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The Tie That Binds

Furman Professor of Politics and International Affairs Liz Smith, Miles Koniver ’25, who is one of the co-authors on the paper, and Zara Anishanslin (right), an associate professor of history and art history at the University of Delaware, also a co-author of the paper, attend the Southern Political Science Association’s annual meeting, held in St. Petersburg, Florida, in January 2023, where they presented the paper. / Courtesy Photo

Professor Liz Smith and her students explain how “business apparel” and other clothing rules are used to define who belongs in positions of power and who doesn’t.

By Kelley Bruss

Parents might get an email if a student violates school clothing policy. Human resources might make a call about work dress code violations. But when political power is at stake, dress codes hold a unique gravity.

The rules are about “who gets invited to the table and in what way they’re seen as appropriate to be at the table,” says Liz Smith, a professor of politics and international affairs.

Smith and research assistant Miles Koniver ’25 presented “Policing Fashion: Dress Codes and Political Power” at this past January’s annual meeting of the Southern Political Science Association. They co-wrote the paper with three of Smith’s colleagues: Zara Anishanslin, an associate professor of history and art history at the University of Delaware; Nora Carleson, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Delaware;
and Barbara Palmer, a professor of political science at Baldwin Wallace University.

The timing couldn’t have been more fitting. The same day as their presentation, news from Missouri traveled across the country: Amended rules would require women in that state’s House of Representatives to cover their shoulders with a cardigan or jacket.

Smith, who studies women in politics, says the investigation into legislative dress codes was motivated by long-standing challenges that have grown more pronounced as governmental bodies became more diverse. She wanted to investigate what codes existed, what they meant and to whom they gave preference.

The research ranged from online searches to emails to Zoom meetings. Koniver, who’s majoring in politics and religion, found dress codes recorded in places such as a senate library, a legislative research unit, a secretary of state’s office and even in a state constitution.

Their research found that nearly 60% of state chambers have written dress codes.

“The norm is presented as male,” Smith says.

In Texas, for example, the legislative dress code gives specific guidelines for men but not for women. And the code, unlike most, is reviewed annually.

“It’s not an oversight,” Koniver says. “It’s a deliberate choice.”

“It reproduces gender hierarchies,” Smith says. The rules are “all centered around masculinity.” Frequent use of “business attire” for women assumes a widely shared understanding of an ambiguous expression.

“Despite its common usage as fashionable short-hand, ‘business attire’ often remains implicitly rather than explicitly defined,” the authors write.

Other common terms have a loaded backstory. With the input of a co-author who is a material cultural historian, for example, Smith and Koniver learned that “pantsuit” referred to a little boy’s outfit in the early 1900s.

Smith says dress codes in any setting are usually defended as establishing standards and creating an institutional mood.

“But then they also kind of shape who belongs and who doesn’t belong,” she says. Even more troubling are hidden dress codes – unwritten rules that are still expected to be followed.

“You might be punished for not knowing the norms,” Smith says.

“Policing Fashion” will be published as a chapter in an edited volume on fashion in politics. Smith considers it one aspect of the broader conversation on gendered, exclusive and binary thinking.

“The more we’re questioning who we are, these things are resonating,” she says.