Is the White House Dress Code Un-American?

The Bush Administration issued a new dress code for the White House in late July that has plenty of people fuming.  Posted at the press entrance and the staff and visitors’ entrance, the signs read:

“It advised that there would be no jeans, sneakers, shorts, miniskirts, T-shirts, tank tops and — with boldface added — ‘NO FLIP FLOPS’ in the White House.”

Wait — there are people who visit the most prominent address in the United States wearing FLIP-FLOPS?  There are staffers who report to work at the very seat of power in the western world in TANK TOPS?  Good heavens!  What’s next?  Gym attire for tea with the Queen?  A crop top for an audience with the Pope?

Yes, I realize dress codes have become lax in recent years.  But non-existent? I don’t think we’ve sunk that low — yet.  But it may be coming. When I Googled this story, I found lots of bloggers who dislike President Bush and are having a field day with this.  They think there are more important things to worry about than what people wear.  One New York fashionista even bad-mouthed the White House dress code in one paragraph and then wondered why tourists didn’t know how to dress properly for a Broadway show in the next.

Okay – and she didn’t see the connection . . . WHY?

The problem is, we’ve dropped our standards.  In dress, in manners, in physical fitness — and we’re not the better for it.  The White House dress code – like dress codes in schools and businesses throughout the world – is there to remind us of something that’s easy to forget in our casual world:  respect.

Respect for the institution, for the history, and for the people who dedicated their time, energy, and even their lives, into shaping the country over the last 232 years.  It’s not about politics; it’s about recognizing hard work and achievement.

Now true, the White House has not always been accorded proper respect.

The British burned part of it – and much of Washington D.C. – in August, 1814.  Then there was the time things got a little out of hand during Andrew Jackson’s s inaugural festivities in 1829 when 20,000 revelers descended upon the mansion, breaking furniture and tracking in mud and forcing the new president to flee to safety at a nearby hotel.  There have been streakers and stalkers and other near-do-wells over the years, as well as screaming children at the annual Easter Egg Roll.

Even those in charge of maintaining the place didn’t always do such a good job, as Mrs. Kennedy discovered when her husband took office in 1961.  The furnishings were inadequate, the decor was outdated, and priceless antiques and other items of historical significance had either been tossed carelessly into store rooms or were being needlessly abused in public areas.  She appointed a curator and started a fundraising campaign to restore the house and make it into a residence worthy of a national leader.

So what does all of this have to do with flip flops and tank tops?

To remind us that there’s a time and place for casual attire:  at the beach, in the backyard, and around the house, for example, when comfort is the primary concern.  But it’s NOT appropriate for every place or situation.

When you go places or meet people that have achieved some level of excellence or prominence (chef, prima ballerina, president), or are celebrating a significant point in their lives (graduation, wedding, retirement), it’s appropriate to honor their accomplishments by dressing more formally.

Society doyenne Brooke Astor died this week at the age of 105.  She’s being remembered for her philanthropy, her sense of fashion, and her life among the rich and famous.  Even in her last years among the social elite, frail and unwell, she still managed to dress appropriately for different occasions, honoring the people, places, and causes that were important to her.  It would never have crossed her mind to wear flip flops to the White House.

Nor, I would imagine, the people in her social circle.

Some people think a big house, a big car, and flashy designer brands make them look rich and sophisticated.  But then they wear shorts to a five-star restaurant, down a fine vintage like it’s cheap tequila, and cite Candance Bushnell among their “literary” favorites.  They’re rich (or heavily in debt), but not refined.

Want to move among the social elite?  Want to shake hands with the rich and powerful?  Want to dine at the White House instead of shuffling through it like the rest of the tourists?  Then start with the basics: dress appropriately and mind your manners.

If someone tells you that your attire in not right for the occasion, don’t tell them how stupid you think their rules are.  Instead, learn what’s appropriate and strive to get it right next time.

If you want your boss’s income and lifestyle, dress like your boss, not all your co-workers.

If you’re invited to attend a function and you’re uncertain of the dress code or protocols, never assume ANYTHING.  Instead, find out what’s expected.

Most people don’t bother – and then they wonder why they’re always on the outside, looking in. Why they always get passed over for promotions.  Why they never get invited to certain parties.  Why they’re never called upon to lead things.

Let me spell it out:

It’s not about your 24-hour comfort; it’s about showing proper respect to people and places.  Like those who employ you, who give you their business, who have trained a lifetime to perform at the highest levels, or who felt their stand was important enough to subject themselves to the harassment of running for public office.  It’s not about YOU; it’s about THEM.

So don’t criticize the dress code because you don’t like it; instead, just as you corrected your math and spelling errors as a child, correct your attire and strive to dress to a higher standard. You’ll be amazed by how quickly it will propel you to the front of the line.


Business Wear Magic – Learn how to dress appropriately for your industry.

Occasion Magic -Learn “what to wear when” for any occasion.

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