spring and Summer are the big travel seasons here and a chunk of the tourist influx inevitably comes in the form of school trips. While it is great to see all these wide eyed kids gazing upon the Capitol dome for the first time, many of them, with seeming parental approval, express a total lack of decorum. Clumps of high schoolers march off to visit their senator or congressman in baggy shorts, over sized tee shirts and flip flops.  Flip flops.

Girls sport the equivalent of beachwear and guys look like they just rolled out of bed and into last week’s laundry. To be frank, it’s embarrassing and disrespectful. Now, we’re not stuffed shirts, far from it. However, there are times and places for showing sartorial respect. (See mom, we listened.)

How is it that America’s schools and their DC-bound chaperons can’t even muster up enough backbone to require decent clothes when walking though the Capitol rotunda, the hallowed ground where presidents and luminaries have lain in state. What happened?

My parents would have ground me into the floor if they learned I showed up for a White House tour looking like I was heading out to mow the grass.

Very often, the well-dressed visitors I do see wandering around this city are in fact from other countries.  As Americans, we are embarrassed when we see this total lack of respect for others and for the dignity of our most significant public spaces. Why not require a simple collared shirt and khakis? Dressy shorts are fine if it’s warm out, and girls – no halter tops in the Smithsonian, please.

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  1. J

    I hear ya.

    To be fair though, while there’s no dress code for the East Wing tours (for the masses), if you are lucky enough to get a West Wing tour, there is most definitely a dress code. When I worked at the White House, Secret Service wouldn’t allow you in the West Wing without a tie, and you’d be foolish to go without a coat as well.

    As for the Capitol – have you seen how some of the Members dress, let alone act? I’ve seen female members walking around the floor of the House in white sneakers. Congress should probably get their s–t together before they start dictating taste to others.

  2. I see plenty of adults in gym shorts walking around the Capitol, why should we expect their children to be any better behaved?

  3. I love your site. And so happy to see you address decorum. I have always supported change and experimentation (I had spiked hair in high school), but there is a time and place for everything.

    I travel for work and am amazed at how many people, especially young people, show up at the airport to fly looking like they just rolled out of bed. I’m not that old, but I long for the days when people cared about how they looked. How do we return to the days when men and women cared about how they looked?

    Thanks for caring and sharing.

  4. Thanks for the great comments everyone.

    J, you are absolutely correct about the West Wing. I had the chance to tour the West Wing once and it was definitely coat-and-tie. No questions there. Of course, I would not think of dressing otherwise!

    Greg, you pretty much said it all.

    Travis, thank you for your kind words! I have a big beef with sloppy travel. It just drives me nuts that some people have absolutely no consideration of others on planes or trains; almost a deliberate disrespect. If nothing else, dressing well while traveling often gives you the edge on upgrades and better treatment.

  5. I remember my mother dressing my sister and I up to fly. Now people wear their pajamas on the flight or sweatpants with JUICY attracting attention to their more private places.

  6. craig sevde

    I reside in FL and see tourist dressed like slobs. They can’t even do casual correctly. I think parents actually have no class anymore and, of course, kids don’t know any better.
    I think more stringent dress codes are required altogether. I’m somewhat ashamed of some people I see. Are they just stupid or dirt poor?

  7. When I was in school and we visited DC or any place, we were required to look presentable. This was a public school in Fairfax County. We were told, “You are representing the school.”

    But, what can you expect. How much of America is respectful or have any class? Little to none. Look at the lower poverty areas in the US, bums. You look at lower class areas in other countries, they still have a nice set of attire for occasions, and even their everyday clothing is better than what 75% of Americans wear to work.

  8. Barney

    One of the wisest pieces of advice I ever received as a youngster was to dress for where you’re going, not where you’ve been. When in doubt, err on the side of over dressed.

  9. Cliff

    Have you been on the Hill lately?

    I had to go meet some staffers last week after a long absence and was shocked to find out that these days if the House is in recess its ‘casual’ time. There were women staffers wearing T Shirts. Men wearing jeans and flip flops. Some tried to look ‘smart casual’ but most were slobs.

    All us summoned ‘government stiffs’ were in our Brooks Brothers and gun boat wingtips.

    Ah well, time waits for no one but I was glad I was “overdressed”. At least out of respect for the building itself if not for the inhabitants.

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