In the fall of 2012, when I was sixteen, a big, brown box arrived at my parents house. In it were four or five rough blue suits and half a dozen white button-down shirts. Because the material of the suits was made—and God knows how—out of recycled plastic bottles, a thick cardboard tag warned that should the fabric catch fire while worn, one should immediately remove it instead of trying to douse the flames, lest the fabric harden back up into plastic and meld to the skin.
There was also a name tag in the box: “Senate Democratic Page Suzy Weiss.”
The suits would be my uniform for about five months, during the spring semester of the year that I spent on Capitol Hill as a page—a glorified messenger and water pourer—in the Senate chambers.
The suits in the box weren’t the only mandated part of our look. We were expected to have a “neat, conservative hairstyle,” and if you were so uncouth as to have long hair, your hair tie had to be black. Shirts were to be buttoned to the neck. Prominent jewelry, face piercings, midriff-baring tops, spaghetti straps, and short skirts were verboten, even when we weren’t working.
“Your child should understand the uniform is not about fashion; it is about being appropriately attired to work for the United States Senate,” an email to our parents read. Ms. Roach, the principal of the tiny boarding school we’d all be attending, also sent a helpful list of permissible shoes, but the more accurate term is hunks. Their descriptions, “Clarks Un Sound Black Leather” and “Skechers Work Caviar Black Waxy Victorian Leather” should give you a sense of why not a single legislator, nor anyone else, hit on me during my time in the nation’s capital.
The point was for all of us to look like mini versions of the elder statesmen we waited on.
But this week, Senator Chuck Schumer, the majority leader, announced a loosening of the Senate dress code. The new rules no longer require business attire, which for men means a suit and tie and for women means something equally formal. Now, if Amy Klobuchar wants to show up in a tube top, or Marco Rubio wants to take a pair of Crocs for a spin while voting on the debt ceiling, there’s nothing stopping them.
All of these changes are meant to accommodate the junior senator of my home state, John Fetterman, who prefers hoodies and gym shorts—even at work. (I attended a wedding he officiated; he was in flip-flops.) Last week, he presided over the Senate Chamber in shorts and sneakers, looking for all the world like he got lost on the way to Chipotle. But look closely at the footage and you’ll see my fellow foot soldiers lined up on a step near the dais: a collection of pages in their uniforms, their white shirts still buttoned to the neck, their black shoes ever sexless.
Pundits are declaring the dress code changes the end of order. Joe Manchin apparently told Fetterman that not wearing a suit “degrades” the chamber. Susan Collins has been more easygoing and said that she might show up to work in a bikini. Josh Hawley, a Republican, arrived in jeans. Elizabeth Warren thinks this is all a big distraction, but told a reporter she’s cool with the dress code change, “as long as people cover all the private parts.” Reader, I shuddered.
It’s been more than a decade since I set foot in the hallowed chambers in my blue plastic suit and my black cotton socks (the only color of socks that was permitted). My view is that Fetterman looks ridiculous. But I mostly just hope they give the pages—currently still under codes a mullah would think are a little much—some leeway, too.
I was there in 2012, long before committee hearings became the most exciting shows on TV. The idea that a QAnon Shaman would one day beat his shirtless chest on the dais of the chamber included multiple concepts that didn’t exist yet. It was also seven years before the Senate followed the House’s dress code changes and allowed for sleeveless tops and open-toed shoes, which I’m sure Ms. Roach viewed as the equivalent of turning the legislature into a Hooters.
The Senate, I thought, for the most part, was a highly subsidized assisted living facility. Without aides gripping their elbows and opening doors, half the senators would walk straight into walls and keep walking. Still, Al Franken was especially nice and brought cookies his wife made for us and Dianne Feinstein gifted her page a beautiful silk scarf at the end of the term. John McCain once terrified a page by asking him for a full cup of vodka while on the Senate floor, as a joke.
“Pages who understand that their role in the Senate is that of employees in positions of service will adjust most quickly,” wrote Roach, in that early email. As such, we didn’t think about what we looked like because we all looked very bad. But given the rules against ever leaving the dorm unchaperoned, consuming any illicit substances (or wearing t-shirts that promoted the consumption of illicit substances), hooking up, or really having any fun at all, we focused a lot on what we ate, which was a lot.
At some point someone discovered that the ten-dollar per diem loaded onto the debit cards we were issued for lunch was really more of a suggestion. Nothing would happen if you went over the limit. So I started ordering egg and cheese croissant sandwiches from the small, subterranean commissary on my way up to the chamber every morning, and before long it showed. Tuesdays meant caucus lunches—aides hustled Republican and Democrat senators into big wood-paneled rooms to have lunch together. The chocolate cake that we helped ourselves to after the lawmakers filed out gave meaning to the phrase “a moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips.” And the candy desk did not help.
In short, I did not feel awesome in my plastic suit. But considering this was D.C., and the day-to-night pencil skirt was in, and everyone had two Blackberries crammed into their palms, there wasn’t much to look at by way of fashion. I remember clearly when Rhode Island’s Sheldon Whitehouse pointed to his black slip-on Puma sneakers and eagerly informed another lawmaker, “These are only ninety-nine dollars.” For those hoping that the change in dress code will translate to Capitol Hill hallways becoming something of a red carpet, I regret to inform you that Chico’s is considered elegant in that town.
There was one shining sartorial light. And her name was Mary Elizabeth Taylor. Mary Elizabeth, the page minder on the Republican side’s cloakroom, brought it every damn day. Tweed skirt suits with gold buttons, black dresses and pumps, tailored red blazers. Even when she came into the Senate antechamber to yell at us for being too loud, we were in awe. It’s no wonder Twitter sustained a collective crush on Mary Elizabeth during the Gorsuch hearings.
Not everyone can pull off a look like Mary Elizabeth. At least, not in real life. For that, thankfully, we have AI art, which in the past few days has given us the gift of Kyrsten Sinema looking like Mary Poppins, Ted Cruz rocking a Margaritaville look, and Rand Paul in nothing but a red robe. At least online, it’s Casual Friday forever.
But if all of the rules are going out the window, at least throw the pages a bone and next semester, let them wear some brown socks.
Suzy Weiss is a reporter at The Free Press. Her last feature was about traditional Catholic priests who are raging against the Pope.
If you missed Kat Rosenfield’s piece on ‘Patriot Act’ comedian Hasan Minhaj’s emotional truths and real-life lies, you can read it here.
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